Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg began his speech last week by attempting to place free expression in the historical American context, and only then turned to discuss free expression in the context of Facebook, where he proposed something much more modern:
People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences. I understand the concerns about how tech platforms have centralized power, but I actually believe the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands. It’s part of this amazing expansion of voice through law, culture and technology.
The Fifth Estate is a clear reference to the Fourth Estate — the press — and Zuckerberg’s argument is that while the Fourth Estate entailed gatekeepers the Fifth Estate does not, for both better and worse. It’s a compelling framing, and one that certainly puts in perspective the tension that exists between the press and Facebook in particular: no gatekeeper likes to lose their monopoly on the distribution of information.
It’s also a framing that is, appropriately enough, uniquely American; in the United States, the first three estates are commonly thought to be the three branches of government: the executive, legislative, and judicial. It is the press that holds all three accountable, and in Zuckerberg’s telling, the Fifth Estate that gives everyone else a voice.
There is, though, another way to think about social media that is perhaps even more compelling, with a story that draws not from American history but rather European.
Europe’s Three Estates
In Europe the first three estates are a reference to how society was organized throughout the Middle Ages: the First Estate was the church, the second was the nobility, and the third were the commoners. By the 1700s those estates, at least in England, had become branches of government: the King (the First Estate — more on king versus clergy in a moment), the House of Lords (the Second Estate), and the House of Commons (the Third Estate); this was the context for Edmund Burke’s remarks in 1787 that “There are Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
With this context, the European reading of the Fourth Estate is actually rather akin to the American one: the press is an independent force holding the government accountable. And so, again, Zuckerberg’s characterization of social media as the Fifth Estate makes sense.
Without this context, though, social media as the Fifth Estate would not make sense at all: after all, “people having the power to express themselves at scale”, to use Zuckerberg’s words, is about giving the commoners a voice — but the commoners are the Third Estate! In fact, in the medieval period where the three estates existed the press as fourth estate wouldn’t have made much sense either, given that the printing press didn’t even exist.
The Printing Press
That the clergy came first was not an accident: in the Middle Ages the principle organizing entity for Europe was the Catholic Church. Relatedly, the Catholic Church also held a de facto monopoly on the distribution of information: most books were in Latin, copied laboriously by hand by monks. There was some degree of ethnic affinity between various members of the nobility and the commoners on their lands, but underneath the umbrella of the Catholic Church were primarily independent city-states.
The printing press changed all of this. Suddenly Martin Luther, whose critique of the Catholic Church was strikingly similar to Jan Hus 100 years earlier, was not limited to spreading his beliefs to his local area (Prague in the case of Hus), but could rather see those beliefs spread throughout Europe; the nobility seized the opportunity to interpret the Bible in a way that suited their local interests, gradually shaking off the control of the Catholic Church.
Meanwhile, the economics of printing books was fundamentally different from the economics of copying by hand. The latter was purely an operational expense: output was strictly determined by the input of labor. The former, though, was mostly a capital expense: first, to construct the printing press, and second, to set the type for a book. The best way to pay for these significant up-front expenses was to produce as many copies of a particular book that could be sold.
How, then, to maximize the number of copies that could be sold? The answer was to print using the most widely used dialect of a particular language, which in turn incentivized people to adopt that dialect, standardizing language across Europe. That, by extension, deepened the affinities between city-states with shared languages, particularly over decades as a shared culture developed around books and later newspapers. This consolidation occurred at varying rates — England and France several hundred years before Germany and Italy — but in nearly every case the First Estate became not the clergy of the Catholic Church but a national monarch, even as the monarch gave up power to a new kind of meritocratic nobility epitomized by Burke.
In other words, Burke’s Fourth Estate was the means by which the Second Estate overthrew the first.
The Second Estate and the Press
I would go further: just as the Catholic Church ensured its primacy by controlling information, the modern meritocracy has done the same, not so much by controlling the press but rather by incorporating it into a broader national consensus.
