Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 February 2019

Zuckerberg’s Scam


[For an update on how Zuckerberg scams advertisers, too, click here. For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

Sometimes accidents make you smarter. So it was with me and Facebook.

For years after Google’s Gmail started filing incoming e-mails from social media under a separate tab, I never noticed. I had a Facebook account, but I didn’t open, read or post through it more than a few times a year. The reason was mostly lack of time and interest; repetitive password difficulties also figured in.

Facebook’s unsolicited e-mail notifications just kept piling up in my Gmail account, under Google’s social-media tab, unbeknownst to and unread by me. Eventually, that traffic helped drive my Gmail account’s storage toward Google’s generous free-of-charge limit. So I pared down my stored e-mails, in chronological order, focusing on Facebook’s unsolicited messages. That left me with enough stored e-mails from Facebook to make a semi-scientific study of what it had been trying to do.

My collection of 3,093 unsolicited social-media e-mails runs from August 28, 2012 to the present—a span of 6.5 years. The vast majority, well over 90%, are from Facebook. The rest are comments to this Blog, requests from LinkedIn and other professional sites, and random Internet chatter. (I have no Twitter account and, for reasons explained here, never will.)

So over the 6.5 years, Facebook had sent me about three thousand unsolicited e-mails. I now know I could have unsubscribed from them, apparently without closing my account. But I didn’t bother then. Left unread under my social-media tab, they were a tiny, unseen nuisance.

But on average the flow was 1.26 e-mails every day. Every single message was an attempt to drive me back to Facebook’s site.

In the beginning, the “click bait” was lame. For example, the heading from one December 2012 message reads “Jay, you have 6 messages, 21 photo tags and 9 friend requests.”

But Facebook or its algorithms slowly learned what piques people’s interest: other people. By the end of my 6.5-year sample period, almost every Facebook e-mail heading began with one or more people’s names. “So-and-so has added a new photo.” “So-and-so 1 has commented on So-and-so 2’s photo.” “So-and-so 3 has tagged you in a photo.”

Every once in a while, an e-mail heading contained names of people whom I barely knew, or didn’t know at all. At the outset, these headings began with the words “Do you know . . .” Later, they began with the names alone, often six to nine in a row.

At times the appearance of a particular name was downright spooky. I had a close friend—now my fiancée—who lived in different city from me for over thirty years. Three months after we developed a romantic relationship, the name of her future daughter-in-law, a Russian national then living in Moscow, appeared in one of these headings.

I’ve lived a peripatetic life, making a home in thirteen cities around the world. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to maintain contact with all the people I’ve met or known. Yet there was Facebook, pushing as relentlessly as only software can to reconnect me with all those people—and connect me with all their own friends and contacts. Its inanimate software almost seemed offended by my long absences from its site.

The reason for all this nagging is not hard to understand. Facebook “monetizes” people and relationships among them. It does so regardless of how fleeting, superficial, unimportant, exploitative, damaging, or even life-threatening those relationships may be. (Think of the influence of hateful Facebook posts on recent Hindu-Muslim pogroms in India or on the not-so-recent attempted genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Think of Charlottesville and how the white supremacists organized their march of terror.)

It doesn’t matter to Facebook what “its” people do on or off the site. As long as they participate and swell the gross number that Facebook can tout to advertisers and paying users, each new name is gold. Every name means a new subject to track, a new regime of privacy to crack through persuasion and evasion, and a new egg to break to make the omelette of advertising, promotion, and whatever, including (lately) spycraft, hateful ideologies, and international political propaganda.

Every name helps Facebook make money. And now it reportedly has 2.2 billion more-than-occasional users, about one-third of our entire human species.

But does Facebook do anything to supervise, control, regulate or manage what those 2.2 billion users do on its site? If governments and others hadn’t pushed hard for some sort—any sort—of supervision, it’s doubtful Facebook would be doing anything even today.

As long as it could, Facebook claimed that it’s just an inanimate “platform,” mechanically transmitting information like a telephone line or cell-phone tower. Some “platform”! I can’t recall my cell phone or LAN ever nagging me—let alone over once a day for 6.5 years—to get back on line.

Even today, Facebook seems to be dragging its heels against supervision as hard as it can. It sends poorly programmed (but cheap!) algorithms to do the hard and expensive work of recognizing and taking down fake news, hate, incitement to violence, conspiracy theories, and other fantasy masquerading as reality.

