Imagining a Roadmap to User-Led Governance of Meta

Kevin Frazier / Mar 25, 2024

Pericles's Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852). Source

From some of its earliest days, Facebook expressed a desire to empower users to exercise some control over the platform. When the company first allowed users to set their own privacy settings, it proudly announced that “[w]e’ve always designed Facebook to enable people to control what information they share with whom—it’s the reason our service continues to attract such a broad and diverse group of users from around the world.” Most notably, Facebook even allowed users to vote on some policy decisions. Yet over time, users surrendered what little power they wielded over the platform – bringing about the current monarchical Meta regime. At least, that’s a common retelling of the rise and fall of a more democratic Facebook.

The reality is that the platform has always acted as sovereign. Akin to a dictator holding a rigged plebiscite, Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO, and others at Facebook knew that the “democracy” they designed and imposed on users would never result in a meaningful check on the company. In fact, the system was brilliantly designed to afford users “dupe process” – the appearance of fair procedures with low to no odds of bringing about substantive change.Here’s how it worked a decade ago: Facebook committed to inform users of proposed changes to a subset of governing documents and policies; if more than 7,000 users commented on that proposal, then the entire user base would have a chance to accept or deny the change; yet, that outcome would only be binding if more than 30 percent of users turned out.

A Democracy in Name Only

On its face, this “democracy” seemed quite user-friendly. In reality, it was a style of government that resembled the Peanuts character Lucy pulling the football out from underneath Charlie Brown – lure folks in with the promise of participation, but pull away when it seems like they might have a chance to exercise substantive control. Users could only comment on a small and relatively insignificant set of policies – only those pertaining to the company’s terms of service. Yet, the low bar for triggering a vote – 7,000 comments – made it seem as though users had a real shot at changing policy. Then the proverbial football got yanked – the high threshold for a vote to be binding – 30 percent turnout – made it nearly impossible for users to actually direct the platform.

This dynamic played out in the most important and final vote ever cast in this system. In November 2012, Facebook presented users with one last shot to preserve this “democracy.” The single issue on the ballot was whether to retain this limited – albeit novel and, to some, “radical” – form of democratic platform governance. Just 650,000 users cast a vote. Despite 88 percent of those users having signaled their support for this “democracy,” participation by more than 300 million votes was required to maintain what few checks the platform had left to users.

One way to see the creation and elimination of a democratic Facebook is as a failure of users – a clear example of their indifference and apathy. This view continues to hold sway in some corners of the Internet; here’s a summary by one observer from 2019:

[W]e can complain all we like about Facebook’s digital dictatorship, but the sad reality is that we ourselves allowed this to happen by refusing to exercise our democratic rights when they were given to us. For three years Facebook allowed its users to vote on select major policy changes. While imperfect and limited in scope, this process granted Facebook’s users a voice. Yet, for three years we apathetically failed to exercise those rights and so they were taken away from us.

In this retelling, the users missed their moment to keep the democracy; or, at a minimum, failed to prevent the platform from sliding into its current monarchical form. A more accurate and useful analysis is that this was never a democracy to begin with – it was not formed by the users, for the users, nor of the users. It was formed by Zuckerberg for PR purposes. You don’t need to be a political scientist to realize the low odds of 30 percent of a billion users with no formal mechanisms to coordinate and collaborate turning out to vote.

If Facebook truly valued user input, it would have explored alternative governance structures rather than eliminate any such democratic processes. Democracies that truly feel beholden to their citizens don’t revert to authoritarianism when turnout dips or interest wanes. Just 35 percent of Chicago residents voted in a recent runoff election – the Windy City is not calling quits on popular elections. The company opting not to explore how to better engage users shows that this “democracy” was never for the users to begin with.

Time for the Users’ Republic of Meta

Meta can and should make up for the overcorrection. Now’s the time for a Users’ Republic of Meta. A combination of factors make this the right moment for a new model of platform governance. First, regulators in the EU have nudged (to say the least) platforms to grant users more rights and to afford them more procedural safeguards – more participatory systems of platform governance would align with this regulatory trend. Second, Meta recently expanded the scope of its largest experiment in platform governance – the Oversight Board. The Board will now have jurisdiction over Threads – Meta’s latest platform. And, third, a more participatory form of governance might help Meta retain users who are attracted to the “fediverse,” an “interconnected social platform ecosystem” that grants users substantial control over their data as well as substantially more choice over their preferred approach to content moderation and related aspects of platform governance.

Instead of a system contingent on individual users regularly participating in platform governance, Meta should develop a formal governance system that allows communities of users to form and act as collectives. More specifically, in the same way that we the people elect representatives that understand the wants and needs of our communities, users should have a chance to join “federations” (in a way, more formal versions of a Facebook Groups with the explicit aim of representing users’ platform policy interests) that, upon reaching a specific size, can send a representative (“Meta Delegate”) to a User Council that exercises real authority over the platforms terms of service, design, and other policies and features.

Unlike geographic representation, federations would consolidate users by interest. Upon joining the platform, users would complete a survey on key questions about platform governance such as data privacy, platform, design, and content moderation. Following that survey, the platform would suggest a handful of federations that aligned with the user’s preferences and demands; the user could then opt to join one of those federations or develop one of their own. Each federation would receive voting power proportional to the number of users it represented – this would go a long way toward giving users in the Global Majority a chance to shape platform policy that has typically reflected Western values.

