Former Welsh Government Minister Leighton Andrews, now a Cardiff University Professor, has a new book out this week called Facebook, the Media and Democracy (Routledge).
Here he explores Facebook’s role in society and looks at its benefits and problems.
In early 2018 Facebook ran a series of adverts illustrating how small businesses in the UK had benefited from their association with Facebook, including Hiut Denim in Cardigan.
David and Clare Hieatt, who previously owned the clothing firm Howie’s, set up their business in 2012 to create high-quality denim jeans using the skills of former factory workers.
They marketed the company through Instagram and Facebook. They could not afford TV or press advertising. Facebook was second in importance to their newsletter for their marketing. Without it, they would not have been so successful.
Hiut Denim also featured in a Facebook television advertisement as did another company based in Wales, Recycle Scooters, run from Cwmbach at the top of the Cynon Valley, by Helen Walbey and her husband Stephen.
Helen told me: “We were trading for fourteen years and we had a Facebook Page pretty much from when we started, and we sold globally, through eBay predominantly.”
Facebook was used to promote the business. Helen said: ‘The Facebook analytics are very good if you know how to use them to enable you to target very specific people with very targeted promotions and advertising.”
The benefits offered by Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are real and utilised and experienced daily by users on a personal, civic, or commercial basis. The Rhondda Tunnel Society, formed in 2014, campaigns to have the Victorian Rhondda and Swansea Bay Railway Tunnel re-opened.
The society maintains a Facebook Group with over 4,000 members, and has a Facebook Page with 1700 likes. Facebook has been a platform for the society in communicating with its members locally and around the world.
It’s just one example of a strong network of civic organisations in Wales which actively use Facebook to communicate between members, organise, arrange events, campaign and share information across the two valleys and within their villages and towns.
Facebook’s interface has been translated into Welsh by a willing group of volunteers. This now gives Welsh-speakers the infrastructure of a mass platform to conduct conversations through their preferred language.
Across the world Facebook has played a prominent role in civic campaigns and even uprisings. The ‘Arab Spring’ protests in Egypt were orchestrated through Facebook.
One of the organisers of protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the Google engineer Wael Ghonim, posted a Facebook invitation to a rally in Tharir Square on 25 January 2011. That was widely shared on Facebook and thousands turned up.
At the end of 2018, 2.7 billion people were using Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook or Facebook Messenger every month, and more than two billion using them every day. Its mobile advertising revenue has increased from $470m in 2012, to $50bn in 2018. Along with Google, Facebook dominates global digital advertising revenue, and media companies across the world are losing out.
Facebook offers a free service in exchange for our data and our attention, which enables Facebook to charge advertisers for user engagement. Respected psychologists and neuroscientists state that Facebook encourages the release of dopamine into the brain, an organic chemical associated with pleasurable feelings, that keeps us hooked as we gather likes, shares and comments.
Facebook’s algorithms serve us news posted by friends and family in the order Facebook thinks we’d like to see them. The average user has potential access to about 1500 posts daily but Facebook estimates that we see about 10% of everything posted by our friends and other organisations with whom we have engaged.
The dark side
There is a dark side to Facebook. We know that at different times Facebook’s infrastructure may have been utilised by hostile countries, by criminals and terrorists. We know that electoral laws in relation to Facebook advertising are inadequate.
We know that Facebook collects enormous quantities of data on its users, and its algorithms use that data to target advertising at individuals. We know that Facebook has also been caught out in seeking to manipulate the emotions of users in ‘nudge-style’ experiments.
In February 2018, US Special Counsel Robert Mueller handed down indictments to several Russian operatives which stated the defendants and their co-conspirators also created thematic group pages on social media sites, particularly on the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.
The previous year the three US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to undermine public faith in the US democratic process. Facebook had known about Russian attempts to subvert US democracy for some time.
There is growing concern about the role of Facebook in the 2016 US elections and the UK Brexit referendum. In March 2018 the Observer and Channel 4 in the UK, and the New York Times, revealed the extent of Facebook user data obtained illegally by the London-based voter targeting company Cambridge Analytica for use in elections. Facebook was recently fined $5bn in the United States: other enquiries are pending in Europe.
On 15 March 2019, a terrorist attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was live streamed on Facebook. 51 people were killed and 50 injured. It led to the Christchurch Call, supported by governments around the world, for action to be taken to stop social media platforms being exploited by terrorists.
We have never before seen a transnational company with the communications power of Facebook.
Facebook is recognised as a national security issue in many countries. Its desire to move into cryptocurrency, based on an encrypted messaging platform, potentially threatens banking, stock market and currency exchange laws internationally – it’s no wonder that the Governor of the Bank of England flew to meet Mark Zuckerberg recently. Parliamentarians from a dozen countries meet regularly to consider how to regulate Facebook.
Governments and regulators in the UK, the USA, France, Germany, the EU as a whole, India, Australia, Canada and many other places are now looking at ways to rein Facebook in. They won’t ‘like’ that.