Early Thursday morning, Facebook announced a partnership with the Atlantic Council, an American think tank dedicated to promoting “constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs.” The move is part of Facebook’s ongoing effort to “prevent [its] service from being abused during elections,” which, of course, began in the wake of the bonafide shitstorm of scandals the company has been embroiled in since the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
“This effort is part of an broader initiative to help provide credible and independent research about the role of social media in elections, as well as democracy more generally,” wrote Facebook’s Global Politics and Government Outreach Director, Katie Harvard. “We look forward to working together to protect free and fair elections across the world.”
Facebook has proven time and time again that it is far too large and (unfortunately) influential to be left to its own devices, and the only realistic path forward will be one that incorporates some complex system of third-party checks and balances. But this isn’t the language of a tech company; it’s more akin to that of a government agency or world power.
It’s reminiscent of Max Read’s essay on Facebook and democracy for New York magazine last October, which (among many other things) reckoned with a September announcement put out by the company that wasn’t too unlike today’s:
As with all things Facebook, it opened itself up to multiple interpretations, depending on the angle from which you caught it: Rotate one way and it’s an admirable and much-needed statement of commitment and responsibility from a powerful but ultimately positive corporation. Rotate another and it’s an assurance to state leaders of Facebook’s continuing commitment to the sovereignty of nation-states, no matter how global its actual network is. (“Now, now, Mr. Prime Minister, we understand your little borders are very important to you.”)
Rotate further and it’s a declaration that Facebook is assuming a level of power at once of the state and beyond it, as a sovereign, self-regulating, suprastate entity within which states themselves operate. Planetary technical systems like Facebook, David Banks, a SUNY Albany professor who studies large technical systems, told me, “don’t want to be in an environment” — natural, legal, political, social — “they want to be the environment.” Facebook, this announcement seemed to imply, was an environment in which democracy takes place."
Though these words were written long before Cambridge Analytica and Zuck’s latest apology tour, they are still all too applicable. Facebook is just as nebulous — and perhaps even more so — now after running the scandal gambit, and will likely only continue to be so going forward.