One man bears responsibility for this: Mark Zuckerberg. Almost unique among corporate chieftains, he owns a controlling share of the voting stock of Facebook, his creation. Everything that Facebook is and does is under his thumb. No corporate baron in human history was ever as powerful: John D. Rockefeller controlled only one part of energy (oil), not information, and that for far less than one-third of our human species.

At the beginning, Zuckerberg’s mantra was reportedly “Move fast and break things.” That he has most certainly done. He has driven relentlessly to amass billions of users without rules or restraint, except where government and social pressure, recently, have forced him begrudgingly to invent and apply some rudimentary brakes. Enforcement of nascent rules is still weak, sporadic and unreliable.

Zuckerberg sanctimoniously claims “good” in bringing virtual strangers together. But where’s the “good” now? Where’s the Arab Spring now? under the oppressive thumbs of El-Sisi, Putin and MBS, that’s where. Where’s the “good” in Brexit now? Where’s the good in our presidency and our divided Congress? Where’s the good in our media, as demagogues, liars, amateurs, kooks and conspiracy theorists steadily replace unemployed journalists, day by day? Where’s the good in our hatefully divided society?

The best analogy I can devise for Facebook is a playground full of 2.2 billion kindergarteners. Facebook’s users are like children because they don’t have the faintest idea how the system works. If Zuckerberg has his way, they never will; he likes his algorithms secret.

Users also have a childlike, naive trust in the people they “meet” on line. Yet unless those people are their own relatives or realspace friends, users mostly have no idea who they are. Unless users are careful with their settings, the sources of their “news” on Facebook can be any one of those 2.2 billion users. And even if they are careful, anyone can reach them if a trusted user forwards or re-posts a juicy tidbit.

That’s the “magic” of “many-to-many” media, of which Facebook is the most used and most dangerous exemplar. Other well-known “many-to-many” media, such as product reviews and public comments on news and opinion articles, are limited in subject matter: the product or the article. Only Facebook has no limits whatever on subject matter, thereby inviting Russian propaganda or hate mail to appear next to a cousin’s wedding or baby announcement.

If Facebook could somehow limit its use to its original “Old Lang Syne” purpose—letting old acquaintances keep in touch—the harm it now does would decrease dramatically. But so would its market and income, and therein lies the rub.

As for Facebook’s users, most will never meet their influential Facebook “news” sources in person, hear their voices or look them in the eye. Many users are completely unaware of the actual sources of what they take as “news” on Facebook—whether real or fake. Many are blissfully oblivious to journalists’ training and mandatory code of ethics, which most posters on Facebook lack. And Facebook has no monetary incentive to inform them.

Kindergarten teachers know full well what they get when they leave their charges on a playground, with no real rules or supervision, for extended periods of time. They get Lord of the Flies. That’s what we have on line now, rapidly expanding worldwide, the faster in the places where Facebook has more users. And the clearest and most notable consequence of this widespread degradation of human civilization is that Mark Zuckerberg has become one of richest and most powerful men in human history, bigger than Genghis Khan.

What a clever scam! It puts the sanctimonious self-enrichment of medieval popes to shame.

Software, artificial intelligence and markets are our new millennium’s substitutes for religion. To most people, they are as dark and mysterious as religion, yet with all the prestige of modern science and technology. Ordinary people and even uninitiated experts are expected to genuflect before them like penitents before a priest or serfs before a lord. Even in the nation’s most progressive city, San Francisco, a monument to software and AI called “The Salesforce Building” now dominates the once-rounded skyline.

Yet however much the institutions, processes and buildings may seem to change, the forces of human motivation underlying them remain the same. Not often are those motives charitable or altruistic. Not often are their impacts wise, even if well-intentioned. Not always do they promote the general welfare as our Constitution’s preamble commands.

In our new third millennium, will democracy control software, AI and markets for the general welfare any better than serfs and vassals controlled religion and monarchy in the second? The outlook so far is not encouraging. Facebook enjoys the mystique of the seemingly supernatural, a hardened monopoly with a deeply entrenched network effect, and the peculiar American reverence for anyone who, by whatever means, got very rich very quickly.

UPDATE: The Scam’s Other Dimension

There is yet another dimension to Zuckerberg’s Scam. It affects the advertisers on Facebook.

Among the 708 advertisers listed in my deactivated account download, over 192 are apparently local small businesses. Most but not all of them sell real property or cars. They have names like Alfa Romeo of Manhattan, ARS/Rescue Rooter - Illinois, Expand Realty Lubbock TX, Mt Hood Realty Team, Porsche South Orlando, Serra Mazda of Birmingham, or Tom Lundy - Orlando Realtor.

