With a user base of nearly one third of the global population, Facebook is the largest social networking platform on the internet. Guided by their corporate manifesto of constructing a more connected and open world, Facebook connects individuals across digital space through their online profiles; however, just how open is Facebook itself? The documentary Facebookistan attempts to answer this question through the deconstruction of the company’s corporate mission, information privacy policies and content moderation policies. Also examined are Facebook’s nebulous transparency policies and the growing tension between Facebook and government institutions, and activists and their users over their activities.
Facebookistan begins by introducing the viewer the ambiguous — and often contradictory — nature of Facebook’s activities; notably, with respect to its privacy policies and content moderation practices. This section delineates the struggle of Peter Knudsen, a disenfranchised author who has been subject to Facebook’s content moderation practices. The removal of Knudsen’s work — which features artistic depictions of nudity — while arguably pornographic content is permitted on the platform demonstrate inconsistencies in Facebook’s content policies. Digital activist Rebecca Mackinnon remarks that Facebook’s platform rules are vague, and that their enforcement of these rules is often arbitrary. The viewer is then introduced to Max Schrems, a PhD student privacy law conducting research into Facebook’s information privacy practices. Schrems demonstrates the scope of user information retained by the company – which includes data not consciously shared or previously deleted. He then accounts the difficulty in reaching out to Facebook about these policies; their lack of transparency in this matter a clear violation of European privacy laws.
The documentary then pivots to an examination of the consequences Facebook’s real-name policy in relation to the censorship of cultural groups and expression of identity in digital space . Sister Roma, a community leader of the Drag Queen community, reveals the conflict her community has had with Facebook over these policies. Despite associating strongly with their Drag personas as a means of cultural expression, Facebook forces members of the community — just as it does all users — to use their real names on their platform. She then accounts Facebook’s dishonesty in addressing user concerns, only to once again force them to use their real-names. Mackinnon and other activists argue that Facebook’s name policy endangers the lives of individuals in repressive regimes: the attachment of their real-name to unsavory political opinions or cultural identities inviting persecution or violence. In response individuals on the platform censor themselves. The film concludes this chapter with a demonstration of its lack of transparency with regards to censorship activities. Reporters wishing to reach out to Facebook on the matter are blocked at every step by the firm’s internal bureaucracy.
Facebookistan then shifts focus towards the Facebook’s content moderation practices; notably, the firm’s arbitrary interpretation of its own content rules to suit political, cultural, or monetary interests. Facebook’s positive recruitment messaging is directly juxtaposed against the dismal working conditions of its moderators – many of whom frequently exposed to violent imagery. Facebook gives its moderators minimal time to evaluate content, and sweeping discretion to do so as they see fit in accordance of their rules. Political activists in repressive regimes account how Facebook frequently censors their activities in favor of their ruling parties. Turkish activist Muge Yamanyilmaz remarks that if individuals want to continue to have a voice on Facebook, they must actively censor themselves – they must adapt to the platform, or attract its retaliation. Mackinnon then argues that since Facebook is a vital mode of communication in digital space, it has a social responsibility in ensuring a fair system of justice. The system is completely dysfunctional and lacks accountability.
The final segment of Facebookistan devotes itself to Facebook’s data collection activities and relationship with government institutions. Conceptual artist Paolo Cirio describes his experiences with Facebook’s unscrupulous sharing of personal information with partners for monetary benefit. He comments on how content uploaded to Facebook ceases to be the property of the user – it is Facebook’s property to do with as they wish. Max Schrems then presents the viewer with his research regarding shadow profiles, vast data models consisting of all data directly or indirectly collected about the user. The viewer is then presented with alternating accounts of the high acuity of predictions that can be made with this information, including one’s sexual orientation. The film then addresses how Facebook acts to subvert government institutions to achieve unfettered access to the information of citizens. This topic is explored through the cozy relationship Facebook has in funding government infrastructure projects, and the reluctance of government officials to hold the organization accountable for their actions. Facebook’s goal is to achieve a monopoly over the data of citizens. Facebookistan ends with an account of a crackdown on Facebook’s privacy practices in Europe, implying that things may be beginning to change.
What is the film about?
Before dissecting the cultural meaning behind Facebookistan, it is first necessary to examine the work’s social context. Over the past decade the proliferation of mobile devices and social media platforms have had a profound influence on modes of communication and expression. With the press of a button a button, individuals can instantly connect with their peers or share their most intimate details across digital space. This has enabled users of social media to connect with old acquaintances, or network with strangers around shared cultural meaning. Moreover, mobile devices provide the means of constant connection with online profiles and social networks. Through this superimposing of the digital self onto day-to-day life, the distinction between public and private space has become irreparably obscured. This has however, not been without consequence. Platform owners wield a tremendous amount of power in modern society; specifically, with respect to the mediation of cultural forms and expression of social identity in digital space. Facebookistan is fundamentally about the nation-state like influence that social media companies wield over daily life and the era of technocratic authoritarianism that has emerged out of it. Technology companies such as Facebook feature absolute — often incredibly vague — rules of what content is acceptable on their platforms – their enforcement of which is arbitrary, as suits their immediate political or economic interests. Furthermore, social media platforms collect vast quantities of user information to do with as they please; the consent of the user is dubious at best. To evade accountability to their users, technology companies intentionally obscure their activities through lack of transparency and bureaucratic red-tape. Lastly, platform owners actively engage in deception towards their users, and attempt to subvert government institutions to support their interests. The message of Facebookistan is thus a warning about the authoritarian control that technology companies have come exert on daily life across digital space.
