She provided no hard evidence

Across the entire spectrum

Whistleblower Frances Haugen said what people wanted to hear. Daniel Lazare scoffs at the moral panic over Facebook and Instagram

In 1910, a dangerous new form of media began invading America, and the famous social worker, Jane Addams, hastened to sound the alarm:

... while the occasional child is driven distraught, a hundred children permanently injure their eyes … and hundreds more seriously model their conduct upon the standards set before them on this mimic stage. Three boys, aged nine, 11 and 13 years, who had recently seen depicted the adventures of frontier life, including the holding up of a stage coach and the lassoing of the driver, spent weeks planning to lasso, murder and rob a neighbourhood milkman ...1

The insidious new threat? Nickelodeons - those tiny movie theatres that were springing up by the thousands in crowded immigrant neighbourhoods and allowing children with five cents in their pocket not only to watch bad guys robbing stage coaches (and good guys riding to the rescue), but comedies, ghost stories and tearjerkers. Nickelodeons disappeared around 1915, when movies got bigger and theatres got fancier, but they marked an important stage in the development of a mass cinematic audience.

Yet Addams - who, for unknown reasons, is still revered as a secular saint in certain quarters - was convinced they were leading American youth to perdition, along with other sins, such as alcohol and vaudeville.

More than a century later, America’s latest hate campaign against the online platforms, Facebook and Instagram, shows that her prudish spirit lives on. Newspapers are filled with stories about how the two Mark Zuckerberg properties are responsible for everything from eating disorders and teenage suicide to terrorism, the January 6 uprising on Capitol Hill, anti-vaxxers and ethnic conflict from Ethiopia to Myanmar.

Such charges are as ridiculous as anything Addams had to say about the old one-reelers. As a strangely clear-eyed New York Times analysis noted, “…there is an inconvenient fact that critics have overlooked: No research - by Facebook or anyone else - has demonstrated that exposure to Instagram, a Facebook app, harms teenage girls’ psychological wellbeing.”2

Indeed, internal Facebook research that whistleblower Frances Haugen chose not to mention indicates the opposite: ie, that Instagram is actually more likely to make teenage girls feel better about themselves than worse. A Harvard study has similarly determined that most US teens regard their social-media experiences as “predominately positive”, while a Pew survey has found that up to 81% of teenagers report that social media makes them feel more connected, better able to interact with a more diverse group of friends, and more confident that they will have friends who support them when times get tough.3

What is more, there is no reason to think that Instagram should make teenagers feel bad, since nothing about it is intrinsically negative. After all, all Instagram does is allow users to post photos of the latest goings-on in their lives - their hot new clothes, hot new boyfriends, hot new restaurants, whatever. While such images can certainly trigger jealousy and resentment, they can trigger lots else besides: eg, approval, enthusiasm or indifference. Why assume that one is more common than the other, when there is no empirical reason that we should?

Political agenda

So what then is the Facebook furore really about? On the one hand, it is yet another example of the sort of mass moral panic that regularly crops up in America - whether the subject is communist infiltration, depraved comic books (a big concern in the early 1950s, believe it or not), raunchy rock lyrics, satanic ritual abuse or dark Russian plots “to provoke and amplify political and social discord”, to quote the 2019 Mueller Report. The pattern is nearly always the same. Citizens are outraged and horrified. Newspapers rush to print the lurid details. Congressmen thunder and denounce. It is all as American as lynch mobs and apple pie.

But invariably there is a political agenda lurking somewhere in the background. After all, Joe McCarthy was not just a liar, a bully and a drunk, but a political strategist with a clear objective in mind, which was to purge the US power structure of communist influence left over from the Popular Front of the 1930s and 40s. The same goes for Russiagate, the 21st century neo-McCarthyite update that dominated the news cycle for most of the Trump years. Despite being 99% nonsense, it had a clear goal as well: to drive a president out of office because the CIA, the corporate media and the foreign-policy establishment regarded him as less than totally hostile to a Kremlin leader they saw as public enemy number one.

So what is the political agenda behind ‘Zuckergate’? For Republicans, the answer is easy. Since Silicon Valley fairly overflows with the kind of liberal techies that supporters in the south and midwest love to hate, then bashing away at Facebook and Instagram is a no-lose proposition. But, for Democrats, it is more complicated. After all, techies are their kind of people - educated, affluent and, in general, centre-left. So why single them out?

