Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Time to unfriend Facebook?

We should not be fooled into thinking Facebook is socially responsible, writes Sam Bright

Over the past few years, it has become apparent that tech companies face a number of existential challenges. They face moral challenges, not least whether artificial intelligence will be harnessed for the benefit of humankind, or whether we will soon be pledging allegiance to our new automated overlords (no, not you Theresa). But tech companies also now face political challenges – which have climaxed in the wake of the 2016 United States presidential election.

There are few tech companies with political obstacles larger than Facebook. This is, at least in part, because there are few tech companies larger than Facebook. Indeed, the social network currently has 2.2 billion users. If it was a country, it would easily boast the largest population in the world – dwarfing China, which has a paltry 1.4 billion inhabitants. And Facebook’s annual revenue, amounting to $40.7 billion in 2017, is roughly larger than the GDP of Serbia, Bolivia and Bahrain.

The ubiquity of Facebook is mind-blowing, but this ubiquity has created problems for the company, many of which have not been properly understood even by senior figures within the company. This fact is superbly explained in WIRED’s latest cover story, which documents Facebook’s tumultuous past two years through interviews with 51 current and former employees. The picture illustrated by these insiders is best characterised by one employee, who says that Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook’s founder and chieftain) is strikingly similar to Lennie in Of Mice and Men: neither comprehend their own strength.

Indeed, it is widely recognised that fake news and foreign manipulation on the platform aided Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. An analysis of the most popular fake news accounts, dedicated to spewing misinformation during the contest, showed that their most recent posts (before Facebook shut them down) were shared more than 340 million times.

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Many of these accounts produced and disseminated outright lies, whereas others merely sensationalised or warped the truth. They were able to get away with this, and even profit from it, due to the nature of the Facebook newsfeed. Zuckerberg and his colleagues have created an ecosystem – many would say an egalitarian one – that rewards sensationalism over accuracy, credibility or depth. Facebook is a shock-and-awe social network. The success of content depends on the strength of emotion it provokes. In the context of cute cat memes, this is not very dangerous. But, when politics is involved, it ends up rewarding bigots and loudmouths over pragmatic politicians – pushing everyone to the extremes.

This unwanted politicisation of Facebook (unwanted both by Zuckerberg, and by politicians) has changed the way we see the platform. For the past decade, Facebook has been viewed as a rare beast: a global capitalist enterprise with a core social mission. Yet, now, politicians are questioning whether Facebook’s values really correspond to theirs. And they are questioning whether the social aspiration of Silicon Valley – namely connecting people across the globe – is worth the cost: tax evasion, distortion of democracy and sleazy work practices.

‘You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused… You have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.’

This stinging remark was made by Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator for California (Facebook’s home state) to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch on 1 November 2017. Her approach seems to be correct. Facebook cannot operate beyond the law, simply because it boasts a lot of computer power and its executives wear sandals and shorts to work.

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Politicians should be prepared to regulate Facebook, and impose penalties if necessary. And there is precedent. The German government recently passed a law that allows fines of up to £44 million to be levied against sites including Facebook if they fail to remove posts containing hate speech within 24 hours of receiving a complaint. In response to this measure, and other criticism, Facebook has hired more people to check and filter posts – proving that Facebook does not have to be the sole arbiter of its contribution to society. Politicians should be prepared to intervene when Facebook fails to deal with malicious behaviour – and there are policies available that can force the company to adapt.

Yet, politicians have still not been bold enough when addressing the scourge of fake news. Currently, Facebook’s solution to fake news is rudimentary. Essentially, the company has decided to downgrade the value of all branded content (ie posts from publishers, rather than individuals), so that fake news cannot spread with the same ferocity as before. This is a sticking plaster solution that fails to address the fundamental causes of fake news – particularly the tendency of Facebook to amplify sensationalist headlines and clickbait.

Granted, there are rumours that Facebook will in future signpost the content of quality publishers. But this is far from certain, and politicians should put pressure on Facebook to create a system that stymies fake news without hindering the work of reputable publishers who, incidentally, have invested millions into content on the platform over recent years. If Facebook can create a system that sifts through a labyrinth of videos, images and articles in order to display exactly what you want to see, when you want to see it, then it should also be able to deal with fake news.

Facebook is a revolutionary company. It has literally changed the world – allowing us to communicate across borders and discover ideas and communities that otherwise would have been hidden. But Facebook, like all organisations, occasionally gets things wrong. And due to the scale of the platform, the repercussions of errors can be seismic. We therefore need to be prepared to scrutinise Facebook and hold it to account when necessary – to prevent it from warping the ideas and institutions that we, rightly, value so highly.


Sam Bright is digital editor at Progress. He tweets @SamBright_Ltd



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