Blog POST

Hello America. Welcome to Your Very Own Truman Show, Brought to You by Facebook

Have you seen the Truman Show? Because, whether you like it or not, you’re living in one of your own.

The other night, I had a nightmare. Like any politico, I was thinking through the next couple of presidential elections, midterms, and playing out a host of scenarios in my mind. I got to 2022 and imagined Republicans managing to flip the House primarily by electing far-right ideologues who are challenging any Republican who hasn’t sworn a blood oath to Donald Trump.

I then imagined another dramatic presidential election in 2024 between Donald Trump and Joe Biden — but this time, Biden wins even more convincingly. And this is where things turned dark.

The Jan. 6th failed coup could and would very likely repeat itself, however, in a Republican-led House of Representatives it would have a very much (predictably) different outcome. Even worse, there’s potential this would lead to license and agency afforded the same war-minded insurrectionists who invaded the Capital to overturn the election. Next time, there very well could be a sufficient cadre of members of Congress completely aligned with the anti-democratic overtones of the modern GOP and in lockstep with Trump’s quest to regain the presidency at all costs, even if he legitimately loses.

How, then, could our democracy realistically survive such an undermining? What would a successful coup mean for our military? What does that mean for our economy, and for the global economy at large when the US is a critical linchpin of it? And what does that mean for the sustainability of democracy globally, if the world’s former “beacon of democracy” falls in on itself like a house of cards?

Most importantly, how the hell did we get here?

Enter a feud between two very rich, very powerful men; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Between the two of them, they might have more economic, social, and political power over our country’s fate than any member(s) in Congress, but with none of the accountability being an elected official is supposed to bring.

Ev via Unsplash

For years, Cook has been publicly lambasting Zuckerberg’s decisions to sell user data to third parties, including Facebook’s infamous choice to let voter-profiling firm Cambridge Analytica secretly mine the data of up to 87 million users in order to mount pro-Trump political influence campaigns in the lead up to the 2016 elections. The Apple CEO has taken shots at Facebook by publicly stating that privacy is a human right that the company isn’t respecting, and essentially told Zuckerberg that his company’s business model — which relies almost entirely on mining and selling the data of its users to target them for ads — was wrecking the country and should be trashed.

Basically, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t up to the job. And Tim Cook knows it.

Those comments over the years have turned the two titans into enemies, and now that feud is spilling into legal territory that could very well make or break that nightmarish reality I’ve been seeing.

Right now, Zuckerberg and Cook are engaged in a very public fight over data privacy. Following Cook’s comments about the immorality of mining and selling data to third parties indiscriminately, Apple has recently introduced a new iOS software update that allows users to opt-out of third-party app tracking, which would represent an unprecedented, massive blow to Facebook’s profits if Apple users — with over 1.65 billion active devices used worldwide — decide to opt-out en masse. Facebook responded by mounting an antitrust lawsuit against Apple for allegedly blocking outside app developers — like Facebook — from competing against the company through services like messaging and games because Apple forces all third-party apps to abide by its own rules. Essentially, Facebook is trying to make the case that Apple’s attempt to bottleneck the data harvesting gold rush represents a monopoly, but it remains to be seen whether that argument will hold water in an industry that has almost no regulation whatsoever.

Glen Carrie via Unsplash

A lot of folks have been talking about this legal battle as just run-of-the-mill capitalist infighting, but that’s not even close. Tim Cook knows Mark Zuckerberg — who he is, how he thinks, what he’s all about — and Cook sees the world very differently than the leader of Facebook. Cook, while far from stellar on these issues, very much sees the consequence of untamed irresponsibility in playing games with the internet tools that have come to dominate our lives. He recognizes that big tech can be weaponized, and without conscious decision-makers at the helm of these companies — ones who are challenged to center social responsibility — they have the potential to cause widespread harm.

Yes, the ensuing battle between Apple and Facebook has a lot more to do with a social fix than actual privacy rights. In fact, Tim Cook is working his way toward bursting all of our little personal Truman Show bubbles, freeing us from the all-you-can-consume bias that has handicapped our political discourse, and stripped us of our ability to encounter spontaneous diversity, effectively breaking down our public square.

Democracy hinges on people needing a diversity of (accurate) information and data to make decisions about the future of our country. They need a lot of (fact-based) information from across the political spectrum to do that. What Facebook is doing is pushing people into reality bubbles through algorithms, further entrenching them in their political stances, and mining and selling that data to other companies to target us and reinforce those bubbles even more.

Facebook is essentially forcing us all into our very own mini versions of The Truman Show — trapped in our own bias bubbles, which supports their business model, which is rooted in making people pay them to “connect” with/to us.

Thought Catalog via Unsplash

The US political climate is evolving into tribalism on steroids, and it’s taken a foothold in our democracy. It’s become increasingly difficult for people, even (or perhaps especially) our elected officials, to see the rest of (read: diversity of) America. In our Facebook-engineered Truman Show, our individual experiences are myopic but all the sordid details of us are surveilled, harvested, dissected, and sold for profit to the highest bidder with little to no regard for the greater good. We’re monitored daily with hardly any room for unpredictability. And businesses and special interests are forced to pay to penetrate our bubbles by buying ads on our little personal Truman Shows.

Fixing Facebook is one step in restoring the much-needed diversity of fact-based information in our public discourse, and strengthening our democracy. If even a fellow tech titan can see that as just one major consequence, then it shouldn’t be hard for the rest of us to see it too.

To be fair, Cook himself isn’t advocating to abolish Facebook. In fact, he’s most critical of Facebook’s business model, and rightfully so. It’s the actual problem. And since Facebook hasn’t done the creative work of figuring out a better sustainability model, Cook is doing what he has no other choice to do and, frankly, only he has the outright capability to do, and that’s to imperil Facebook’s gravy boat. And, in the process, perhaps it might save our democracy.

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