Dear Facebook Public Relations Team,
Last week, I was wasting my life like so many others, seeing what shenanigans my feed would serve up, when I saw this:
The screenshot with my night filter on that I’ve provided here — I promise this is not a buzz marketing campaign for f.lux — was the one I took at the moment, but the ad, sadly, was taken down by you almost immediately.
I know, because when I look in my Facebook ad history now (users can see part of their own here), I see this when I attempt to click back to the ad y’all fed me:
WTF, Facebook Public Relations Team?
You began this conversation with me. And I want to talk. This is now a dialogue, a conversation. You have stuff to say to me, and I have a lot I want to say back.
What did you want to say to me? (If only for a brief moment, before you changed your mind?)
When I attempt to look up all of Facebook’s ads for itself in the United States on March 4th, 2021, I see just under 300 results. Finetune it to limit things to the ads that are no longer active, and it doesn’t help much: I’m left with 160 results.
But I was persistent — you don’t just let true love pass you by — and I found what I was looking for.
Apparently, it was this gem:
“The last time internet regulations were passed, a hashtag was that button you never pressed on a telephone.”
(Honestly, Chris Messina deserves so much better than this.)
And here’s what I learned about this witty bon mot you sent my way:
Potential Reach? Over 1 Million people.
Amount spent? Under $100.
Facebook, you “spent” under $100 to reach over 1 Million people on your platform with an “ad”? All to say telephones are sooooo yesterday? That the past is past? That the times, they are a’changing?
There must be more. Right?
You win. I’m tantalized and seduced. I’ll bite.
Despite your ad’s disappearing act, I’m still able to see the page you wanted me to visit at https://about.fb.com/regulations.
I wasn’t expecting much. But your effort trailed even my low expectations:
Wow. You don’t say.
It’s kind of impressive just how much non-meaning is packed into these 20 words.
To keep moving forward — forward where? To what? Was the forward motion of time at risk of stopping?
Accountable for what exactly? Can we name the issues? Election interference? Messing with mental health? Encouraging genocides?
Updating which regulations? On what key issues?
This is not a serious push designed to get legislation passed, Facebook. This is a half-hearted perfunctory effort at creating a vague collective memory of Facebook giving a shit. Which we all know it doesn’t.
I know this kind of signaling-virtue-where-there-is-none game. Recent PR history is riddled with examples. Here’s how it works:
Readers might remember the magazine ads: full-spread activist-y boldprint declarations like “It’s Time Oil Companies Get Behind The Development of Renewable Energy,” and below it the logo of…no, this couldn’t possibly be right…do my eyes deceive me?…CHEVRON!? (Insert dramatic chipmunk moment here.)
It’s Amazon putting out woke-sounding tweets about Black Lives Matter to distract from their arrangement with police departments buying surveillance technology.
Or the great-granddaddy of them all, the push for recycling in the 80s and 90s in lieu of regulatory action against corporate polluters.
You must know what I’m talking about, right, Facebook Public Relations Team? And I can’t say for sure, but I think you know that most people will see this in their feed and think, “huh, interesting that Facebook is paying attention to this — I guess this is progress?” without investigating further.
It’s noise, not signal — and you know that enough noise can pass for signal, and crowd out the real signals. (Something that, as Gideon Lichfield’s brilliant twitter thread on your response to a piercing MIT Technology Review expose illustrates, you know all too well.)
We both know that laws without clear, well-defined, practical and usable enforcement mechanisms are a waste of time. Tech companies like Facebook know this. When they “invite” regulation, they’re just looking to distract people with something other than the opacity of their corporate approaches.
So why these ads? And why now?
I know that that $100 was not just spent on me and that this is part of a campaign hyper-targeted to Washington DC powerbrokers. I don’t live in DC, and have never lived in DC, so I know it must be about something bigger. As it happens, we’re a little less than a month away from the day that I’ve taken to calling “Z-Day”, April 10th, the anniversary of Mark Zuckerberg finally being brought before Congress to answer for a negligence so profound that its earliest major investor, Roger McNamee, has taken to calling it a tool of dystopia.
What did Mark Zuckerberg say about regulation on the original Z-Day?
“I think that that’s an important conversation to have. Our position is not that regulation is bad…I think the real question, as the internet becomes more important in people’s lives, is what is the right regulation, not whether there should be or not.”
In 2018, in the midst of cataclysmic failure resulting directly from his leadership, Zuckerberg was willing to say “you know what? Yes, perhaps not all regulation is bad.” (Bold, sir. Golf clap. And they say there are no heroes anymore.)
Today, three years and a new Presidential administration later, his company has graduated to saying that old regulations are, in fact, not as good as newer regulations. Now that’s what I call progress.
What’s changed since then?
We’re in the first 100 days of a Biden administration that is slowly taking on serious reform-minded economic advisors like Tim Wu and Lina Khan. As BBC put it a few months ago, Mark Zuckerberg has a “Biden problem.” And if your boss Mark Zuckerberg has a Biden problem, then Facebook — and you — have a Biden problem.
But there’s a silver lining for you: the Biden administration isn’t the only thing that changed since Z-Day. This past August, Zuck became one of then only three, currently only five centibillionaires: people with a net worth of over $100 Billion. (Covid-19 has, for obvious reasons, been quite good for Facebook’s active user and thereby revenue count.)
Facebook has money to burn — what better way to use it than co-opting “regulation” early in the process and preempting antitrust reformers carving you up? No wonder regulation sounds worth talking up.
It’s easy to go after Mark Zuckerberg. But we know this moment is bigger than your boss. It’s about an entire industry that has only had its worst impulses strengthened in the age of covid-19.
You began this conversation with me. I’m willing to make a deal before you end it: aid those working to break up your boss’ power and institute meaningful change in the sector, and you can send me as many stupid jokes about rotary phones as you’d like.