The answer goes back to 2016, when Facebook allowed a company known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), based in St Petersburg, Russia, to purchase $44,000 worth of ads targeting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Never mind that the ads were hopelessly amateurish, that no connection with the Kremlin was ever established, or that it is not even clear that they were meant to sway the election in the first place. The only thing that mattered was that Clinton’s loss could not possibly be the Democrats’ fault (or the fault of America’s sacred constitution, even though Hillary won by nearly 2.9 million popular votes, only to be undone by an ancient constitutional device known as the Electoral College that is impossible to remove). If it was not their fault, then it had to be the fault of someone else - someone dark and sinister and unAmerican. This meant Vladimir Putin, Trump himself (whom Clinton regarded as little more than a Russian ‘puppet’) and, finally, Facebook for allowing itself to be turned into an instrument of foreign domination.

When a Facebook executive named Rob Goldman dared suggest that it was much ado about nothing due to the IRA’s minuscule ad budget, Zuckerberg ordered him to apologise and then fired him outright.4 He would do anything to get his company out of the Democratic line of fire. Yet nothing worked.

This is why Frances Haugen was assured of a ready audience when she left Facebook and went public with her in-house revelations - because Democrats are always happy for an excuse to whale away at their favourite target. She told the Dems exactly what they wanted to hear: that Facebook is greedy because it tries to win over teenage customers without regard to the harm that platforms like Instagram might cause; that it promotes discord and division by permitting material that is angry and polarising; that it is irresponsible because it fails to shut down drug cartels and human traffickers; that it allows anti-vaxxers to spread lies and misinformation; and so on.

But are newspapers divisive because they tend to highlight bad news rather than good? Are filmmakers psychologically destructive because they fill the screen with people who are impossibly gorgeous and charming, thereby causing the rest of us to feel lonely and inadequate? In the 1990s, the island nation of Fiji suffered a wave of teenage anorexia when satellites began beaming in glamorous television shows like Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210.5 That is probably worse than anything Facebook or Instagram has ever came up with, yet no congressmen went hunting for executive scalps as a consequence. No-one saw any political percentage in doing so, whereas now they see plenty.


Other factors are also at work. If America is especially prone to moral panics of this sort, it is because an absence of a party structure means that politicians are less interested in programmes than in appealing to the mob. Where democracy is about reason and ideas, an increasingly sub-democratic system like that of the US is concerned with feelings, fads and grandstanding.

Yet another factor is one that is even less recognised: the judicialisation of civil liberties. Since free speech is more or less guaranteed by the first amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”), protecting it is entirely in the hands of the courts. The effect, therefore, is to let the elected branches off the hook, leaving members of Congress free to do or say whatever they wish with no regard to the consequences. Just as a certain school of thought holds that mandatory seatbelt laws encourage motorists to drive more recklessly rather than less by reducing risk, an all-powerful Bill of Rights encourages Congress to behave more recklessly by doing the same with regard to civil rights. The constitution may leave free speech judicially impregnable, but politically it renders it more and more vulnerable.

This is why Blumenthal feels free to attack a free-speech platform like Facebook: he figures that his friends at the American Civil Liberties Union will give him a pass and that he will only reap the benefits of attacking an unpopular scapegoat. It is why Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, feels free to accuse Facebook of “invading our privacy, promoting toxic content, and preying on children and teens”, while also basking in the praise of the ACLU. The constitution allows politicians to behave as absurdly and irresponsibly as they wish, because free speech is not their concern. It is only the concern of the courts.

This has led to a curious inversion. Traditionally, Republicans are hostile to civil liberties, while Dems are the opposite. But a Pew survey this summer revealed a strange reversal. When asked whether the federal government should reduce false information online, even if it means limiting freedom of information overall, the number of Republican or Republican-leaning adults saying ‘yes’ fell from 37% in 2018 to 28% today - a one-fourth drop. But the number of Democrats saying ‘yes’ rose from 40% to 65% over the same period - an increase of more than half.

Thanks to Russiagate, the MeToo movement and cancel culture in general, all this is a sign that the Dems are emerging as the anti-free-speech party, while the Republicans, in certain respects, are emerging as pro-free speech. It is an indication that authoritarianism is no longer confined to a single party, but is now spreading across the entire bourgeois spectrum.

  1. J Addams The spirit of youth and the city streets New York 1910, pp87-93.↩︎

  2. www.nytimes.com/2021/10/10/opinion/instagram-facebook-mental-health-study.html.↩︎

  3. P Raychoudhury, ‘What our research really says about teenage wellbeing and Instagram’ Facebook September 26 2021: about.fb.com/news/2021/09/research-teen-well-being-and-instagram; E Weinstein, ‘The social media see-saw’ New Media and Society February 21 2018: journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1461444818755634; and M Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, ‘Teens’ social media habits and experiences’, Pew Research Center, November 28 2018: www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/11/28/teens-social-media-habits-and-experiences.↩︎

  4. www.nytimes.com/2018/02/19/technology/facebook-executive-russia-tweets-fact-check.html.↩︎

  5. www.nytimes.com/1999/05/20/world/study-finds-tv-alters-fiji-girls-view-of-body.html.↩︎