Praca do Comercio, Lisbon, 17/03/2020 (image source: space.com)

Last year Mark Zuckerberg described Facebook as “the digital equivalent of a town square”.

At first sight, it makes sense:

Is Facebook not a place where the public gather? Is the scroll not the digital equivalent of the stroll? Is a troll not a drunk looking for a fight?

The recent experience of walking through an empty city square — evacuated as a result of Covid-19 — offered a real-world experience of Facebook’s town square. An entire square seen through your eyes only. If you were to shout, your voice would echo. A city square to yourself.

The Facebook feed, which Zuckerberg specifically compares to a town square, is unique for each of Facebook’s 2.6 billion active users. No one can see what you see — we each inhibit our very own town square. Each one is algorithmically generated to meet your individual personal needs, and to respond to your desires and fears.

To determine what you want from your town square, Facebook watches you. Every click and type is recorded. This personal surveillance informs everything you encounter there. The people, the opinions, the videos, the groups, the memes, the links, the advertisements — with one primary objective: to keep you there. As you stroll Facebook’s “digital equivalent of a town square” an infinite array of cameras follow your every step, glance and word — telling the billboards what to show you, the shops what to sell you, and the people what to tell you — as they transform before your eyes.

To receive your own town square, you must first sign a contract: Facebook grants you access to its private property, its town squares, in exchange for exclusive rights to all of the data you generate while strolling there, and the profits they make from selling it. Shoshana Zuboff calls this system “surveillance capitalism” — an economic model which “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data” for the purpose of creating “prediction products”. The sponsored content you encounter scrolling through your Facebook feed is an example of a prediction product. This is how Facebook pays for the upkeep of those 2.6 billion town squares, with enough left over to make it one of the most valuable companies in the world.

Jaron Lanier calls these digital squares “antigoras” — the opposite of the Greek agora, where the public would gather to discuss the social and political. Instead:

“An antigora feels like an agora but is actually more like what skinner would do with a panopticon. An antigora is usually controlled by a corporation in California or China. Those who enter are addressed as if they are conquering liberators. “Here is your zone of free speech. Share!” What actually happens is that those in the antigora are observed so well that information asymmetry arises. Those who stroll the antigora submit to surveillance, scrutiny, and manipulation; more lab rats than freedom fighters.” — Jaron Lanier (2017), ‘Why is the City Square Square?’ in SOM Thinkers The Future of Public Space

The internet does need town squares — genuine agoras. Places where publics share the same space on equal terms; with personal responsibility, shared reference points, and free of individual manipulation, surveillance and exploitation. Facebook is not that. It’s a self-publishing corporation; the most profitable in history.

So why does Facebook call up the metaphor of a town square?

A square is not only a functional space — to meet, relax, lunch, shop — but also a symbolic space. The public square plays the role a cathedral once did. Not only a place where the community comes together, but where our shared ideals are expressed. In the cathedral, these were Christian ideals of devotion and piety. In our squares, it’s the ideal of individual freedom. It is for this reason that we protest, bring down statues, and organise speeches in public squares. If a state suppresses our freedom of speech in these spaces then cries of “censorship!”, “totalitarian!”, or even “facist!” will follow.

If Facebook argues that it is the digital equivalent of a town square, then it can also argue that its online spaces must also be protected from state intervention. This is why Zuckerberg argues that Facebook should play only a limited role in moderating content published on its platform; stating that it “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online” — just as governments shouldn’t be.

By using the town square metaphor, Zuckerberg wants to convince us that Facebook must treat its feeds as a democratic state treats its public squares. When he does that, he exempts himself from the responsibility that any newspaper has over the content vehiculated on their pages and any company has over the actions enacted inside their premises. Zuckerberg wants the feed to be treated like the town square, and Facebook to be treated like the polis, to claim for his company the protections that public spaces have. The problem is that Facebook is a company, and their feed is not a public square.

As Covid-19 is reminding us of the role our real public spaces play, it is also showing us the consequences of treating Facebook as their “digital equivalent”. A recent peer-reviewed study found “a strong positive relationship between use of social media platforms as sources of knowledge about Covid-19 and holding one or more conspiracy beliefs”. In an open letter signed by 143 scientists (including 68 funded by Facebook) they urged the company “to consider stricter policies on misinformation and incendiary language that harms people or groups of people, especially in our current climate that is grappling with racial injustice.”

Societies, and their public squares, exist to protect us from harm — from viruses, but also from individuals and corporations. Facebook, and its feeds, exist to extract value from its users — with no such responsibilities for public health or wellbeing. Responding to the pandemic, governments around the world evacuated their public spaces at the expense of their economies, while Facebook’s feeds undermined these efforts by spreading misinformation as their profits increased. This is why societies must no longer treat Facebook as a town square — a public space, but must instead recognise it for what it is — a company, which must be regulated to protect us from harm.

Artist creating public art installations in cities around the world matthewrosier.com

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