We can have democracy or we can have Facebook, but we can't have both

A conversation with Matt Stoller about the new antitrust case and the real reason you should care about corporate monopolies

Being on the phone with Matt Stoller when a giant antitrust case is announced against Facebook is like texting with the pope when the Second Coming, you know, comes.

It’s a little on the nose. A little exciting.

I’d been wanting to talk to Matt for a while, in part because the pope actually turned down my recent interview request (someone please tell him how book tours work).

And in part because I consider him (Matt) one of the more interesting, iconoclastic, morally committed, unpredictable, critics-may-care thinkers today. In the course of a typical Twitter day, which is a week in human time, I agree with Matt, disagree with him, wish I had thought of something he said, regret something he said on his behalf, retweet something he wrote, and make a mental note to talk with him soon. So I did.

And there we were, talking about everything — his political education, why he goes back and forth between thinking of himself as a progressive and not, his highly influential recent book, “Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy” — when my phone began to crackle with news of an historic antitrust case against Facebook.

Naturally, I began to ask Matt about it. What he said was so compelling that I’ve decided to break our interview into two issues of the newsletter. Today: Matt Stoller on Facebook, this important case, and how monopoly is mistaken as a policy issue when in fact it represents an existential question of whether we are actually a democracy.

Then, before long, part deux, the political education of Matt Stoller — thinker, writer, civil servant, trustbuster, Twitter beefer, and, presently, aspiring political philosopher.

Without shame, I’ll add, in the spirit of Matt’s ideas, that if you want to do your part to support small, independent media, and haven’t yet, consider subscribing to The Ink.

“The way we do business is the way we do justice”: a conversation with Matt Stoller, part one

ANAND: Right as we're talking, I get a news alert: “Facebook illegally crushed competition by buying up its rivals, according to lawsuits filed by 48 states and federal regulators.” So this is the big case that we've been waiting for. Can you explain to a person who has never focused on this issue before in their life, and who just uses Facebook to try to get with their high-school ex, why is this a big deal? What does this mean?

MATT: So Facebook is a financial conglomerate. People think of Facebook as that website you use or the app that you use, but really Facebook, as a political institution, is a financial conglomerate and owns dozens of different companies, including Instagram and WhatsApp and Facebook, the social network. And it's a giant advertising company. So they have roughly three billion users. And they try to get their users to do things that their advertisers want them to do, because that's how you sell advertising.

The business model is to divert revenue that used to go to newspapers and publishers to themselves. And so by manipulating people in this specific way that they do, which is to keep them using their system and keep surveilling them so that they can target them with ads, they are, in the process, crushing newspapers and publishers, who no longer have any financing, particularly local newspapers and niche publications like Black-owned newspapers.

So increasingly those kinds of publications don't exist. You don't have reporters covering state houses and city halls and whatnot. Instead, people are now consuming things that Facebook likes them to consume because it keeps them using, and it keeps them available to sell ads to them, which are anti-social publications or posts, like anti-vax stuff or QAnon or whatever it is.

So that's the basic problem. It's a $70-, $80-, $100-billion-a-year revenue company that's destroying newspapers and publishers all over the world and getting people to pass conspiracy theories to each other so that Facebook can make money on advertising.

ANAND: You're an anti-monopoly guy. If there were three or five companies in healthy competition with each other, all doing exactly what you just described, wouldn't it still be problematic? Is the issue here that there's only one of them of that heft, or would a competitive market with five such players still be incredibly troubling?

MATT: There's a lot more that you have to do than just break them up. But the answer is, it would improve things dramatically if they were broken up, and you don't have to imagine it.

There used to be a bunch of social networks. Facebook's main competitor was Myspace, but there were a bunch of others. There was BlackPlanet; there was Friendster. And the way that Facebook actually defeated Myspace was by promising a safer, more private experience. They defeated Myspace by saying, We will treat your data carefully; in fact, when we change the terms of service, we will let our users vote on the terms of service.

This was back in 2007, 2008, 2009. And once they killed their competition, and then they bought up nascent competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp, then they didn't have to compete by offering a higher-quality service, a.k.a one that was less intrusive in terms of surveillance. They could just surveil anybody they wanted, and you didn't really have a choice.

ANAND: Where do you think this case is going?

MATT: They’re going to aim to break up the company. The House Antitrust Subcommittee did this long investigation of big tech, which includes Facebook. And one of the things they found is that Mark Zuckerberg was writing emails saying they were buying these companies to block competition. And so that's evidence that the mergers were illegal, because you're not supposed to buy companies to block competition. That's a violation of the Clayton Act. My guess is that they're going to have a pretty good complaint. 