Here again economics play a role: while books are still sold for a profit, over the last 150 years newspapers have become more widely read, and then television became the dominant medium. All, though, were vehicles for the “press”, which was primarily funded through advertising, which was inextricably tied up with large enterprise. I explained this symbiosis in 2016’s TV Advertising’s Surprising Strength — And Inevitable Fall:
The very institution of television advertising is intertwined with the kinds of advertisers that use it the most, the products they sell, and the way they are bought-and-sold…Start with the top 25 advertisers in the U.S. The list is made up of:
- 4 telecom companies (AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Softbank/Sprint)
- 4 automobile companies (General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota)
- 4 credit card companies (America Express, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Capital One)
- 3 consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies (Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal, Johnson & Johnson)
- 3 entertainment companies (Disney, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox)
- 3 retailers (Walmart, Target, Macy’s)
- 1 from electronics (Samsung), pharmaceuticals (Pfizer), and beer (Anheuser-Busch InBev)
Notice that the vast majority of the industries on on this list are dominated by massive companies that compete on scale and distribution. CPG is the perfect example: building a “house of brands” allows a company like Procter & Gamble to target demographic groups even as they leverage scale to invest in R&D, bring down the cost of products, and most importantly, dominate the distribution channel (i.e. retail shelf space). Said retailers, meanwhile, are huge in their own right, not only so they can match their massive suppliers at the bargaining table, but also so they can scale logistics, inventory management, store development, etc. Automobile companies, meanwhile, are not unlike CPG companies: they operate a “house of brands” to serve different demographics while benefitting from scale in production and distribution; the primary difference is that they make money through one large purchase instead of over many smaller purchases over time.
My list of top advertisers had one missing piece — politicians — but that is only because the data was from a period that did not include an election. More broadly, the press, big business, and politicians all operated within a broad, nationally-oriented consensus.
Note, though, the reason I wrote that article: my argument is that every part of the media-advertising-industrial complex was threatened by the Internet.
The inescapable reality is that TV advertisers are 20th century companies: built for mass markets, not niches, for brick-and-mortar retailers, not e-commerce. These companies were built on TV, and TV was built on their advertisements, and while they are propping each other up for now, the decline of one will hasten the decline of the other.
There is no reason this reality shouldn’t apply to nation-states as well.
The Internet and the Third Estate
What makes the Internet different from the printing press? Usually when I have written about this topic I have focused on marginal costs: books and newspapers may have been a lot cheaper to produce than handwritten manuscripts, but they are still not-zero. What is published on the Internet, meanwhile, can reach anyone anywhere, drastically increasing supply and placing a premium on discovery; this shifted economic power from publications to Aggregators.
Just as important, though, particularly in terms of the impact on society, is the drastic reduction in fixed costs. Not only can existing publishers reach anyone, anyone can become a publisher. Moreover, they don’t even need a publication: social media gives everyone the means to broadcast to the entire world. Read again Zuckerberg’s description of the Fifth Estate:
People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.
It is difficult to overstate how much of an understatement that is. I just recounted how the printing press effectively overthrew the First Estate, leading to the establishment of nation-states and the creation and empowerment of a new nobility. The implication of overthrowing the Second Estate, via the empowerment of commoners, is almost too radical to imagine.
And yet, take a look around: there are protests around the globe, from Hong Kong to Chile to France to Spain to the Netherlands, primarily by populist movements. The U.S. and U.K., meanwhile, have no need for populist protests given that populist movements won stunning victories at the polls in 2016. I described the rise of Trump in particular in The Voters Decide:
For a moment, though, step back to the world as it was: the one where newspapers (and TV stations, etc.) were gatekeepers thanks to their ownership of production and distribution. In this world any viable political campaign had to play nicely with those who ran the press in the hopes of gaining positive earned media, endorsements, etc. Just as important, though, was the need to buy advertising, as that was the only way to reach voters at scale. And advertising required lots of money, which meant donors. And then, once the actual election rolled around, a campaign needed an effective GOTV effort, which took not only money but also the sort of manpower that could only be rustled up by organizations like labor unions, churches, etc. It is all these disparate pieces: partisan media members, advertisers, donors, large associations, plus consultants and specialists to manage them that, along with traditional politicians, made up the “party” in The Party Decides…
This brings us back to today’s world, and admittedly, the leap from a description of Facebook and Aggregation Theory to politics is not an obvious one: I’m not proposing that Donald Trump or anyone else is an aggregator. Indeed, given their power over what users see Facebook could, if it chose, be the most potent political force in the world. Until, of course, said meddling was uncovered, at which point the service, having so significantly betrayed trust, would lose a substantial number of users and thus its lucrative and privileged place in advertising, leading to a plunge in market value. In short, there are no incentives for Facebook to explicitly favor any type of content beyond that which drives deeper engagement; all evidence suggests that is exactly what the service does.
