Facebook's Ideological Imperialism

Paul Sakuma/AP File Photo

Andrew Bosworth’s memo may seem insidious, but its logic used to be very popular.

It’s mostly forgotten now, but for a time, expanding the reach of social networks—making Facebook, Twitter, and others like it as large as possible—was an avowed foreign-policy goal of the United States. That is, at least, what the secretary of state said in the early days of this decade, in a speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

“New technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does,” Hillary Clinton said. “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.”

It was a declaration of purpose for the young Obama administration, and Clinton backed it up with money. The State Department would fund social networks around the world, she said, and it would help develop software that dissidents could use to get around online censorship. But she also framed the goal as part of something larger. On the eve of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt articulated “four essential human freedoms” to which all people are entitled: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.

Now, Clinton introduced a fifth. “The freedom to connect,” she said, “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate.”

“Once you’re on the internet,” she added, “you don’t need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society.”

It is funny that she should mention tycoons: That same morning, the Supreme Court announced its Citizens United decision, which struck down many existing campaign-finance laws. But even without that context, the speech seems poignant. It’s not that Clinton comes off as starry-eyed—she describes, frequently and forcefully, how the internet can be used to oppress and weaken civil society—but that she was ignorant of the future. As she spoke, the Arab Spring still lay nearly a year ahead. The Syrian Civil War and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine loomed even more distantly. So too did Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election—a defeat fueled by the chaos of those same social networks, to a tycoon who (to borrow a phrase) wound up having a huge impact on society.

I thought of Clinton’s speech as I read a memo by the Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, published Thursday by BuzzFeed. Bosworth argues that Facebook takes extraordinary steps to fuel its own growth—and that these steps are worth it in the name of connection. The memo was first posted in an internal company forum in June 2016.

“We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified,” Bosworth writes. “All the questionable contact-importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China someday. All of it.”

“That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies,” he says in another section. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

In a statement, Bosworth said that he was just trying to get people going. “It was intended to be provocative,” he said in a tweet. “I don’t agree with the post today and I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it.”

My colleague Conor Friedersdorf has argued that Bosworth’s frankness is praiseworthy, that more C-suiters should speak honestly about what drives their company’s success. Perhaps so. But it also reveals something of the culture of Facebook—and what will become of that culture, and the software it produces, if the company grows increasingly less popular.

The memo contains several striking portions on its own. “All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends”: This is the first time I can remember any executive seeming to admit that Facebook sometimes uses weasel words to hide privacy settings. After nearly every Facebook privacy debacle, Mark Zuckerberg promises to make privacy settings easier to find and use. Bosworth’s memo suggests there’s a reason why Zuckerberg has to keep making this promise.

It is also the first time I can remember Facebook executives admitting that they will use power ruthlessly and that they do not always abide by some sense of goodwill toward “the community” they ceaselessly invoke. The work we will likely have to do in China someday. The most direct interpretation is that Facebook is ready to act as a tool of China’s autocrats in order to protect its market share—or at least that Bosworth is talking himself into doing so.

Facebook is sometimes accused of a kind of corporate imperialism, but Bosworth’s memo speaks more of an ideological imperialism. We will do these ugly things, because our cause is just—this is the cry of imperial ideologues throughout time. We can cut Bosworth slack and say that this is part of why he wrote the memo the way he did. He even reportedly titled it “The Ugly.”

But what was that idea? It is the same principle that guides Clinton’s speech: the importance of connection. In the wake of the Iraq War and the Great Recession, with both the economy and the cause of democracy promotion in tatters, only the technology industry seemed ready with a trustworthy civic rallying cry. Only it produced an acceptable secular goal for the country: connection. The word was blissfully content-free—what does it mean to connect, exactly? No wonder Facebook, Google, and the other tech companies seemed to present an unalloyed good for some years; no wonder “net neutrality” became one of the last bipartisan causes. Facebook, an agile private company, seemed poised to usher in the global village in a way that the United States, a lugubrious republic, never could. If it wasn’t Facebook’s job to save global liberalism, it sure seemed like it was.

That dream is now dead. Building the global public square was one thing—but maintaining it required far more work than Facebook could commit to. It is an online photo album and news aggregator, powerful enough to destroy whole industries, but so weak that it cannot keep fake news and malicious bots off its platform. And this isn’t just Facebook’s fault: The first election where one candidate used Twitter like a Twitter user was also one of the most acrimonious in decades.

I have no idea what the death of that ideal means for Facebook, the company. Executives will no doubt keep writing memos and giving interviews that seem more and more out of touch with public vision. But surely the evacuation of Facebook is driving this current news cycle, too. The internet was supposed to bring about the a borderless, liberalized world. Its failure to do so—in fact, its contribution to the most perilously anti-liberal moment in decades—is terrifying. But it is petrifying to consider that liberalism must be at fault. So Facebook takes the heat.