It’s not breaking news to state that over the last few years, perhaps a decade or so, we have seen one of the most contentious social environments. This is being exacerbated, at the moment, by Trump’s denial of a Biden presidential victory.
Far-reaching theories, grainy images and out-of-context videos are spreading like wildfire on all social media platforms, which is putting those platforms in a particularly tight position: how do you position yourself as a passive platform that allows people free speech, but at the same time stop dangerous disinformation?
These platforms’ attempts to find that balance between not-too-passive and not-too-active is causing all sides to be unhappy. By and large, the right side is screaming that Facebook, the biggest social media target, is censoring free speech, while the left is complaining that Facebook is actually allowing hate speech to proliferate.
In looking for that balance, Facebook has blocked various QAnon, Proud Boys and StoptheSteal groups, thereby enraging users enough to slowly migrate over to the alternative social media platform MeWe. In fact, over the last few weeks, this migration has propelled the alt-social platform to the #1 spot on iOS for social networks:
I spent a few weeks on MeWe, joining the most maligned QAnon and StoptheSteal groups, and it’s provided me with a few insights. Far from being just a “right-wing echo chamber,” as many commentators are proposing, MeWe is being analyzed in a completely wrong way. I’d put forth something that you probably won’t be hearing elsewhere at the moment: not only is it OK for your right-wing uncle to join MeWe – you should absolutely go with him, right now.
I’ll explain in a minute.
Facebook’s moderation problem
Before we get into that, let’s take a minute to appreciate Facebook’s dilemma.
Being what it is, Facebook really could not allow fringe groups to continue stoking fear and instigating violence. Also being what it is, Facebook really doesn’t want to draw attention to itself as an active participant in the discussions.
Certainly, the reason that Facebook would want to position itself as a passive platform – an unseen floor or ground upon which the performers stand and perform – is to deflect attention away from its data-gathering-for-ads business model. After all, who could possibly blame the wooden stage for any controversial play being performed on it?
But Facebook is facing issues that are in essence universal, philosophical debates: what is truth, is it knowable, are we able to communicate it effectively, and how do we verify that knowledge when it is communicated? It’s the epistemological crisis – the debate about truth, belief and opinion – that Obama referenced in his interview with the Atlantic when he said:
“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition, our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”
Due to the fact that everything is online now, it doesn’t much matter that Obama was discussing this epistemological crisis in terms of American democracy. It is not separate from the crisis that social media platforms are facing when parties cannot even agree that the Earth is round (ok, spherical). How then can they agree on whether or not a presidential election, which was contested months before it even began, was held in an appropriate and legal manner?
The dilemma that Facebook faces is that, if it doesn’t step in, it’s the bad guy. But if Facebook does step in, it’s also the bad guy.
This particular problem, then, isn’t really a Facebook or Twitter problem. It’s a social problem. It’s a UK-Brexit problem, a US-Trump problem, an EU-populism problem, a Brazil-Bolsonaro problem, and it’s really spreading far and wide across the world. In fact, when early-internet advocates were fantasizing about how fast information would spread, and how enlightened our society would be, they didn’t really consider the Faustian twist: that this “information” would in fact be disinformation and that “enlightened” would be traded for “divided.”
But again, this isn’t Facebook’s fault. There’s something even worse they are to blame for.
Facebook’s endless data hunger is the real danger
The epistemological crisis that’s taking place on Facebook is not the reason you should abandon Facebook for MeWe.
The reason, instead, is that Facebook is actually an evil corporation that sucks as much data from people’s lives as possible in order to more effectively target them with ads. At least, this is in terms of “evil” that I’ll define here as “devoid of any humanity or compassion.”
Facebook does not care for our human struggles – it only cares, like any good corporation, for its bottom line. That is the nature of corporations, yes. But Facebook’s true evil is that it positions itself as providing a free, society-building service when in fact the opposite is true. I mentioned this before, and I’ll restate it here:
“Facebook is a symbol – and because of its size, the apex – of the very worst of Silicon Valley culture. It’s a megacorporation led by a sheltered man-child ostensibly stuck in god mode, with no one around to shake him from his delusion – a delusion concentrated on a singular lie: that he is helping people, and that people need Facebook.”
The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma showed how Facebook’s algorithm works to get people more engaged, more hooked, and more willing to provide more data so that it can grow its ad revenue business.
According to Facebook’s 2019 full-year results, the company made $70.7 billion last year. About 98.5% of that – $69.7 billion – came from advertising alone. This represents a whopping 27% increase over the previous year. The first three quarters of 2020 alone have already amassed Facebook $57 billion ($1 billion more than its entire 2018 revenue), and the fourth quarter is usually its most lucrative.
