Butthurt politicians worldwide are terrified that their soapbox might be taken away – after a private company finally pulled the plug on the most dangerous man on the planet because he was inciting to overthrow the American political system.
It is a dubious claim that a private company can practice censorship. The only argument for it is if it becomes a virtual monopoly, but I haven’t heard that argument in this debate. Not once. Only the mistaken equivalence between censorship and Twitter stopping what looked like criminal/treasonous activity on its platform. If anyone else did that, authorities would have demanded that Twitter acted preemptively.
Zuckerberg’s reaction to politicians’ uproar was to promise that Facebook would be de-politicized, but it is yet to be seen how that would work out. At any rate, politicians in Hungary are squirming.
Not surprisingly. After a decade and thousands of billions poured into Orbanizing the media landscape, Orbán’s Facebook page is still among the most followed Orbánist media outlets – if not the leader of the pack. (At least by Facebook’s own metrics which people seem to believe as legal standard for some reason.) Orbán definitely has more Facebook followers than the public media has viewers – he quipped about that once, sending shivers down the spine of his political and media executioners.
Orbán is not updating his social media himself, he allegedly stays away from the internet altogether. So he is more prone that the average Facebook user to believe in its metrics. We, ordinary mortals might all have run into inexplicable discrepancies in Facebook’s alleged reach numbers – but Orbán would just hear what his advisers claim about the number of followers he allegedly reached according to Facebook versus the number of people reached by his media – and draw his conclusions.
Orbán’s daily photo missives and reports on his adventures, how he mingles with his people, shakes hands with later destroyed representatives of professions and unions, how he receives foreign alt-right luminaries on his eye-wateringly expensive terrace in the Buda Castle are always welcomed with insane and frankly, inexplicable enthusiasm from his followers. Every critical comment is immediately deleted and the commenters banned – it is not a goal to show that he is tolerant of dissent. They don’t even pretend that. (The thousands of people who are banned from his page meanwhile have their own Facebook support group.)
Now it would insult our intellect to assume that there are no fake account farms and dedicated Facebook workers at government institutions. They exist, not just in Russia. Social media (and the people’s supposed opinion as presented in comments) is the front line of the battleground of information warfare of the information cold war. Comment sections is where everyone (thinks) they learn what (other) people think. If something is so influential, and manipulating it is so cheap and not even illegal, why on earth would a power not invest in that?
But even on top of the usual fake accounts and obligatory likes from state employees watched by their superiors, there seem to be people whose daily entertainment is throwing divine blessings at Orbán. (I never understood how God’s blessings are theirs to give away, but there are bigger problems with religionist minds.)
There will be a choir of voices confidently claiming that there is no way to buy followers, likes and comments nowadays. No idea where they’ve heard that, but their confident belief makes it even easier to do just that – and get away with it.
The 2021 HBO documentary ‘Fake Famous’ doesn’t teach us much, but one thing they definitely do: they buy followers, likes and comments by the thousands. And they also show that the supposedly sophisticated algorithms of the social media sites are not picking up on fake following – perhaps because it is not in their interest. And that even marketing managers who buy posts based on follower numbers don’t care if those followers are real – because it is not in their interest. And that even Wall Street doesn’t want to know if all that supposed engagement with ads online is real or not – because the money that flows based on the assumption is very real. And even the supposedly sophisticated algorithms that are sold to check for fraudulent followers are not working because… You get the idea. It is literally in no one’s interest to strip social media from fake engagement and refuse the pile of money people are willing to pay to look more liked.
At one point in the show a bot farm owner explains how much money there is in selling people fake followers and fake comments. And it is not altogether impossible that Facebook et al. are also in on the business – after all the most craved for commodity these days is likes. Why would they not sell that, of all things? I am yet to be shown how the followers that supposedly fell in love with the brands I represented were real. But no one really wanted to know it. Facebook will deliver followers if you throw money at it – but it also shows it publicly that you threw money at it. Buying followers on the gray market is arguably even better because it is not publicly displayed on Facebook.
According to a bot farm, even Kim Kardashian has at least 40% fake followers. Even Trump bought half of his following. So why would the social media managers of politicians (especially digitally illiterate ones) refrain from boosting their own work KPI by this means? Please don’t insult my intellect that they would never do that and that they would be found out. Your forceful assumptions are the perfect cover for such activities.
Orbán’s apparent focus on his social media reach (that is Facebook, for simplicity’s sake, Twitter has never picked up in Hungary) was duly noted by his loyalists. At one point his justice minister got agitated (on Facebook) that Facebook is limiting her reach – giving proof of her own fixation on the metric.
And for a few months now, even independent media jumped on the Facebook bandwagon and started a weekly “Like competition” for politicians, checking who got the most likes and who spent how much on it. (Orbán is always in the top 10, of course, and it is totally organic and not manipulated on any level. Of course.)
In the words of the justice minister who complained about being shunned by algorithm: “The powers behind global tech companies can even decide elections. In digital imperialism, it no longer matters whether one is an average user or the democratically elected president of the world’s leading power, since it has become clear that both can be silenced at the touch of a single button.”
In this hysterical situation drops Trump’s ban and the bombshell that Zuckerberg is somehow trying to de-politicize. Does that mean that politicians will be booted? It should, if Zuck meant it.
But then he would lose his most lucrative customers: politicians who are willing to pay taxpayer money to woo taxpayers, superpowers eager to sway the public opinions of their adversaries by information warfare, and political movements that harvest followers wherever they find them. If all Facebook would be left is its actual skills at product marketing, which is wildly overstated, its revenues might actually decline. And without the bot farms and the fake engagement, the user numbers would also stop growing. (Wonder if it would be allowed to grow above the actual population of the planet.)
It is ironic how politicians become sensitive to censorship when it might strike their own kind. And how they cry censorship when a private company does it – not when they legislate it. I know… when the president does it, right?
But threatening social media with censorship (and simultaneously threatening them with legislation to avoid their censorship) is not the only weapon in politicians’ hands. They also plan their alternatives. Like Russia’s VK. And now we have Hundub, Hungary’s answer to Facebook.
Actually, we did have our own “Facebook” before Facebook happened: It was called Iwiw and when it was finally shut down a few years ago, we were all mildly shocked that it still existed. Iwiw was an early version of MySpace and Facebook, so early, we were still keen on feeding it more data, like finding relatives on it. But then of course Facebook arrived. And now, with the increased sense of threat from being shunned by Facebook, nervous power seekers are working on their own Facebook-like soapboxes. Just in case.
Of course, HunDub is not a serious attempt – but not for the lack of trying. It was advertised in the government’s mouthpiece in December, in a spontaneously praise-filled article. For now, it looks more like a preemptive offering from a loyalist. Its corporate background is amusingly offshore and only Fidesz and other far right entities and fake news sites are active on it. One could register with a fake email address, easily get the blue checkmark claiming to be anyone, but they promise no censorship for right wing content and don’t want ads. It also reminds the user of something… (Screenshot by 24.hu)
But it is totally different from Facebook. You see, it will run on some other kind of money, not ads. And it has an ironic reaction button called ‘Big Brother would ban me‘