Unlike the “dupe process” of a “democratic” Facebook, the Users’ Republic of Meta would meet users where they are – interested in a better platform but not willing to spend significant time digging into the company’s policies. What’s more, the Users Council could complement and augment the work of the Oversight Board – the independent adjudicatory body tasked with reviewing Meta’s content moderation decisions.

Currently, due to its limited jurisdiction, relatively small budget, and low awareness among users, the “Out of Sight Board” is likely a more accurate title. With the addition of the Users’ Council, though, the Oversight Board’s recommendations, which are currently not binding on Meta, could be presented to and voted on by the Council. Perhaps a super-majority of the Council could mandate that Meta adhere to a recommendation. This system would make a court of limited jurisdiction into an important source of policy guidance.

Realization of the Users’ Republic of Meta will require a lot more work. But the notion of an actual system of user oversight is important to plant in the mind of users and the public more generally. Absent having some conception of a preferable and tangible user governance system, users will never pressure Meta to make it happen.

The Users Revolution

Though I contest the notion that users are to blame for the disappearance of a structurally-flawed democratic Facebook, I do agree with the idea that we collectively have a responsibility to vote with our clicks if we want a better Internet. Though in many ways platforms are designed to appeal to our worst instincts, we’ve had plenty of notice as to how, why, and to what extent they are able to send us down rabbit-holes. If users want to return to an era of “social networks” that theoretically help build community instead of the present divisive and distracting “social media” age, then they must be disciplined about demanding platforms that have designs, rules, and norms aligned with that preferable alternative.

So far, we’ve proven to be unwilling to collectively revolt against algorithms and practices that divide us more so than inform, unite, or inspire us. That’s not for lack of somewhat viable alternatives. A slew of new platforms have launched with the goal of facilitating a more deliberative, communal ecosystem. Some of them have caught on. Most of them have floundered. If we assume that the biggest platforms are going to remain globally popular (and we should for reasons spelled out more below), then all those concerned about our digital information ecosystem need to focus on reforming Facebook, Instagram, and the like rather than hoping people will take the “risk” of finding their community on another platform.

Though restoration of some form of a democratic Facebook will be tough, there's a path to toppling King Zuck – that path runs from South Africa to Tunisia. The future epicenter of Facebook’s user population is not in North America, Europe, nor any other of the jurisdictions that typically come up when you think about platform governance. In about two decades, one in four people on the planet will be African. By extension, a plurality of social media users will likely live somewhere on the African continent. This outcome is especially likely for Facebook and Instagram given that those platforms have already seized the attention of millions of Africans for personal as well as professional purposes.

A deliberate, coordinated effort to partner with NGOs, think tanks, and advocacy organizations like Africa Check to educate users about a more democratic social media experience could mark the beginning of the end of a monarchical Meta. Individuals and organizations who believe in the Users’ Republic face no barriers to announcing a shadow federation and recruiting users to join them via a Facebook Group, for example. This Federation could then start acting as if Facebook and Meta had formally recognized it as a partner in its platform governance. For instance, the Federation could regularly respond to requests for comment by the Oversight Board. Likewise, the Federation could poll users on questions related to Facebook’s community guidelines. What’s more, the Federation could even host an election among its users to select its Meta Delegate.

All this may sound excessive to those who think Facebook, Instagram, and the like are “just” platforms. This “whataboutism” is unwarranted given that users around the world rely on Meta for their livelihoods, their democratic information, and their source of community. This reliance will likely increase as Meta and other companies exploit new technologies to become even more entrenched in our daily lives.

The ins and outs of this Users’ Republic may not align with your conception of the ideal user governance system. That’s fine. I agree that there may be alternatives better suited to the reality that users just don’t have the time to actively monitor platforms. Some sort of proxy voting system may be a better fit or could augment the Users’ Republic outlined here. Deliberative democracy tools such as citizen assemblies may also be a part of an ideal scheme. What matters most is recognition among users and the general public that Facebook and Instagram are too important to ignore and too powerful to be governed by a few.

We may have given up the seeds of a democratic Facebook, but that won’t matter in the long run if we manage to grow a Users’ Republic of Meta. It may be the best shot we’ve got. Shareholder activism has floundered because of the immense control Zuckerberg maintains over the company. Legislative efforts have stalled or settled for resolving a sliver of the relevant issues. And, the Oversight Board has not yet had its “Marbury v. Madison” moment, in which it would seize a more substantial role in interpreting and altering Meta policies.

For those who think Meta will never go for a Users’ Republic, I agree that it’s a long shot. Meta will likely only take this revolutionary step if it thinks doing so will result in more users coming to the platform and spending time there. Yet, on the whole, users have shown limited interest in leaving or joining platforms solely due to the extent to which the platform appears to listen to their policy preferences on things like community guidelines and platform design.

The emergence and tepid growth of the fediverse suggests that may be changing. Users may finally be paying more attention to such issues and willing to vote with their feet (or, more accurately, attention). Another source of optimism comes from an unexpected source – Zuckerberg’s own words: “I just think [Facebook is] a lot closer to the beginning than the end. As companies get bigger people expect you to slow down and do less crazy stuff. I guess I hope we never do that.”

Here’s to hoping that such craziness applies to a wild, but necessary means to empower users.


Kevin Frazier
Kevin Frazier is an Assistant Professor at St. Thomas University College of Law, a Director of the Center for Law and AI Risk, and a 2024 Tarbell Fellow. He joined the STU community following a clerkship on the Montana Supreme Court. A graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and UC Berkeley School of...