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The Facebook Government in waiting?

by on October 2, 2020

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What sort of coup could take over a networked state?

If Facebook is a shadow government, what happens when the governance of Facebook is targeted by an external group? If Facebook is an example of an emerging “networked state” then how might such a state be vulnerable to an equivalent coup d’état?

A centralized nation state is vulnerable if and when the centre is occupied and taken over. A networked state is far more fluid, and the leadership or legitimacy can potentially be located anywhere.

Facebook has been facing a governance crisis for a number of years, with the Cambridge Analytica episode being one particular focal point. While it is a de facto dictatorship, as Mark Zuckerberg retains sole control, he desires greater legitimacy.

This is partly why Chairman Mark has publicly entertained the idea of government regulation, and it is also why the company has been developing a content oversight board. I wrote about the subject almost this time last year.

I remain fairly skeptical of the potential for such a board, as do many others.

However the larger question is whether the creation of this board, which has been going rather slowly, creates a new vulnerability for the company, by enabling the larger discussion of how Facebook should be governed.

The company has already been facing external pressure from advertisers and advocates, most recently seen in the #StopHateForProfit boycott in July.

Now a group calling themselves the Real Facebook Oversight Board, which includes the organizers of the recent boycott, are raising the stakes, and not only challenging Facebook, but to some degree attempting to take it over, from both a popular and policy perspective.

Some of Facebook’s most vocal critics are tired of waiting for its independent oversight board — so they’re starting their own.

A group of about 25 experts from academia, civil rights, politics and journalism announced Friday that they have formed a group to analyze and critique Facebook’s content moderation decisions, policies and other platform issues in the run-up to the presidential election and beyond.

The group, which calls itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board, plans to hold its first meeting via Facebook Live on Oct. 1. It will be hosted by Recode founder Kara Swisher, a New York Times contributing opinion writer.

The new board started by the critics is a project developed by The Citizens, a U.K.-based advocacy group founded by Guardian and Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, whose March 2018 investigation into Facebook’s data sharing practices made Cambridge Analytica a household name.

“This is an emergency response,” Cadwalladr said. “We know there are going to be a series of incidents leading up to the election and beyond in which Facebook is crucial. This is a real-time response from an authoritative group of experts to counter the spin Facebook is putting out.”

It is interesting to note that the people on this “Real” board are the some of the most well known of Facebook critics. There’s a certain level of celebrity or notoriety that reinforces their genuine credibility as critics and organizers.

Collectively they’ve been developing rhetoric and narrative that is powerful, honed, and targeted towards Facebook’s excesses and vulnerabilities.

The above is a link to their first press conference, and below are their initial demands:

The timing of this “Real” board targets the upcoming US Presidential election, however it is also intended as a contrast to the board that Facebook has spent the past several months building and defining.

This isn’t a stunt but an ongoing operation, that much like a power move, is designed to shift the policy narrative, if not also its authorship. If the outside group, with its high profile and expertise, is able to maintain focus and discussion of Facebook, faster than Facebook can, that will give them an ongoing ability to set public opinion and direct public pressure, if not also government action.

The current governing regime in Facebook HQ should be concerned.

It would not be difficult to imagine a scenario in which this external group of self-appointed experts rises in profile and responsiveness, and use their connections with the legacy media to exert tremendous if not effective control over aspects of Facebook’s operations.

While the initial focus may be around the US election, success there could translate to success in other areas.

Which brings us back to the question of what constitutes a coup d’état in a networked state?

Power, influence, and authority do not have to be located in the “centre” of a network, but can easily shift and migrate to where attention and effectiveness reside.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the external board outperforms the one created internally, and at some point the dictatorship can find legitimacy in embracing the role of the external board.

Not only is the external board neither a government, nor elected, but it may also align with the larger philosophical aims of the dictator.

Finally what’s to prevent additional external boards or bodies from being created and claiming that they are the “Real” or legitimate government?

Historically the legitimacy of a government was largely based on might is right, with more recently the addition or augmentation of popular will (as secondary to might is right).

Could it be possible that popular will in a networked environment is more important than might is right? Or could might as right have a digital manifestation, either via control of data, intellectual property, or hacking/root access?

I don’t have the answers to a lot of these questions, but think they’re work asking as we witness the first of what will probably be many attempts by external groups to seize power, attention, or authority in the Facebook networked state.

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