Faustian Facebook

Who exactly is responsible for indoctrinating the American people with the “fake news” that has become a fixture America’s Facebook feeds? Since the election to the presidency of President-Electoral Donald Trump, many Big Media pundits have blamed for the outcome (in part) Facebook and its sudden rise this election cycle as a news outlet. As has been often said, Facebook has become a medium for the spread of ‘fake news:’ factually incorrect headlines and stories shared and read across Facebook that are created for solely capitalistic purposes (rather than for any particular isomorphism to the truth). These pundits have been blaming Facebook’s ‘echo chamber’ for the proliferation of false information; however, Facebook is not an echo chamber, it is our slave. These headlines have (somewhat) undermined our democratic system.

A citizen, in order to correctly vote their conscience, has to nd factual information so that they may make a valid inference from their preferences to a candidate. This is why trustworthy journalism is so deeply integral to a democracy. Yet, the spread of fake news has thrown a wrench into this system; now, with access to false and misleading information, the American citizen is able to unknowingly cast a vote incongruous to their preferences. This is where Facebook comes in. It offers both true and false information, while incentivizing this false information to the user, precisely because the viewer has control over what they see on their feed and because false information appeals to our immediate, lower desires. Facebook is our slave in the sense that we have absolute control over what we see on our Facebook feed. You can unfriend this person, get rid of that headline, follow this news source and not that one, block information, and have advertisements and websites appear tailored-made by Facebook’s algorithms. As irony would have it, you are presented with only articles from pages that you (or your ‘friends’) ‘Like’. That is, in order to get a certain page’s information you must already ‘Like’ it. The capitalist incentive for Facebook to make money (by selling ads) forces Facebook to show you things you already like. Things that comfort you. Nothing like a stale, sterile army bed. I know you remember that cold sheet, firm pillow, and pack of American bedsprings.

As Rousseau said, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” This is the fundamental tenet of positive liberty. Positive liberty is the idea that freedom from oneself can be attained by means of a contract. The thought is that man can be enslaved to their lower, non-rationally endorsed desires. That is, one can be unfree in the sense that one’s lower desires prevent one achieving one’s long-term, rationally endorsed desires.

Take Mike, who often frequents the bar. Mike tells his friend and bartender Tom to take his car keys when Mike gets to the bar. Later in the night, once Mike has had one too many and irrationally wants to drive home, Tom refuses to return the keys. So, Mike takes a cab. In this way, Mike is freed from himself, from his lower, non-rational desire for ease of transport. Accordingly, Mike has both lower-order, immediate desires and higher order, rationally endorsed desires. When he is enslaved it is to the former.

Yet, Mike is able to achieve his long-term goal (to not break the law) because of the contract he entered with Tom. In the case of Facebook, this long-term desire is to be a properly functioning member of a democracy, to vote for the candidate that aligns with your preferences, and this requires access to factually correct information. We must enter a contract with trustworthy journalism to ensure that we have real information on which to correctly vote our preferences.

But positive liberty can also be inverted. The contract we just saw Mike enter can be flipped such that Mike is further enslaved to himself. We can see this in Goethe’s Faust. Faust wants to attain innite knowledge through science (maybe?) and signs a contract with the devil, Mephistopheles, so that he may achieve this goal. Faust will give his soul to Mephistopheles upon dying, and in exchange Mephistopheles will do (through magical powers) whatever Faust wants while Faust is alive. In essence, Mephistopheles will be Faust’s slave. However, Faust does not find this scientic knowledge. Rather he ends up succumbing to his base desires, impregnating Gretchen(?) and causing the death of her relatives. Mephistopheles is Faust’s slave, yet he is the slave through whom Faust becomes enslaved (to himself). Faust cannot complete his long-term goal because his lower desires overtake him, and his slave enables these lower desires. It is exactly the sort of slavery Rousseau diagnoses.1

The ability Facebook presents it user creates the same effect. As users, we may tailor Face- book to show us whatever we want, and for the most part this consists of images, videos, and headlines that are immediately pleasing. And an immediate pleasure has a tendency to con- 

form to a lower and base desire, something that does not align with our rational interests. We can force our news feed to consist of solely people we like, videos of food that appease our gluttonous appetites, images of animals and pleasing headlines that comfort us. Herein the problem lies. We have been given the power to fulll our immediate and base desire for com- fort by tailoring the news we receive to tell us only things we want to hear, true or false. So, our news becomes those things which please and comfort, not which inform. And as we have seen, absolute control over the delivery of one’s lower desires can lead to enslavement (of oneself to one’s self). Our gluttonous appetite for news of food and animals and lies has deprived of us of our constitutive democratic quality: the right to vote with agency. We vote based on information, and this information becomes skewed by misinformation and or appetites, and then we do not vote based on our preferences, for we are voting on misinformation.

Is this why we have a rise in conspiratorial thinking? Does the world seem more appealing to our lower desire for comfort when it can be explained by the stars or shady men behind the Hollywood walls? Possibly, but the upshot from the disintegration of trustworthy journalism has enabled the conspiratorial and base American mind. Isaiah Berlin insists that positive liberty need not be paternalistic. Alex Jones yells like my father. Facebook is a dili- gent slave and has given us tremendous power (possibly even enough to drain a swamp clean), but by doing so it has enslaved us to ourselves and undercut our democracy. So, Facebook must be the goateed devil, Mephistopheles: my Oaxacan goatee I grew to celebrate my grandfather’s funeral, those four weeks. We can blame Shane Smith for secretly dosing his interns with LSD2, and we can blame Zuckerberg and our anything-machines3 for undermining our agency. It seems that what it is to be a human (our freedom, our most-constitutive quality concerning the constitution) is incompossible with the Internet in general (and its incentivized depravity).

Mephistopheles, is it fake news or Internet drugs or fake Persian rugs? Are you Alex Jones and the conspiratorial complex— the investigation into the Climate Change Hoax, as in, the white establishment’s fear. Is this you?

Have we reached a singularity of Big Media pundits and webcam truthers? Our enslavement to fake news has left us in a hole, down a pit, without a bridge, and with a gap. This is the time of gluttonous desires: gluttonous chains in which we were not born. Desires for comfort, reinforcing information, a conspiracy, and the ‘truth’.

Yet, now enslaved, how are we supposed to ever truly understand Ruby Ridge? Connect the Waco Siege to the four corners of the American West (i.e., the Oklahoma City Bombing, i.e., W.A.C.O. as acronym for Washington, Arkansas, California, Oklahoma)? When all we can see are Facebook videos of our shy ex-girlfriend Concealed Carry. I miss her: my woman, my gun, my freedom. 

 

1 I would like to thank Christophe Porot [Harvard University] for this idea.

2 I would like to thank Noah Grossman for this headline.

3 I would like to thank David Kurlander for this term.