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Sheryl Sandberg in Laguna Niguel, CA, USA on 10/72014 © Krista Kennell / Shutterstock

How Facebook Uses Incentives to Bend the Law

Facebook’s idea of incentives sometimes goes beyond mere entrepreneurship. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

In one of its recent investigative scoops, The Guardian revealed that “Facebook has targeted politicians around the world — including the former UK chancellor, George Osborne — promising investments and incentives while seeking to pressure them into lobbying on Facebook’s behalf against data privacy legislation.”

Although this is a scoop, the story behind it dates back to 2013, which means the culture it describes has most certainly continued developing in the shadows ever since. Where did the essential offer of “incentives” take place? In Davos, of course.

Here is today’s 3D definition: 

Incentive:

A synonym in the world of politics for what some would consider something less than a bribe because justified by promised future economic outcomes

Contextual note

Computer Weekly partnered with The Guardian/Observer on uncovering and publishing this story. The article recounts in greater detail the stages and events in COO Sheryl Sandberg’s relationship-building efforts with key European politicians.

As with everything Facebook does, the scale of the operation that began in Davos in 2013 was anything but modest. The Guardian describes it as “a secretive global lobbying operation targeting hundreds of legislators and regulators in an attempt to procure influence across the world, including in the UK, US, Canada, India, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, Malaysia and all 28 states of the EU.” While some of it resembled classic PR or simple persuasion — such as using Sandberg’s reputation as a feminist activist to persuade female commissioners to be kind to them — we learn that Facebook, making its pitch to then-Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, “threatened to withhold investment from countries unless they supported or passed Facebook-friendly laws.”

That’s precisely why it would be deemed unreasonable to call this what it most resembles: bribery or blackmail. Instead, it’s all about those noble ideals that nowadays serve to justify any political decision: attracting corporate investments with the promise of jobs.

Ireland provided Facebook with a perfect target for this form of persuasion. More than any other European country, Ireland has benefited from the decision of US tech companies to move their European headquarters to Ireland. It means jobs and economic activity, but always at the expense of normal tax revenues as well as, in the long term, national pride. Once they’re there, everyone is expected to understand who’s boss. The mafia-style trope, “You’ve got a nice economy here. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it,” may sound like a cliché, but, according to Computer Weekly, “Sandberg wrote to Kenny two days after the Davos 2014 meeting, warning him that changes in data protection or taxation laws might lead Facebook to consider ‘different options for future investment and growth in Europe.’” The nation needs a little protection.

Historical note

Not to be outdone by its critics, Facebook recently proclaimed the moral horror its founder feels with regard to “incentives” and their role in the realm of politics. In September 2018, Mark Zuckerberg wrote: “We’ve attacked the economic incentives to spread misinformation. We’ve worked more closely with governments — including in Germany, the US and Mexico — to improve security during elections.” At least Facebook and its critics appear to share similar moral values. It’s only Facebook’s acts that differentiate the company from its critics.

The perception is increasing in many quarters that Facebook is simply too big not to create mischief in an economy where mischief tends to pay and punishment can be avoided or made anodyne, thanks to money and influence. The effects of Facebook’s mischief are harder and harder to track and assess, though investigators such as Shoshana Zuboff have begun to reveal both the inner workings and the extensive impact the tech companies that have invaded our lives have on society. She writes: “It would be a grave mistake to assume this is merely a Facebook phenomenon.” Zuboff identifies the culprit as “surveillance capitalism,” which has shaped if not warped “the moral and political milieu of 21st-century society and the values of our information civilisation.”

In other words, the recent history not so much of technology itself, but especially of the adoption of technology by an uncomprehending and easily persuaded population, seduced by convenience, parallels the more deliberate process of seducing and manipulating the political class to accept this kind of evolution of an entire civilization. The users of technology are squeezed from both above and below.

Facebook hasn’t been as successful in manipulating politicians in Europe as it has in the US. It didn’t get everything it wanted. Using a similar but not quite blackmail or bribery strategy, Amazon successfully obtained the conditions it wanted to set up HQ2 in New York — at least until it decided the welcome wasn’t warm enough for its taste.

The difference between these two cases tells us a lot about how our civilization now functions. Facebook did everything in secret, behind the scenes, but was eventually exposed. Amazon turned its game of influence into a political spectacle, as a demonstration of power. Both companies have seen their image seriously tarnished by a few high-profile events that increasingly reveal how much influence they have over people and how manipulative their methods have become.

Could we be entering a new age of transparency, where the schemes and ploys of the wealthy and powerful have become visible due to their overplaying their hands? There are signs that that may be happening. But the extent of their power over people’s minds and habits is such that it will take more than a few examples of investigative reporting and political protest to change the general state of awareness.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Update: This article previously stated that Sheryl Sandberg was CEO of Facebook.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.