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The Soulless Network

This is a fascinating though upsetting topic. It is mostly about Facebook, which is a very big company, but it is about concepts even larger than that.

This is something that many of us had sensed from the beginnings of Facebook, and increasingly so in recent years. Frances Haugen, who had worked in the later disbanded “civic integrity division” at Facebook since 2019, revealed on last week’s airing of “60 Minutes,” that she was the whistleblower who had anonymously filed complaints with federal agencies, contending that the company was magnifying hate and misinformation in the service of greater profits. She said, “Facebook, over and over again, has shown that it chooses profit over safety.”

There is no doubt that Facebook is constantly collecting and analyzing its consumer data, obviously trying to see how it can make even more billions of dollars. I have never joined Facebook, on principle, but I have looked at some of the pages of my favorite musical artists, to see if they are coming out with new material, or touring. I used to be able to read the comments, but now I can’t, either because they have made it impossible for non-subscribers, or possibly because I need to update my browser. It is not a big deal, I do not need to even view a Facebook page.

I remember reading about an event in its earlier days, where Facebook was caught doing different versions of news stories for different readers., trying to test if the stories changed their moods. They got a lot of criticism for the mind control implied in this “experiment.” They said something about how they were just seeing if the stories they ran did have an emotional effect, which was obviously a lie and a deflection.. Right then, it should have been obvious just what Facebook was about, but the story died down.

I did not really know anything about Facebook, until I saw the movie “The Social Network,” written by Aaron Sorkin,and directed by David Fincher. It essentially portrayed the college-age Mark Zuckerberg as a burgeoning sociopath, who started Facebook as a device for him and his friends to “rate” women’s looks. He undoubtedly has some aspects of computer-level genius, but he was shown to have no empathy, honor,or soul. He stole the Facebook idea from two other Harvard students.

The portrayal was controversial, and Sorkin wanted to emphasize that it was meant to be a balanced portrait, showing that he also admired Zuckerberg in some ways. I thought that it was an entertaining yet chilling story of a man who paradoxically connects with no one, while he has constructed the world’s largest social forum. But I didn’t worry about it; I thought that Facebook was just another diversion for people, one that I had no interest in participating in.

But then (from a distance, as I did not have firsthand knowledge as to what they did there), I learned about the social experiment of trying to affect subscribers’ moods. Then I read that they were doing various social surveys, and that Zuckerberg was floating the idea of running for President. This then seemed very unnerving; a cold-blooded person devoid of empathy, seeing if he could manipulate people’s minds into voting for him, so that he could rule the world.

I didn’t know about the “news” pages of Facebook, but I learned about them in the 2016 campaign, when I found that they were running (allowing to run? Is there a tangible difference?) thousands of made up, virulently propagandistic news stories which attacked, lied about, and denigrated Hillary Clinton. And I learned that these ceaseless stories were influencing people’s attitudes toward her, while Trump, was getting the favorable lies written about him. And I read various comments from people who said that someone in their family was turned against Hillary, and they had told them that it was because of things they had read about her on Facebook.

They thought they were reading real news. They were reading propaganda, usually complete lies, written by Russians who were trying to get Trump elected, and by Far Right agitators who also were working for Trump. They pounded away, every hour, with new lies and disinformation; and naive and susceptible people imbibed it.

There is no doubt that Facebook had some kind of relationship with members of the Trump campaign, and with Cambridge Analytica. Data about users was mined, sent to Cambridge Analytica; and algorithms were developed which targeted users in key battleground states. Ads and stories were then concocted,to be shown specifically to different users, based on what was known about them. Brad Parscale was intimately involved in this. Paul Manafort fed data to his Russian colleague Konstantin Kilimnik,who used it to target the specific towns to focus on, and what ads Russia would write and put on Facebook.

Surely Zuckeberg knew about all of this. It would be impossible not to think that he and his company played a major role in Trump’s otherwise unfathomable win. Hillary was up 10-15 points in many post-convention polls, even after Comey reluctantly cleared her in June, 2016; and somehow that lead dissipated, even though every post-debate survey had her winning all three of the debates. So how could this lead fade? It seemed inconceivable, but not if one realized, and so very few of us did, that people were being propagandized by thousands of fake stories put on Facebook, which of course had tens of millions of subscribers.

The 2016 election was the triumph of evil over good. It was also the triumph of modern computer algorithmic technology to control the minds and then the actions of people. The sad truth is that every new invention, every technology, is open to being used and perverted by people with malignant ends. And there is no countervailing force to combat it.

