Skip to main content
PBS Examines Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees on the protection of user data in Hart Building on April 10, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A two-part PBS "Frontline" examination, "The Facebook Dilemma," will examine the growing gulf between the richest web predators, their widespread exploitation of everyone and everything, and public perception and expectation of privacy and democracy. Part 1 airs Monday, 9-10 pm, and Part 2 follows Tuesday, 10-11 pm. In L.A., both will be on KOCE, aka PBS SoCal.

But just where will they go with this?

The story of Facebook began as a way to engage in interactive email with several people at once. As its capability expanded beyond that, it left MySpace in the digital dust. In no time, its popularity increased exponentially. At first, it seemed the theoretical monetary worth of social media was consistent with previous tech bubbles, and the only worry was it would collapse and you'd lose your circle of "friends" you had never actually met.

But it expanded beyond anything anyone imagined. It became powerful. Powerful in ways that defied the ability of its vast population of users to accept. Everyone was on Facebook, and no one was ready to see anything malevolent about it. That empowered it all the more.

But power brings hubris. Being drunk on power ultimately brings a painful hangover of hubris.

Facebook experienced that in a dramatic economic fall that followed a shocking revelation about its predatory business model. Yet, almost immediately, it seemed all was forgotten, even forgiven, about that fall from grace. It spoke to a less quantifiable power wielded by the social media giant.


If you've heard the questions posed in hearings when the heads of tech giants have testified, you know what boobs our lawmakers are when it comes to even a basic ability to comprehend the capability of the internet.

It remains to be seen if fits and starts of Congressional calls for accountability will reestablish privacy. If you've heard the questions posed in hearings when the heads of tech giants have testified, you know what boobs our lawmakers are when it comes to even a basic ability to comprehend the capability of the internet.

Given what we know about Facebook, that should raise acute concern whether the cyber age will inflict its profitable paradigm of predictive analytics on every aspect of our lives, structuring every scrap of news to produce a desired outcome.

Silicon Valley execs publicly brag about knowing what you want before you know you want it. Sometimes they add the boast of being able to make you believe it was your idea to want (or "need") it in the first place, even when it didn't exist until they created it to make you want it.

From support for the next war to disposable trendy fashion, social media embodies an unholy alliance of Madison Avenue, Wall Street, Silicone Valley, and the military-industrial-cybersecurity complex. It functions to empower those who profit from tastemaking, trendsetting, and building political characterizations. And building support for or opposition to anything where a buck can be made. It often functions amorally to produce trends at the level of slogans and their modern counterpart, social media memes disseminated in cyber echo chambers.


For starters, let's do a reality check. The entire premise of where social media has gone is ridiculous. Facebook -- a corporation that makes nothing, in terms of manufacturing or production -- has a theoretical monetary worth that exceeds the biggest manufacturers in the world. So, a web giant based on supplying nothing but addictive echo chambers creates soapboxes and town halls as ethereal constructs. That, in turn, validates individual beliefs that are, most often, half-baked and not dependent on facts. And the dissemination of such garbage is universally accepted as the anxiously anticipated content of undeniably influential "news feeds" of millions of people.

It's "News" that is never subjected to the scrutiny of the most basic tests of journalism. Yet its reach and power to persuade or gain unquestioned acceptance is without match since Guttenberg brought reuseable type to the printing press.

Moreover, that somehow gets the entire world to give our social cyber validator access to all our private information. And how it does that seems to be as simple as manipulating a universal and quite pathetic human need to find validation. If that occurred by reasoned intellectual exchange, a different dialog might be possible. But it's done by having others identify and agree with our sources of frustration, and our visceral impulses for what ought to be done about them, and therein to unleash our half-baked opinions. About everything.

Desire to partake in this phenomenon has been able to keep anyone from noticing (or at least caring) that Facebook is, in effect, a friendly-faced predator. One that, more than any other business in the world, is actively hunting, capturing, and selling everything it knows about you.

Let's be clear about that: installing Facebook in any of your devices introduces an infestation of spyware, and exempts it from being identified by your anti-malware protection program. Installing Facebook gives it access to your non-Facebook email and everything else you read, write, browse, access, create, photograph, manage, share, communicate, or keep in storage. Facebook is the most effective intelligence agency the world has ever seen, and it gives itself real-time updates on all your whims, beliefs, preferences, changing attitudes, outrages du jour, susceptibility to media narratives, characterizations of events, and turns of phrase. It has created wholly unprecedented capability to meticulously analyze your every thought and attitude -- and provides an all-inclusive data set for any in-house or client analyst to know how to influence and change all of them.

It does those things quite purposefully, to profitably enable other predators to exploit all your hidden weaknesses. Often that's to keep your credit cards maxed-out in support of runaway consumerism that mindlessly depletes the planet's resources. All while making itself and its infectious mob of exploiters and predators richer than anyone who actually makes anything.

