Russian ad fiasco makes it clear Facebook can’t be trusted to regulate itself

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Facebook spent most of 2017 promising to do better.

The social network has been in hot water ever since last year’s historically nasty presidential election laid bare how its ultra-precise ad targeting can be used for nefarious political means.

Yet for all the company’s tough talk now, Facebook categorically denied this problem existed until less than a year ago. So how much stake should we put in its assurances that it will be able to hold itself accountable in the future?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered his latest mea culpa in a speech this week in which he finally agreed to hand over to Congress thousands of propaganda ads placed by a Russian troll farm to sow political strife.   

He also outlined a list of ways the company plans to protect “election integrity,” including disclosing more about the source of political advertising and working with election commissions around the world in vaguely specified ways.

These changes, the latest in an ongoing series announced throughout recent months, aren’t happening solely out of the goodness of Facebook’s heart. 

For one, Congress has been breathing down the company’s neck since it first disclosed the Russian propaganda campaign earlier this month. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he believes the revelation is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

More broadly, the aftermath of the election has put a new level of scrutiny on the black-box automation that now shapes much of our media and advertising consumption online. 

It’s a very profitable business for Facebook. The company recorded more than $27.6 billion in total revenue in 2016, and its massive ad platform will help it capture one out of every five digital advertising dollars this year, according to a report from eMarketer

And Facebook undoubtedly realizes that if it doesn’t clean up its act on its own volition, there’s a good chance some regulator will eventually decide to do so on much less agreeable terms.

Facebook is more than happy to default to whatever position lets it sell the most ads

Zuckerberg’s solemn tone towards Facebook’s democratic duty these days makes it easy to forget that his initial reaction to that proposition was anything but. 

“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way, I think is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said in one of several repeated denials in the weeks immediately following November’s election.

It was only after Zuckerberg woke up to the fact that the media narrative wasn’t going away that he managed to move past the acceptance stage and start to take the issue seriously.

Facebook’s now doing so in the same manner it’s handled previous controversies over user privacy, offensive content, and other complaints: by looking inwards and making a show of self-regulating. Perhaps daunted by Facebook’s technical complexity, lawmakers and regulators have mostly accepted this answer in the past.

But public outcry aside, Facebook is more than happy to default to whatever position lets it sell the most ads. Billions of dollars worth of them change hands without a single human interaction through its automated self-serve platform, which Facebook mostly treats with libertarian remove.

Even now, Zuckerberg is still hesitant to infringe upon what advertisers can say.

“We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think society should want us to,” he said Thursday. “Freedom means you don’t have to ask for permission first.” 

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

While it’s pretty much impossible for Facebook to see every single ad that hits its platform, the sheer amount of misinformation, propaganda, and phony accounts must have given Facebook’s operators at least some clue that subversive forces were at play during the election. Yet with less public attention being paid to the problem, Facebook had little incentive to do anything.

That failure became a wake-up call when some of those bad actors were traced to a foreign power’s bid to undermine the country’s democratic process. After years of hands-off treatment, the pressure put on tech giants by governments, media, and the public seems to be reaching a head this year. 

Facebook has been forced to grapple with its newfound role as a civic institution in addition to a private company and all the messy conflicts of interest and moral responsibilities that go along with it.   

That seems to be at least in part why Zuckerberg’s been busy trying to play the part of statesman with middle-American road trips and grand manifestos about “building communities.”

Despite Zuck’s supposed political awakening, though, Facebook’s one true allegiance is to the shareholders who really only care that it sells as many ads as it can. Sure, that sometimes means walking a tight rope to appease the public enough to ward off more restrictive regulation. But that’s about as far as it will go.  

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Tags: 2016-election big-tech-companies business facebook

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