Lincoln Dahlberg: Facebook’s Quality Initiatives and the Ideological Staging of the Public Sphere

The Emmy-Noether research group and the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society co-organised a public lecture of Lincoln Dahlberg, an independent scholar from New Zealand and a leading author on the public sphere. The event took place on Juni 18, 2019, at Weizenbaum Institute, and set the stage for the upcoming workshop “Theorizing Publics under Authoritarian Rule”. 

 

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has announced and implemented an impressive array of what Lincoln Dahlberg refers to as "quality initiatives" in response to extensive allegations and evidence that it hosts and amplifies a significant amount of content and interaction that is harmful to democratic communication. These initiatives do not seem to respond to the political economy critique that there is an antagonistic relationship between Facebook’s profit-driven, targeted-advertising business model and public sphere communication.

 

In his talk, Lincoln Dahlberg demonstrated—through a discourse theory-informed examination of Facebook’s own descriptions of its quality initiatives—how the initiatives do in fact strongly respond to this critique. However, they do not do so by altering Facebook’s business model. As Dahlberg's examination showed, the initiatives respond ideologically to the political economy critique. They do so by staging compatibility between Facebook’s business model and public sphere communication, thus obscuring antagonism and blocking public consideration of regulatory responses that might inhibit the platform’s profit, growth, and market valuation.

 

In conclusion, Dahlberg pointed past the targeted-advertising model to the drive for profit and growth—and the associated domination of users—as the core factor behind Facebook’s antagonistic relationship with the public sphere. Hence, he identified the democratisation of digital social media intermediaries as necessary for the production of democratic communication through such media.