There's another aspect entirely. It is the ability for individuals with extreme viewpoints to monetize their presences with their rants, even as social media helps them find and build susceptible audience. While enjoying the smokescreen of "somebody else's fault" for the outcome of the 2016 election, Facebook has laughed all the way to the bank about the distraction of the two-dozen overseas purchasers of political ads during the 2016 US election cycle. That small-change focus of attention has protected commercialized social media from scrutiny over the millions of exploitable user accounts marketable for extreme ideology.

Facebook's business model facilitates fact-free zones to house cyber public squares for ignorant intolerance and energizing hate groups; it profitably drives audience to them; and it profitably markets them to its other customers.


We hope these questions will be examined as central topics in the two-part PBS "Frontline" examination, "The Facebook Dilemma." But PBS hasn't been independent since Congress replaced public funding with corporate underwriting. We know that PBS and NPR have long been subject to protectionist vetting of content by current and prospective corporate underwriter-sponsors.

Wherever two hours of "Frontline" goes, all this bears far more scrutiny. Most likely, that will only come from concerted objective, take-no-prisoners, independent journalism.

The voices of journalists who actually are independent are gaining broader audiences across the spectrum of neglected and obfuscated topics. But the cadre of objective fact-miners still have miniscule impact and tiny investigative resources compared to the narratives of corporate mainstream media. And increasingly we see that "independent" may well be a cover for tribal. So every news consumer must look to whose nest is getting feathered and whose ox is getting gored.

I was among the first journalists to research and report an expose on Facebook nearly four years ago, back in 2015. In a two-part piece, I revealed that the social media giant's business model is based on marketing millions of snippets of purloined data and updates from continuously active surveillance -- all surveiled, collected, crunched, baked, distilled and compiled into sophisticated profiles and sold by subscription to myriad forms of corporate predators, political interests, and government "customers."

When I first revealed that Facebook was running a commercial intelligence agency engaged in universal spying on its users, there was immediate push back. Facebook blocked anyone from seeing the pages where the story appeared. They simultaneously banned me from their platform-- which is something I wear as a badge of honor.


That wasn't all. There was unexpected pushback. A large measure of resentment came from those addicted to Facebook. Revealing their cyber opiod was, it seems, regarded as a threat to maintaining their habit. Relatively few found the facts disturbing. Mostly, the hordes responded with either ridicule or resentment -- until Facebook erased all record that any such subject or commentary had ever existed.

Then life went on, disturbance forgotten, for those who check their Facebook pages every nine minutes to verify their validity as chief influencer of their own echo chamber.

We've learned since then that Facebook continually fine-tunes its propensity for addiction. It is cynically insidious. It preys on lizard-brain impulses and the most primal emotions to profitably create reinforcement loops.

They have perfected the message: Go back to Facebook for your fresh dose of validation. Everything else in life may be challenging and require you to tolerate uncooperative presences, annoying entities, disagreeable bosses, banal employees and blabby coworkers, along with unhelpful help-line voices, or people-in-the-way, in general.

But Facebook is always there, instantly ready to receive your rant and provide "friends" for the way you see things. "Friends" you'll never actually meet. But who will tell you you're brilliantly right and especially deserving of "likes!!!" with three exclamation points. "Friends" chosen by metadata analysis to be predisposed to the same half-baked conclusions at the center of your pet peeves.

Facebook provides a universe of "friends" who can be relied upon to tell you how right you are about, well, everything. Which makes you seek, and then need, more of the same fulfilling validation. Continuously.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Little is left to chance -- constantly adjusted research enables the model of addiction to self-correct. It adjusts like a cross between an amoeba and a chameleon, producing the right endorphins for a fierce happiness that needs to be fortified and reinforced by another dose, another Facebook experience.

God help anyone who threatens that. A Facebook addict is no different than any other addict when it comes to protecting the supplier of the euphoric experience.

It seems the unquestionable benevelonce of Big Brother from Orwell's "1984" -- the untouchable but essential presence who is too needed to be impersonal, who must know-all to protect you and keep you happy -- is just a few decades late.

Along the way we have discovered something George Orwell didn't anticipate: vehement tribalism is created and reinforced at the primal level. It's a function of the fragmentation of society into emphatic echo chambers that addictively validate their cyber dwellers as the only ones who can possibly be right, while anyone not in adherence is stupid or evil or both.

Perhaps that should have been predictable, given the crazy loyalties to college and professional sports. It tells a lot -- the easy adoption of the sense of "we" when talking about an athletic team of which the seeming participant is not a member. After all, hasn't the political bandwagon effect been around longer than the tailgate party in the stadium parking lot? And aren't both of them products of the need "to belong" and to see oneself as an essential part, a centrally indispensable figure, in -- something?

Whether playing a role that's truly influential, or indulging one as ethereal and impermanent as morning dew (beyond the hundreds of dollars spent on official team fan swag) people are responsive to and motivated by the fantasy that they are influential and their unique ideas matter. Even if an appropriate metaphor for the uniqueness of their creativity is the forty-dollar team shirt they bought -- with somebody else's name plastered across the back. Or becoming important by plastering a van with stickers to power a social media fantasy world of polarized political heroes and villains and real homemade bombs.