I have indeed lived in at least thirteen different cities on three continents. But I’m now 73. Except for sporadic travel, I’ve mostly settled down in two places: Santa Fe, NM, where I have my house, and Berkeley, CA, where my wife-to-be lives.

The places where these 192 small businesses are located are places where I’ve never lived (or lived before the Internet existed) and have no desire to live. The mere prospect of living in some would drive me to seppuku. The chances that I will ever live or shop—let alone for a car or real property—where these small businesses are located lie somewhere between infinitesimal and zero.

So what are these 192 advertisers—over one-quarter of the total—paying for?

This is the “magic” of Zuckerberg’s secret algorithms. Not only are they late, weak and ineffective in preventing bad actors from destroying democracy and civilized society. They are also, apparently, busy scamming innocent small businesses. Do you think maybe it’s time for some advocate for the people—Congress, the FTC, the DOJ, or a special public commission—to peek behind the curtain and take a close look at the Wizard of Oz?

Endnotes

I’m just hours away from deleting Facebook from my computers and my life forever, while keeping a record of my past participation for future study and blog posts. I can’t think of any reason why I would want to continue to participate, i.e., to remain yet one more insignificant sucker in Zuckerberg’s civilization-shaking scam.

Before deleting my account, I successfully downloaded all the data that Facebook helped me download and save from my seldom-used account. The following statistics reveal Facebook’s priorities, if not my own:

Jay’s Facebook Statistics
ItemType/NumberFile Size
Largest FileAdvertisers’ Names205 Kb
Second Largest FileOthers’ Posts on My Timeline60 Kb
Friends52
Advertisers708


Many of the advertisers I’d never heard of, before or since. Among those I had heard of were Americans for Prosperity and several local affiliates—all PACs founded, funded or run by the ultraconservative, fossil-fuel-crazed Koch Brothers, whose political views could not differ more from mine.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post reported only 118 advertisers. I had forgotten that I had counted them in groups of six and remembered only when counting the localized ones. I regret the error.

Might these spare statistics for a seldom-used account reflect the relative importance of various account features to Zuckerberg?

Here’s the e-mail blast I’m sending to my contacts to inform them of my decision to delete Facebook:

Bye-Bye Facebook!

    By this message, I’m notifying all my e-mail contacts that I’m deleting Facebook from my computers and my life.

    I have an account but don’t like Facebook, never took it seriously, and didn’t use it much. Now there are more serious reasons to delete it, including those discussed on my Blog here, here, here, here, and here.

    This is my personal decision. I don’t fault you or anyone else for thinking differently, or for having built a business or part of your online personal life around Facebook—but I hope not the news you consume!

    If you’d like to keep in touch with me, you can always do so at the reply address. It’ll be active as long as I live and Google supports Gmail.

    Best to all, Jay
[For the consequences of Trump’s manufactured border emergency, click here. For a brief note on Colin Kaepernick’s good work and settlement with the NFL, click here. For an outline of universal health insurance without coercion, disruption of satisfactory private insurance, or a trace of “socialism,” click here. For analysis of the Virginia blackface debacle, click here. For an update on how Twitter subverts politics, click here. For analysis of women’s chances to take the presidency in 2020, click here. For brief comment on Trump’s State of the Union Speech and Stacey Abrams’ response for the Dems, click here. For reasons why the Huawei affair requires diplomacy, not criminal prosecution, click here. For how Speaker Pelosi has become a new sheriff in town, click here. For how Trump’s misrule could kill your kids, click here. For comment on MLK Day 2019 and the structural legacies of slavery, click here. For reasons why the partial government shutdown helps Dems the longer it lasts, click here. For a discussion of how our national openness hurts us and what we really need from China, click here. For a brief explanation of how badly both Trump and his opposition are failing at “the art of the deal,” click here. For a deep dive into how Apple tries to thwart Google’s capture of the web-browser market, click here. For a review of Speaker Pelosi’s superb qualifications to lead the Democratic Party, click here. For reasons why natural-gas and electric cars are essential to national security, click here. For additional reasons, click here. For the source of Facebook’s discontents and how to save democracy from it, click here. For Democrats’ core values, click here. The Last Adult is Leaving the White House. Who will Shut Off the Lights? For how our two parties lost their souls, click here. For the dire portent of Putin’s high-fiving the Saudi Crown Prince, click here. For updated advice on how to drive on the Sun’s power alone, or without fossil fuels, click here. For a 2018 Thanksgiving Message, click here. For a list of links to recent posts in reverse chronological order, click here.]

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