ANAND: Based on the history of such cases, would your assumption be that Facebook is broken up within a period of years?

MATT: Yes.

However, we haven't enforced the law for 20 years, so it’s not entirely clear. The law at this point is crazy and incoherent because we haven't done enforcement, and to the extent that we have, judges have just made wildly inconsistent rulings.

ANAND: This kind of action that's being announced today is the epitome of a systemic, public response to a problem. And when I, like you, advocate for those types of things, I often hear this response that I'm sure you do, too, which is, “OK, that's fine, but what about individual actions?” A lot of people are like, “Yes, let’s delete Facebook.” Or: “Why aren't you supporting the Facebook boycott?”, and there are different views on it.

There are some people who make the argument that those kind of small personal things are sideshows, distractions, maybe even unhelpful, because they reduce the perceived need for bigger systemic change. I fall more into that camp. There are others who say it's a gateway drug, it's a waystation, like: “Delete Facebook and then work yourself up to a political response." How do you weigh in on that?

MATT: I think it's a bad vision of politics. It's not doing politics to say, “Me, as a consumer, I can change power arrangements based on what I consume or don’t.” That's a real 1970s consumer-rights Democrat vision of the world, and that's one in which you as a citizen are irrelevant.

A boycott is only political if the goal is a policy change. If you go in and you say, "Well, I don't like Facebook, I want to change Facebook, so I'm going to delete Facebook," that's not going to do anything. If it's part of some larger political action saying, "Well, I'm going to delete Facebook, and then I'm going to push policymakers to break it up," I mean, I guess that makes sense.

But the general view of these boycotts is that just not using Facebook is the political action. But that's actually not a political action.

ANAND: An issue like monopoly is different from, say, healthcare, where you don't have to explain to most people the problem with our healthcare system. How do you think about making the issue of monopoly real to people and vivid and relevant to their lives?

MATT: I'm going to challenge the premise. I don't think monopoly is an issue. I think monopoly is a worldview.

My book is called “Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.” Anti-monopolism is a lens through which you understand power, and particularly commercial power. That’s the lens that I see the world through. And I don't just focus on Facebook or Google. I’m focused on anti-monopolism in general. How you use business institutions to coerce and bully — or liberate — other people in your society.

There's a monopolist who controls the cheerleading industry, which is very weird. I just learned there is a private-equity company that is trying to monopolize the software that churches run. There is a monopoly of Ultimate Fighting Championship-style contests. And then in healthcare there are endless numbers of monopolists. Ultimately, what a monopolist is is a person or institution that is controlling and governing a market. It's a private government versus a public government.

ANAND: You’re saying it’s incompatible with democracy.

MATT: Right. It’s a different system. When Mark Zuckerberg says he’s going to arrange electoral discourse in this particular way, or going to start a Supreme Court, or going to ban this or allow that, he is operating as the global privacy commissioner. He even said, "In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company." That's a direct quote.

As a society, the way we do business is the way we do justice.

ANAND: Understanding how these platforms work, do you think that if Mark Zuckerberg wanted to tip an election, he could? Would that even be illegal under our current system?

MATT: I don't know if it's possible, but it's certainly legal if he decided to.

I listened to this podcast with Zuckerberg where he said — this was right before he became unpopular, so he was still being relatively open — and he said he had noticed some social science that said that the average American had only two or three good friends. So he tasked a team at Facebook to figure out if they could get every American one additional good friend. And I was like, "Oh my God. Leave me alone."

ANAND: We all have that annoying extra friend. You're helping me understand that it's because of Mark Zuckerberg.

MATT: That's exactly right. I don't tend to take the “Gods and Monsters” view. I don't think Mark Zuckerberg is all-powerful or anything.

Can they prevent you from learning about a local city council candidate by blocking that person from advertising? Absolutely. So absolutely they can swing elections. Can they convince you to vote for someone you know about but don't want to vote for? No. But they can make it so that you never learn about somebody or a proposition that you might otherwise be interested in or dislike or whatever.

So I do think that they have power. I just don't think they're secretly hypnotizing us. I think these people are — I’ll use a Zuckerberg quote about Twitter, which is a great quote — “a clown car that fell into a gold mine.”

Matt Stoller is the author of “Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.” He has a newsletter called BIG, where he has a freshly posted issue about the Facebook case. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Photo: Graeme Jennings/Getty