Has Facebook ruined the world? (book review)

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe (Penguin, $37 hard cover) is an intriguing book about a good idea that turned out to be bad, something that was useful when it was small but is now a menace because of its size and power.

Facebook started as a way for people to meet and keep in touch with their friends. At first, university students used it to stay connected. Then it grew larger, changed its rule that subscribers needed a university or college email address, and let the world in.

But the world is not always a nice place. As hundreds of millions of subscribers grew into more than a billion, Facebook’s communication pipeline and data attracted propagandists, marketers and manipulators. No media had ever connected so many people, nor engaged them with such intensity. No company had ever known so much about so many potential voters and customers.

I have a Facebook account, partly because I’ve moved a lot and have family and friends all over the place. I know I would have lost touch with many of those people if it weren’t for Facebook. I used to accept friend requests from anyone, but after learning how Facebook is used by data miners and trolls, I’ve scaled back my list of friends and my posts.

I have a Twitter account, but I would close it if it wasn’t important to the promotion of my new book and this web site.

For years, rumours of Facebook’s plans to charge its users spread online. They were quickly squelched by the company, which insisted Facebook would always be free. But people didn’t realize a simple fact of mass marketing: when the service is free, the product is you.

It was bad enough that corporations used Facebook data to target customers and manipulate them. Political parties also picked up on the value of this data, and the opportunity to campaign online at a very low cost, and to great effect. But more sinister people also saw the value of Facebook. It could be – and is – an effective tool to attack democracy itself.

Radical Islamic, white supremacist and other vicious groups have used Facebook to move propaganda and to communicate through its messaging system (though groups like ISIS did prefer Twitter and are now relying on the “dark web”, the very large part of the Internet that’s not searchable with commercial products like Google.

McNamee cites Stanford University professor Larry Diamond’s four pillars of democracy

  1. Free and fair elections;
  2. Active participation of the people, as citizens, in civic life;
  3. Protection of human rights of all citizens;
  4. Rule of law, in which law and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

and shows, quite convincingly how Facebook, sometimes deliberately, sometimes just because it became so large, has failed on all of them.

This is a solid piece of work that exposes truths that political analysts, privacy advocates and even some marketers have warned us about. Facebook is a huge, unregulated and often irresponsible gatherer and analyzer of data. It’s not alone. Google’s Alexa system does analyze your questions. Twitter knows all about you, and sells that data. Your politics, finances, even your sexuality, are known to data miners.

This book explains how it all works.

McNamee is a fine writer, but too much of the book, especially in the first half, is about him, and how he was involved in Facebook in its start-up years before becoming disillusioned and fearful. Frankly, that part of the book was not that interesting to me. I have an aversion to memoir writing, and I don’t become part of my own book. I know other readers are fans of memoirs. So do what you like.

But the actual take-down of Facebook and its enormous power, which McNamee performs in the second half, makes this book a valuable read, especially as both Canada and the United States head into an election cycle.