Against Social Media Moralism

Rachel Griffin / Nov 17, 2021

In her 2001 book Politics Out of History, left-wing political theorist Wendy Brown offers a sharp critique of ‘political moralism’ – a style of political discourse which operates by pointing fingers at perceived wrongdoers, and ‘rather than offering analytically substantive accounts of the forces of injustice or injury, [condemns] the manifestation of these forces in particular remarks or events’. Brown is also a leading theorist and critic of neoliberalism. I would like to see her reaction to the recent spectacle of Republican members of the US Congress – whose party has perhaps done more than any other institution to unleash rapacious shareholder capitalism – railing against Facebook executives for putting profits over people. What else could they possibly pretend to expect?

This superficial and hypocritical response is symptomatic of a broader tendency towards moralism in contemporary debates about social media policy, which Brown’s work helps to illuminate. It is particularly visible in – though not exclusive to – the media response to the ‘Facebook papers’ leaked by Frances Haugen this autumn. Journalists have meticulously catalogued the leaked documents’ revelations about various ways Facebook knowingly encouraged violence and other social harms. Commentators have rushed to condemn Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg for acting immorally. They have paid comparatively little attention to the legal, political and economic conditions that enabled the company to amass so much worldwide power and influence, and exercise it with so little democratic oversight.

Notably, many journalists and policymakers single out not just Facebook, but Zuckerberg personally for censure. His leadership of the company has been excoriated; commentators have long attacked Facebook for being run like a ‘dictatorship’, since Zuckerberg personally controls a majority of voting shares. Putting aside the implication that distributing control to a few more wealthy board members would be more ‘democratic’, it’s hard to believe that Facebook would operate particularly differently if it had all of the same economic incentives but a new board structure. As pointed out by social media law expert evelyn douek and activist Evan Greer, the leaks happened to be from Facebook, but there’s little reason to believe other leading platforms are doing better. Brown accuses moralizers of ‘standing against much but for very little’. This aptly describes the commentary that denounces Zuckerberg and his company, yet instead of demanding any meaningful change in how social media operate and are regulated, just suggests putting a fresh face at the helm.

As the ‘Facebook Papers’ have been made available to a wider (though still restricted and unrepresentative) consortium of journalists, the recent surge of stories emphasizing Facebook’s near-total neglect of safety measures in the Global South has been a welcome corrective to the initial focus on US-centric issues. In general, though, they offer little analysis of the reasons that multinational companies – among which Facebook is hardly an outlier – act with disregard for most of the world’s population. Adopting Brown’s phrasing, one is often left with the impression that Facebook is ‘a momentarily misguided parent who forgot her promise to treat all her children the same way’, rather than an actor guided by its political and economic investments and produced by a particular configuration of social and political powers.

Facebook is not a rogue actor. As highlighted in Yale Information Society Project visiting fellow Michael Kwet’s work on digital colonialism, it is acting normally within a global economic system that has for centuries enabled Western-owned corporations to systematically extract resources from Global South countries, taking minimal responsibility for the damage left behind. This system did not arise by accident, and nor does it maintain itself. As shown by legal scholar Monika Zalnieriute, the US government has consistently worked to promote ‘free flow of information’ in international trade and to head off stronger intergovernmental control over internet governance, in order to ensure US-owned companies can continue operating unrestricted around the world and funneling profits back home. Any serious analysis of why safety and integrity in ‘rest of world’ countries are so neglected by dominant social media platforms must start with these political and economic conditions, not by cataloguing the ways in which Mark Zuckerberg and team did not live up to our expectations.

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Brown links moralistic political discourse to feelings of frustration and impotence, which she suggests are associated with a simultaneous loss of faith in and inability to move beyond legal rights as the primary force for progress. Like moralism, political discourse focusing on human rights has been criticized – by Brown and by numerous other legal and political theorists – for its depoliticizing effects. Both framings tend, in writer Naomi Klein’s words, to emphasize ‘free-floating bad events’ over systemic causes. Harmful actions are treated as aberrancies and individual failings, rather than as predictable responses to systemic conditions.

In this context, the dominant role of human rights discourse in social media policy – particularly in Europe – can also be seen as a form of moralism, which operates to exclude questions of political economy and power. Recent EU legal and policy initiatives like the Digital Services Act frame fundamental rights as the overarching goal of social media regulation – alongside the EU’s ultimate value, the smooth functioning of the internal market – and as the key safeguard against all forms of state and corporate overreach. In turn, even critical academic commentary on European social media regulation tends to treat fundamental rights as the moral yardstick against which all platform practices and state regulation must be measured.

Yet as Yale law professor Amy Kapczynski has shown, even where they include socioeconomic rights, human rights frameworks by their nature focus on identifying wrongdoing in specific decisions affecting individuals, and obscure the political-economic structures that generated those decisions. In contemporary debates about social media, insisting that companies like Facebook and Google must respect users’ rights overshadows questions about how these companies came to exercise their power and whether they should even exist in their current form. Demanding that technologies be operated with due respect for human rights should not eclipse questions about who controls them and to what ends they are deployed.

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This depoliticizing effect is part of the appeal of moralism, and of rights discourse. Invoking broadly-shared but abstract moral values is easier than confronting genuine disagreement. We can all agree that Facebook should not have dedicated 87% of its moderation resources to the 7% of its user base located in the US; but structural questions about how the modern communications industry should be regulated and how ownership and power should be distributed are a matter of fierce and intractable political disagreement.

That might also help explain the preoccupation in social media policy debates with strengthening platform transparency, which – while justified – arguably has a similarly depoliticizing effect. The implication is that this will enable technocratic solutions: that we could all consensually fix the problems with social media if we just knew more about them. This enables us to put aside the intensely political questions about how the problems will be defined in the first place, what goals the solutions should pursue, and who will get to decide.

Moralistic discourse has further strategic advantages. As Brown highlights, moralism and power are not dichotomous, as often suggested by popular narratives of principled campaigners confronting corrupt vested interests. Claiming the moral high ground can be a very pragmatic way of exercising political power. This is visible in many politicians’ responses to the rise of social media. In the UK, condemning social media companies’ alleged derelictions of duty helps push through an Online Safety Bill that will hand government ministers unprecedented power to censor online communications. In the EU, calls for platforms to act ‘responsibly’ and respect ‘European values’, backed up by threats of regulation, are used to strong-arm them into implementing EU governments’ favoured policies on terrorist content and disinformation while evading legal controls on state action.

For Brown, moralism is ‘a symptom of a broken historical narrative to which we have not yet forged alternatives’. If we are to move beyond pointing out that it would be nice if social media companies were nicer, we will need to forge alternative, positive visions of how the industry could be structured. As suggested by University of Washington assistant professor Anna Lauren Hoffmann, such projects cannot only condemn instances in which certain people are wronged – they must also question the broader processes by which others are systematically advantaged. The injustices perpetrated by Facebook and other platforms are not random acts of spite: these companies are doing exactly what you would expect by trying to make money, cut costs and gain market share – the guiding imperatives of modern shareholder capitalism. Just as we did in the past for previous disruptive media technologies, we need to envisage different social media, guided by different imperatives.


Rachel Griffin
Rachel Griffin is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Law School of Sciences Po Paris. Her research focuses on European social media regulation and its implications for structural social inequalities.