Said reticence, though, creates a curious dynamic in politics in particular: there is no one dominant force when it comes to the dispersal of political information, and that includes the parties described in the previous section. Remember, in a Facebook world, information suppliers are modularized and commoditized as most people get their news from their feed. This has two implications:
- All news sources are competing on an equal footing; those controlled or bought by a party are not inherently privileged
- The likelihood any particular message will “break out” is based not on who is propagating said message but on how many users are receptive to hearing it. The power has shifted from the supply side to the demand side
This is a big problem for the parties as described in The Party Decides. Remember, in Noel and company’s description party actors care more about their policy preferences than they do voter preferences, but in an aggregated world it is voters aka users who decide which issues get traction and which don’t. And, by extension, the most successful politicians in an aggregated world are not those who serve the party but rather those who tell voters what they most want to hear.
Forgive the long excerpt, but there are multiple points relevant to the current moment worth covering.
First, the initial effect of the printing press was substituting Second Estate control in a First Estate framework; specifically, emerging nation-states formed state churches with the King as the head. That is a similar dynamic to many of these populist movements, which are nationalistic in nature. Both Brexit and Trump explicitly call back to nostalgic views of national greatness, conveniently ignoring that neither movement would have been allowed a national voice in the time periods they aspire to. I suspect this adherence to the Second Estate nation-state framework is temporary.
Second, the degree to which the press — and again, this includes all types of high fixed cost/low marginal cost mediums like newspapers, TV, etc. — is intermingled with politics generally and the nation-state specifically is impossible to overstate.
Third, Facebook’s potential power over elections truly is immense.
What is critically important when it comes to Facebook’s power is the various means by which that power could be realized.
The first and most straightforward way is Facebook putting its thumb on the scale. This is a concern that arose recently with the leaked audio of an all-hands meeting where Zuckerberg was reported as being willing to “go to the mat” versus Elizabeth Warren. This was, as I laid out in this Daily Update, an extremely unfair characterization of Zuckerberg’s obvious intension to fight any potential antitrust lawsuits. At the same time, it was a useful reminder that Facebook’s power is to be feared, and an argument the company is simply too large.
The second concern is the capacity of trolls, both of the profit-seeking and foreign government variety, to leverage Facebook’s fundamental engagement-seeking nature to push misinformation and division. The company claims it has made substantial investments in this area, both in terms of identifying bad actors and in taking down problematic content; Facebook puts these investments forward as an argument that the company’s size is an asset.
The third concern is what has dominated the news cycle as of late: Facebook’s decision to not fact-check any posts or ads from politicians. This is largely being framed as aiding President Trump in particular, which is probably both true and also an unsurprising complaint from the Second Estate used to having monopoly control over fact-checking.
The broader issue is that the third concern and first concern are so clearly in direct opposition to each other. If Facebook has the potential for immense influence on politics, why on earth would anyone want the company policing political speech?
The China Question
This question is even more meaningful than it seems. The other major news story of the past few weeks has been The China Cultural Clash. Zuckerberg referenced this in his speech:
China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries. Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top ten are Chinese.
We’re beginning to see this in social media. While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US.
Is that the internet we want?
For some in the Second Estate, it appears to be an open question. Consider the New York Times, which has been at the forefront of Facebook criticism: over the weekend the country’s preeminent newspaper ran a front-page story about TikTok and its embrace by U.S. high schools; there was zero mention of Chinese censorship. To be fair to the author, that wasn’t the point of the story; to be cognizant of the role of editors at the New York Times in particular, it is hard to imagine any sort of glowing profile about a Facebook-owned property that wouldn’t contain multiple caveats.
Indeed, this gets at why the Facebook questions are so critical: the company’s critics that argue that Facebook is too big are making a cogent argument that reconciles concerns about Facebook’s power with a desire to control misinformation; critics that ignore these tradeoffs, though, come across as authoritarians in their own right, disappointed in Facebook only so far as the company fails to leverage its power to enforce their personal preferences.
And so we are back to China. The U.S. specifically and the West broadly is not going to out-authoritarian an avowedly Marxist regime with a demonstrated willingness to use “re-education camps” and omnipresent surveillance to ensure the Second Estate era — that of the cohesive nation-state — remains in place. To fight the Internet’s impact, instead of seeking to understand it and guide the fundamental transformations that will surely follow, is a commitment by the West to lose the fight for the future.
The fact of the matter is that the world is fundamentally changing, just as it did five hundred years ago. At the same time, that change will take time — the printing press was invented in Germany in 1440 and yet German unification did not happen until 1871 — and will be guided by choices we make along the way. The sooner we recognize that transformation is coming, the more readily we can reject authoritarian attempts to hold onto the world as it was, and create the world we want to see.