So after 2016, Facebook suffered nothing. They went on doing the same thing. There are stories that Trump and Zuckerberg made a deal where if they would treat Trump favorably, he would make sure that they were not regulated or bothered by his administration. That is a typical deal between sociopathic, megalomaniac officials, and money- and power-obsessed businesspeople. It went on in earlier eras, but the power and influence they both have are far greater and more dangerous now.

So now we see, from Haugen’s interview, and from other sources, that Facebook deliberately wants to have the most anger-producing, and fear-enhancing stories and topics on their pages. Why? Because it gives them more viewers who spend more time there. That means more advertising revenue for Facebook, they can sell more ads that way. Bottom line, baby. If it bleeds, it leads. If it gets readers upset, they will want to stay on Facebook, to share their anger and fright with others.

Haugen believes that Facebook was significantly responsible for the January 6 violent insurrection at the Capitol. She says that Facebook was once again allowing blatant lies about the election; people alleging fraud, and how Trump was cheated; and that this led to increasing anger and thirst for violence, which took place on that never-to-be-forgotten day in America. And I am sure that she is right; and that means that Facebook is worse than irresponsible or greedy, it is evil. Nicolle Wallace today on her show said that outside of violent gangs of criminals, she believes that Facebook is the most malignant force in America today, which is quite a statement; and of course she was once Communications Director for President George W. Bush.

Now, I will slightly change the perspective, to try to give it fuller scope. I have an MBA, just one of the areas I studied. I had no business background prior to that, and did not even know what “CEO” stood for. I, along with several of my entering classmates, needed to take a Calculus class in summer school to be admitted to UCLA GSM. So I took it, and I looked for another class to possibly take while I was on campus there.

I tried out a class in Strategic Management, but after sitting in for one session, I decided to take it later in regular term. On the day I sat in, the professor passed out a mimeographed “case study,” about a company, its balance sheet and history. It was accompanied by a framing story, which I assume was invented, along with the balance sheet, to provoke class discussion. Company case studies, real and invented, are a staple of Management schools.

This one told of a company which was having some problems. It mentioned a manager who had suffered a heart attack, had to slow down; had returned, but the financial numbers were not as good. So the class was invited to comment, and make suggestions as to what should be done, as if they were analysts asked by the company to provide solutions.

Immediately, students said that this manager should be fired. Another said, like an incipient predatory capitalist, “Clean out the deadwood.” My background was in literature and history, and then law school, not the business world. I asked, a bit tentatively, as I had no knowledge of the parameters of organizational analysis, was it not important to realize that this manager had a long and honorable record in this firm, and couldn’t they perhaps give him a valued position in another area there?

The professor threw it open to the class, “Do you think that this is a valid aspect to discuss in this analysis?” Of about 80 people in the class, just three or four, including me, raised their hands to say that it should be. That gave me an immediate insight as to what Graduate School of Management was about. Actually, I later found an area of study there which was unusual, in that it was taught by leaders in the “Human Potential movement” of the 1960’s and ’70’s, and was about the human side of the workplace. That was very rare, and I am glad that I had the opportunity to study this field in depth.

But we know about the “Harvard MBAs” of the ’80’s, those who came out of those programs, and became venture capitalists, selling off assets, and costing careers, so that they could profit from it. The human equation never mattered to such people.

And that is what we primarily have now in the business world: brainy but soulless people who are only concerned about how much money they can make for the company and themselves. And if their surveys and algorithms show that frightening and angering people gets them more profits, they will do it without a thought. They hide behind a vision of business which says that the only thing you are supposed to do is to try to make the most profits, and the rest of it will fall into place.

“Let the market decide,” they love to say; that is the watchword of Friedman Economics. If this sells ,then do more of it. It is economic darwinism. Its dictates are scrubbed of all moral considerations. You are free to be as singlemindedly avaricious or financially predatory as you want, because the market is the moral arbiter, the only one which matters, and you bear no responsibility for any of the rest of it. “Clear out the deadwood.”

Unless we stop reifying simplistic charts of supply and demand; and stop worshipping unfettered laissez-faire; and stop adulating people just because they are immensely rich and powerful, and they use their influence only to gain more wealth and power, without any interest in values like honesty and honor and the psychological welfare of others, we will never move toward breaking this cycle.

Maybe Ms. Haucken’s testimony before Congress this week will help; but Republicans there are loving what Facebook does for their party, and they have shown that they have no interest in the other things. The public at large should realize what a pernicious place and entity Facebook is, but can they be weaned of the dependence, and the cheap pleasures of being manipulated by lies, that it has created?