Is Policymakr out to replace Facebook?

A question we’re getting a lot from visitors to Policymakr runs along the lines of: ‘Is Policymakr about being the opposite to Facebook?’ In other words, people want to know to what extent this site is essentially about offering an alternative to Facebook, and nothing else.

It’s an important question, and one we shouldn’t be allowed to dodge. But it has two possible answers: a simple one, and a complicated one. And they run along pretty different lines.

The reason the Information Age became a challenge for representative democracy was circumstantial, not inevitable

The simple answer is that Policymakr isn’t a response to Facebook. It’s about the link between technology and information and how, in the Information Age, that link, which is at the heart of our representative democracy, has become poisonous. As one of our members put it in a recent message to us:

Thanks to technology people think /feel they have a voice and access to all the information available. The problem is that more and more, they have access only to the one information they want to hear/read/speak. Problems arise when they meet face to face with facts and then it becomes violent.

The simple answer, which we’ve already covered in the Policymakr About page, is that there was nothing inevitable, or inherently evil, about the overabundant availability of information that characterizes the Information Age. The greater transparency that is inherent to the availability of more information, far from posing a necessary threat to democracy, underpins it.

The reason the Information Age has severely disrupted the functioning of representative democracy is not structural or inevitable. It’s essentially circumstantial: the decentralized, deregulated state of the Internet, which was and remains a private rather than a public resource, left the field open to entrepreneurs who were quick to harness it to set up what quickly became all-powerful platforms that shared one thing in common: they were for-profit.

This had radical consequences, that then spun out systematically in every case, building the case for the inevitability of this model.

Their business models were based on the same parameters: offer free accounts to anyone who cares to sign up, under any identity, real or assumed, and their founders were incited to grow quickly so that they could increase revenue though advertising. That advertising needed to be targeted as accurately as possible, which left these platforms open to the temptation to mine—and share—the data associated with member accounts as thoroughly as possible. In practice, this often happened without consent being given or even clearly requested.

The consequences of this business model are now well documented: people increasingly ignore facts, there is a growing rift between elite and ordinary citizens, and social media, as well as traditional media, which are also based on a similar model fuelled by growth and advertising, have been unable to counter this trend, even when they have been genuinely desirous to do so, as Google facially was in its ‘Don’t do Evil’ phase 1.

Clearly, thus, the destruction of trust goes beyond Facebook, though: the public’s trust in institutions—businesses, governments, the media—had begun collapsing.

The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, which has surveyed tens of thousands of people for the past eighteen years, found that trust fell again last year in all four of the institutions it examines–government, media, business, and nongovernmental organizations.

Yet Facebook is at the heart of the problem we know we can solve

The 2010 film The Social Network, directed by David Fincher, was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. It portrayed Mark Zuckerberg as a robotic coder with questionable ethics. Whether or not the portrayal was completely true, the circumstances in which Facebook was founded have continued to bedevil it to the present day.

In 2011, the company already had a trust problem, because it had made a practice of pushing the limits of transparency, only to apologize afterwards, when users complained. It has always put its advertising revenue, as well as the success of its initial public offering and its share price performance, above any other considerations: Facebook’s 2018 revenues were $40.7 billion.

Yet Facebook couldn’t completely ignore the trust issue, because if users didn’t trust Facebook, they’d leave. Fundamentally, Facebook’s business case required it to be two-faced.

This is where Policymakr comes in. Our conviction is that we aren’t in the business of replacing Facebook. Our offering is based on a completely different set of values: nonprofit, independent, ad-free, with a Supervisory Board at the helm to ensure those principles are rigorously enforced.

Yet Facebook is at the heart of the problem that we know we can solve—a fact that is universally recognized, and that they do not seek to deny. It’s also a problem to which they are now actively canvassing solutions:

Last year, I focused almost all my time on addressing important issues around elections, speech, privacy, and well-being. Facebook is a different company now than it was a couple of years ago because of a much greater focus on these questions. These issues are complex and we will continue focusing on them for years to come.

There are so many big questions about the world we want to live in and technology’s place in it. Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed? […]

My challenge for 2019 is to host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society – the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes, and the anxieties. Every few weeks I’ll talk with leaders, experts, and people in our community from different fields and I’ll try different formats to keep it interesting. These will all be public, either on my Facebook or Instagram pages or on other media.

—Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook profile update, January 8, 2019.

And so, quite logically, Policymakr will be reaching out to Facebook, as we gradually gather traction, to see how we can contribute to the debate they wish to institute of the subject.

And we fully expect that Facebook will emerge stronger, and also less two-faced, from this process.

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Donald Jenkins

Donald Jenkins

Donald Jenkins read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Magdalen College, Oxford. He also attended École nationale d'administration. He's a Co-Founder of Policymakr.