By James Muldoon
Facebook won’t let state oversight trump shareholder interest, so alternatives – based on common ownership and community control – are needed.
Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen described the company as “morally bankrupt” before a panel of the US Senate Commerce Committee on 5 October. From her position on the company’s civic misinformation team, she witnessed its leadership consistently resolve conflicts between the company’s profits and users’ safety in favour of the former. This was true across a range of issues from hate speech to teenage mental health, ethnic violence and differential treatment for VIP users.
She has also called for greater government regulation and oversight but has dismissed claims that tougher action is needed against the tech giant. In Europe, greater oversight is fast approaching. The proposed Digital Services Act will change the rules for how digital platforms handle content that has been flagged as illegal and will regulate digital gatekeepers to prevent anti-competitive behaviour.
Haugen’s evidence confirmed long-standing suspicions that the problems of the company go to the core of its business model, which requires constant engagement, growth and data harvesting.
The lesson, however, is that calls to regulate these companies are an insufficient response that fail to acknowledge the depth of the crisis.
This is not a failure of morality. The company is structurally conditioned to respond to competitive market pressures by adapting its strategies to maintain its dominance.
In the data-driven sphere of social media, this means prioritising growing engagement and reach above other objectives. For instance, Facebook cannot put an end to “engagement-based ranking” designed to elicit strong reactions, and inevitably leading to polarisation and division, because the company needs to serve shareholder interests.
The problems of the tech world are not limited to the ‘data for a free product’ business model. Many companies put profit ahead of workers and local communities –from Uber and Deliveroo paying riders below minimum wage to Airbnb destroying affordable housing and gentrifying previously diverse neighbourhoods. We shouldn’t be surprised that companies have been willing to take advantage of vulnerable workers, exploit grey areas in the law and place their own interests ahead of the communities they claim to serve.
In fact, we need to stop talking about ‘fixing’ Facebook or taking solutions from people whose worldview has been shaped within Big Tech firms. The problem is not simply about restoring competition to the tech sector or replacing a few heartless CEOs.
Instead, we should look to the many alternatives that currently exist – and which could be further grown and developed – based on social ownership, common interests and solidarity.
In a forthcoming book, I call this idea platform socialism – referring to the social ownership of digital assets and the democratic control over the organisations and digital infrastructure that have become so critical to our everyday lives.
Platform socialism is about reclaiming collective self-determination through new forms of participatory and decentralised governance that ensure we no longer put profits over human needs. It focuses on how we can foster citizens’ active participation in the design and governance of digital platforms rather than relying on top-down regulations by a technocratic elite.
Participation and decision-making by ordinary citizens are important because we currently have no say in how these platforms are governed. We do not even have access to the data to hold meaningful public debate on issues because key aspects of how the platforms operate are held as closely guarded trade secrets.
When data is released, it is usually carefully curated by the companies to shine a positive light on their activities. The release of the Facebook Files by the Wall Street Journal demonstrates how the company regularly shelved uncomfortable findings of internal research teams.
There is now a vast array of digital tools for people to participate in governance issues that make democratising the workplace more viable than ever before. Software such as Decidim and Liquid Democracy give people an opportunity for deliberation and decision-making without face-to-face meetings.
Customers, workers and local community members from diverse geographic locations and with different interests can all be affected by a platform and should have a say in how it operates. Multi-stakeholder governance structures allow members with different interests in the platform to have varying levels of involvement in how it operates.
Alternatives are possible
When we imagine forms of public ownership of digital platforms we should worry about questions of censorship and state surveillance. Many states have a long history of using data to identify activists and crush dissent. Platform socialism is about instituting a broad ecology of alternative ownership models based on different sizes and types of digital services. Many of these would not be simply state-owned and could be managed by diverse communities.
For example, at the local level there are already handiwork, courier services and domestic-cleaning platforms run by platform co-operatives – enterprises owned and managed by the workers themselves.
Up & Go is one example. It is a digital marketplace for professional home services that enables workers to keep 95٪ of their wages from jobs obtained on the platform rather than the usual 50-80%. Workers don’t only receive higher wages, they also have an ownership stake in the platform and can vote on matters of platform governance.
A platform socialist model of social media can draw inspiration from “the fediverse”, a group of decentralised publishing platforms that rely on free and open-source software and shared protocols so that users can communicate across different nodes in the network.
One of the most popular examples of these tools is Mastodon, a decentralised alternative to Twitter which uses an open protocol for microblogging and status updates. Each node in the network has its own rules and moderation policies, and allows users greater autonomy over their digital communications.
Investing in public good
It has been difficult for co-operative social networking services to achieve the same smoothness and functionality as larger corporations, but this is something that could quickly change with more investment and interest in the technology.
What is more difficult is getting users to adopt smaller platforms and move away from dominant networks.
Other challenges include data portability of friends lists and privacy concerns about which types of data could be migrated onto a new platform.
Platform co-operatives also need access to capital. This could be resolved if they are supported by local councils through procurement strategies and provision of resources. There is an important role to be played by municipally owned services which could be effectively implemented to provide digital services relating to housing and transportation.
An alliance of local authorities could work with residents to provide a ‘MuniBnB’, a municipally owned and regulated platform that manages short-term accommodation services offered by local residents, to replace corporate services.
Ride hail apps could also be integrated into many cities’ public transport services through public ownership. Publicly operated services could eliminate gamified working conditions for drivers, provide them with a living wage and nudge commuters towards more environmentally friendly options where available.
The New Economics Foundation found that 82% of Uber customers would use a more ethical alternative to the ride hail service and 54% would pay more for their journey to give drivers better pay and conditions.
Nevertheless, from local to international level, different options are open to facilitate new forms of democratic control over digital platforms.
Platform socialism is a systematic alternative to private power in the digital sphere and can help unite different forms of struggle around a shared vision of a democratic future. It is about reclaiming a long-term counter-hegemonic project for challenging capitalist control over technology.
We shouldn’t look to corporate executives to do better on fixing our digital infrastructure when they have no right to control it to begin with. We need to act now to reassert our democratic power and reclaim our participatory rights to the digital public sphere before the tech companies can further solidify their power.
James Muldoon is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Exeter.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.