For the last three years, the debate over whether Facebook is a media company has been the biggest tease in media circles surrounding Silicon Valley. Despite Facebook’s repeated denials it’s a media company, journalists tried to pin Facebook with some of its biggest industry concerns like declining online revenue and, more recently, the propagation of fake news.
Following the backlash on Facebook’s lack of enforcement against fake news during the election season, Zuckerberg relented last December that it is a media company of sorts—just not a traditional one like the San Francisco Examiner. But Zuckerberg’s conditional admission was too little, too late. And thanks to his lateness, the media company discussion is mercifully dead but opens up a new, more troubling question: Is Facebook a political company?
Before the election, Facebook has gone through painstaking lengths to brand itself as an impartial company that respects and values both sides of the spectrum. Last May, Zuckerberg hosted several prominent conservative media figures to his Facebook campus to discuss allegations that Facebook routinely censored conservative news. Two months later, Zuckerberg posted a huge “Black Lives Matter” sign in its campus.
Facebook continued to play both sides after the election. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — a noted Democratic donor — and board member Peter Thiel flanked then-President-elect Donald Trump at a tech summit in Trump Tower in December. Facebook this week signed an amicus brief with 96 other tech companies that argued Trump’s immigration ban was unconstitutional.
Despite its supposed neutrality, Facebook has been very active in its political dealings. In a politically hypercharged climate, Facebook has been the teflon man of Silicon Valley, deflecting any attempts of labeling the company left-wing or right-wing. But apoliticalness now is seen as a political statement of its own, and Facebook’s next political move may be choosing where it clearly stands in its politics.
Since its early days in the ’90s, Silicon Valley collectively touted itself as apolitical or even above politics. But in the last two months, that line of thought has been crumbling on itself. Unlike Facebook, other large Silicon Valley companies like Google, Airbnb and Amazon entrenched itself in the anti-Trump column, allowing its employees to protest or running Super Bowl commercials which threw shade at Trump’s ban.
Corporations taking political sides are rare but not unusual, especially in Silicon Valley. But what’s unprecedented is that a rising proportion of consumers are choosing their brand preferences based on their politics. Uber was a key scapegoat of this phenomenon, when liberal activists pinned Uber as pro-Trump for advertising its services at JFK Airport during a New York City taxi union’s anti-Trump strike. After more than 200,000 people deleted their accounts and rival Lyft beat Uber in app downloads for the first time ever, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down from Trump’s economic advisory team.
If Facebook musters the courage to join its tech brethrens in the anti-Trump resistance, its divorce will be extremely messy. Whereas all other social media platforms have a younger, more urban base that allows leverage to shift in its political stance, Facebook is truly ubiquitous across all American demographics. Sixty-two percent of Americans over the age of 65 used Facebook, and rural and urban Facebook users were identical at 81 percent, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study. For many Trump voters, Facebook is the only social media platform they use.
With a much older, more conservative user base than other social media platforms, Facebook also evolved into a powerful tool for grassroots conservative media. Conservative activists have been using Facebook Live to create their mini-Fox News shows to great success. Before Trump pulled an upset election win, Trump was reportedly working on creating a “Trump TV” Facebook show as a contingency plan to his election loss.
For one moment, let’s ignore all of Facebook’s boardroom politics and its technological influence on the media and focus solely on the interpersonal effects Facebook has had on our lives. How many times have we muted, blocked or unfriended family and friends because of their political views? Political arguments on comment sections and the subsequent blockade of friends are a near-universal experience for Facebook users. When politics remain a central facet in the Facebook experience, is it too far-fetched to call Facebook a political company?
With nearly two billion daily users worldwide, Facebook perhaps can be amorphous and universal, like air or water, where even Trump can’t shake them off. But four years with the current president is a long time.
In his first three weeks, Trump has already blasted companies like Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s clothing label or Boeing about the cost for Air Force One. When Trump turns his crosshairs on Facebook, can they weasel out once more?
The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at email@example.com.