Little in the past year has been fortunate for our society. But there has been a growing presence of sources of disclosure of power-and-money alliances and their corrosive, disruptive, and destructive influences.

Along the way, one disclosure came as an incredible irony -- because it came from Facebook itself, through its own hubris. And we will watch "Frontline" with interest to see how they present this part of the story.


What finally produced widespread public interest in the hidden and predatory world of Facebook was its own effort to "out" one of its predatory clients. It came not from whistle-blowing to warn the public that someone was stealing your stuff. It came from Facebook yelling that a data thief was not sharing enough of the wealth for the data he got from Facebook.

That became a "limited hang out" disclosure that occasioned a particular kind of press characterization. It escaped mainstream media identification for the real nature and magnitude of what it was.

Facebook slut-shamed Cambridge Analytica. That predator of data / personal information was outed by Facebook for profitably exploiting Facebook users' personal data, beyond what it had paid Facebook to use. It seems the social media behemoth believed the public would take Facebook's side and help it to inflict costly crippling damage on the data-reselling customer it was branding as a freeloader.

Instead, there was a widespread if transitory gasp in response to collective shock of another kind altogether. It was the shock of some of the masses at having been "had," because Facebook had given itself access to all of everyone's private information.

ALL of it.

Just because you gave them the keys to your cyber home, cyber garage, cyber car, cyber storage space, cyber vacation home, cyber little black book and intimate diary, bank records, purchase history, fetishes, favorite positions as verified by your online cameras, everything you buy or peruse online, and all of your non-Facebook email messages, to and from anybody about anything -- it was, by god, an unwarranted invasion.

It was hard to tell which was more unbelievable -- Facebook's expectation that the world would be on their side when then pointed and yelled at the kid that stole their stolen lunch money, or the abject failure of mainstream media to report the full scope and magnitude of Facebook's immeasurable armada filled with pirated treasure.


I already knew that Facebook was laying claim to a right to profitably exploit anything and everything that is in any way connected to its users. That was from my own reporting nearly four years ago -- the reporting that got my banished from their platform.

Yet with all that's READILY available out there -- starting with Facebook's own claim of proprietary rights in its encyclopedic user agreement -- mainstream media has never reported the most salient information, the stuff that changes the way Facebook should be seen by its user-subject-datamines / marketing-crash-test-dummies / psychologically-conditioned-into-impulsive-consumers-of-anything-anybody-is-determined-to-sell / addicts, and how all this came to be in the first place.

That is the tale of how nerdy Mark Zuckerberg -- the kid who wanted to run a computer hookup operation at Harvard so he could get laid -- was able to go big-time with surveiling, compiling, analyzing, and selling EVERYBODY'S personal information, and in so doing, make himself a gazillionaire. His facilitating benefactor was DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.


That came to pass because the federal government was prohibited in a raft of post-Watergate laws from setting itself up with a massive mainframe computer that could know everything about everybody. Which is exactly why the Defense Department and US intelligence agencies made sure computing went into private, commercial hands. Because nothing prevents government from being a customer of the private sector it sets-up to, you guessed it, know everything about everybody.

Why all this is toxic to democracy and incompatible with individual rights is immediately obvious. Given Facebook's developed capacity to produce public perceptions and make those it influences believe they are leaders with original thoughts, it isn't a reach to know how support for the next war can be built. Or how anyone rich enough to buy everything necessary to galvanize public opinion can become a successful office-seeking politician. Or how any expenditure of public funds can be popularly demanded or denied.

All based on manipulated perceptions.

And right now, Facebook knows more about manipulating individual and group wants and desires, dislikes and revulsions, than any entity in human history.

There is a way to stop this. Since my experience four years ago, I have continued to take particular interest in latter-day efforts to disclose nefarious influences and to stop them.


We can all become advocates for a wholly new structure for Social Media, based on Open Source programming and operated as nonprofit user co-ops. All questions of data mining and availability of any user data, individual factoids or metadata compilations, would be wholly decided by the user co-op itself.

Copyrights on all content would then protect everything from illegal raiders, exploiters and predators. And new laws -- US, EU (which has already taken the lead) and other international bodies -- should proscribe harshly expensive penalties for violators, with cyber-ban "e-death sentences" able to get rid of predators, for good.

Along the way, we must reestablish Net Neutrality to assure equal-opportunity access to all. We must prohibit corporate gatekeepers from running the internet as a toll road that's too expensive for anyone but themselves. And assure they cannot make intrusive access to our devices and data a condition of allowing us to get on the web. Think of that like figuratively demanding to plant a microphone in the car to allow us to get on the information superhighway.

These proposals are consistent with the values of the web as a cross between a post office and a public library. Public access to, with scrupulous protection of, private messaging and information, and universal access to knowledge and information without exploitation. If content providers need to be paid for access to what they provide, that must not allow them to infest us with their monitoring presence, either.

Pretty simplistic solution. Certainly a different vision than the reality we face today.


The two-part PBS "Frontline" examination of Facebook airs over two nights, Monday and Tuesday. Schedule is at the top.

Larry Wines