This ad business is Facebook’s entire engine, and the data that Facebook mines from us is the fuel that makes the engine run. Whatever the gravity of the social or human crises that we face are, it isn’t more important or mouth-watering to Facebook and its investors than the estimated $85 billion it’s supposed to make this year.
MeWe is a better platform
In the article I wrote last year, I considered three ways in which we could “end” (limit, change or destroy) Facebook, including government regulation, a massive user exodus, and a competing platform. Of the three, I chose the last as the most likely solution, since it is based on capitalism.
Now, one year later, I’m of the same opinion, which is where MeWe comes into play.
MeWe is the brainchild of Mark Weinstein, an entrepreneur who positions himself as one of the creators of social media as a concept. The platform is also being advised by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, otherwise known as the inventor of the internet.
In fact, MeWe’s own genesis was inspired in part by Zuckerberg’s insistence that people don’t want privacy, which Weinstein considered “such a distortion of what social media was meant to be.”
At the end of 2018, MeWe credited its growth to “backlash against Facebook’s broad censorship, privacy infractions, and LGBTQ violations; discontent at Twitter for censorship of conservatives; the announced closure of Google+; and recent policy changes at Tumblr.”
MeWe has turned out to be not only a competing platform to Facebook, but also a better one for the most important reason. You see, MeWe is actually built on privacy. It has a proudly-displayed Privacy Bill of Rights – and really, just two items stand out as the most important:
“You own your personal information & content. It is explicitly not ours.”
“We do not sell your personal information to anyone.”
Facebook cannot say that, at all, since its entire revenue structure is based on collecting your data and selling access to it. If you owned your data, you’d have a share of that $85 billion pie. Facebook cannot place your privacy at the core of its business model since its business model requires you to give up more of your privacy.
This is perhaps why MeWe has a tiered approach, with a free version for the masses and a Pro version for those who want extra features and a Slack-like version for business usage. While it’s not certain just how much revenue the platform is making, it is refreshing that it can state that it contains “no ads, no targeting, no newsfeed manipulation and NO BS!”
There’s also no facial recognition, which is proving to be an increasingly-abused technology. However, while its Terms & Conditions allow for deleting specific data or the user’s entire account, it’s not immediate – although MeWe states that it is done “as soon as is technically possible.”
In my own experience with the platform, I received in my feed no ads, and shopping for shoes or electronics on the same browser didn’t introduce any to me the entire time. My newsfeed was only populated by announcements in the groups where I was most engaged.
This is already an immense improvement over Facebook.
In reality, it’s not really impossible for the Facebook giant to be toppled by a smaller platform. Remember, when Facebook came around in the mid-2000’s, it was a minuscule site compared to Myspace. Zuckerberg said in 2006 that there were only “10 million people using Facebook, and Myspace had 100 million people, and it was growing faster.”
And where’s Myspace now?
So let me quickly summarize why you should make the move to MeWe:
The epistemological crisis we’re facing is not Facebook’s problem. Of course, they exacerbated it, but this is a problem that you’ll be facing no matter what platform you’re on. Given that the problem will continue to exist, it’s better that your privacy is not being violated repeatedly, which puts MeWe miles above Facebook.
Yes, MeWe has a “little problem,” with right-wing echo chambers potentially leading to some sort of Kyle Rittenhouse-style IRL consequences. It has the usual bans on inciting violence and hate speech, but is quite liberal with what kind of speech is allowed. This 2018 “trip report” on MeWe lays out that most of the activity on the platform leans to the right. It is most likely much worse now – but only because there are more right-leaning people on the platform.
And, yes it’s also true, the discussions on MeWe are certainly echo chambers. My own experience in one QAnon group this past week shows that violence doesn’t seem to be too far away from MeWe group members’ minds:
But – and you might crucify me for this – these are the consequences of wanting free speech. The left would like platforms to restrict free speech in an ever-tightening noose of political correctness, or physical safety, or mental health, and the right would like to convert the idea of “free speech” into one where “alternative facts” are regarded the same as truth.
Normally I’d side with the left. On Facebook, with its laser-guided ad-targeting business model, that kind of free speech simply won’t work. But on MeWe (or a better platform that’s not based on ads), this kind of laissez-faire free speech model could work.
At least, we should give it a try.
Shut down your Facebook account, move on over to MeWe and bring your acquaintances with you. Balance out the “right-wing lean” of the platform to reflect reality, and see if your life isn’t that much better now that your private data isn’t being sold, every single day, to the highest bidder.