Facebookistan as Critique of Popular Culture
A defining feature of contemporary society is the proficiency in which individuals utilize advances in mobile and information technologies in tandem with traditional modes of performance of self. The modern media landscape is permeated with messaging and symbols, leaving individuals with a skepticism of information and a mastery in redefining their digital personas in reflection of these evolving cultural artifacts. Driven by their desire for connection and social bonds, individuals offer themselves willing to the surveillance apparatuses that have been constructed by social media companies; they feel secure in their comfort in navigating digital space. Facebookistan provides a popular critique of the obliviousness in which people — notably among those born in the internet age — surrender themselves to technology companies, notably, with regards to social media platforms. To this end, the documentary aims to persuade the viewer to critically reflect on their own false sense of security in relying on these platforms for their performance of self.
Facebookistan accomplishes this by illustrating the scope in which social media platforms retain user information, the disturbing acuity in which predictions about the user can be made with this information, and the potential for this sensitive data to be used for the political or monetary benefit of the platform owner. In addition, it also shows the capacity for these organizations to censor their digital expression of self, as they see fit, without any transparency or accountability. Thus, Facebookistan is fundamentally a critique about the obliviousness in which contemporary society consumes social media.
Facebookistan is effective in its efforts to persuade the audience to reflect on their engagement with social media. In demonstrating the scope in which personal information is collected, and the unsettling intimacy in which predictions can be made with this data, the viewer must come to terms with the notion that social media platforms probe far deeper into their social lives than they were previously privy to. More importantly however, the must also now acknowledge the fact that technology companies know far more about them than they are likely comfortable sharing. Case examples analyzed in the film involving Facebook’s content moderation activities are particularly unsettling to the viewer; social media companies have amassed a tremendous amount of power in the mediation of their digital selves. The viewer comes to comprehend the scope in which technology companies may censor the performance of their digital identities, as suits their interests, without any accountability or transparency. Whether the viewers agree fully with the arguments of the film is inconsequential, in being brought to grapple with these ideas they are forced to reflect on the blind faith in which they previously submitted themselves to these platforms. Consequently, they will never consume with social media in quite the same way. For these reasons, Facebookistan is highly effective in its persuasion of the viewer to evaluate their sense of security in their engagement with social media.
How the Film Could Have Been Improved
Although Facebookistan is effective in its efforts to invite audience reflection on their engagement with social media, there are some areas of the film that could use improvement. The documentary focuses heavily on the information collection apparatus, content enforcement activities, and lack of accountability and transparency of these platforms. However, Facebookistan does not sufficiently explore the implications of the sharing of personal information with third parties. In sharing personal information with their partners — whether their users are aware of the fact or not — social media organizations such as Facebook exposed their users to remarkable privacy and security risks. While large platforms such as Facebook may adhere to strict security assurances in preventing unauthorized access of sensitive user information, partners with whom they share this data frequently provide no such guarantees. One need only consider the example of the various data leaks that have occurred through third part applications hosted by Facebook on their platform; their partners have a proven history of handling private user information across insecure channels. Moreover, it is often the case that these partners misuse this information for their own purposes. For example, Cambridge Analytica’s use of improperly collected Facebook data in its election micro-targeting campaigns. These security and privacy concerns are compounded by the use of shadow profiles by social media companies – far more information than the user has consciously shared may be used without their consent or exposed to the public should it be leaked. Therefore, although Facebookistan is effective in inviting the audience to reflect on their use of social media, it could have better addressed security and privacy implications of the sharing of user information.
Over the past decade mobile technology and social media have profoundly influences social modes of communication and expression. These platforms have enabled individuals to connect with acquaintances, or network with complete strangers around shared cultural values; they have also provided a means of constant connection with online profiles and social networks. This superimposing of the digital onto day-to-day life has eroded the distinction between public and private space, but it has also given technology companies a tremendous amount of power in mediating cultural forms. Facebookistan seeks to explore this near authoritarian power that social media platforms project into day-to-day life. It accomplishes this through critique of the blind obliviousness in which individuals consume social media. Facebookistan is highly effective in its efforts to invite critical reflection of social media reliance. This is achieved by deconstructing the disturbing scope of the information collected by these platforms, their lack of accountability and transparency, and their questionable content moderation practices. However, the film fails to adequately explore important security and privacy concerns associated with how these platforms share sensitive information with third parties. Despite its flaws, Facebookistan offers a compelling examination of the social implications of the dominance of large technology companies in mediating contemporary cultural meaning.