Facebook must do far more to regulate its content

Social networks designed to build communities are too often used to split societies

A mocked-up “Delete Facebook” message on an iPhone. Photograph: Johannes Berg/Bloomberg

A mocked-up “Delete Facebook” message on an iPhone. Photograph: Johannes Berg/Bloomberg

 

Facebook provides a fun, free and remarkably popular service to 2.2 billion users around the world. But the downside, and it is a very big one, is that the social network has opened the door for extremists, propagandists and spies to hack democracy.

One of the most damning charge sheets against Facebook – and other social media companies – was laid out recently in a British parliamentary report on disinformation and “fake news”. “Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions,” it concluded.

Social networks that were designed to build communities have all too often been used to split societies. A report this year from the Oxford Internet Institute found evidence of organised social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries, compared with 28 last year. These campaigns are also spreading to other platforms: in the developing world many of them run on chat apps, such as WhatsApp, Telegram and WeChat.

Facebook has finally abandoned its happy-clappy rhetoric that it was always the solution rather than the problem. The company now accepts it must take more responsibility for user content. It is also stepping up scrutiny of advertisers.

Last week, Facebook itself flagged a co-ordinated disinformation campaign by “inauthentic” users to influence the US midterm elections. In an earlier interview with Recode, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, admitted the company had been overly idealistic in the past. He accepted that Russian agents had targeted Facebook users in the 2016 US presidential elections and that the social network had been used to instigate inter-communal violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. “If we mess something up, we better damn well make sure we don’t make that same mistake again,” he said.

Vast platforms

But preventing “mistakes” on such vast platforms is a nightmarish challenge. Several proposals for “fixing” Facebook are flying around; none of them looks wholly convincing.

First, there are demands for governments to regulate social networks more aggressively. If Facebook is a social utility, as it has described itself, then maybe it should be regulated like one. European governments have been commendably active in strengthening consumers’ data and privacy rights by adopting the General Data Protection Regulation and punishing platforms that do not take down hate speech fast enough. But any prospect of governments exercising more control over social networks is surely a case of the cure being worse than the disease. That way China lies.

Several proposals for 'fixing' Facebook are flying around; none of them looks wholly convincing

Another argument is that Facebook should be treated as a publisher rather than a platform. It should be held legally responsible for all content, just like the New York Times. But we should be wary about how far to push this argument, too. Facebook should not become the de facto arbiter of public acceptability or truth.

Some are calling for a ban on all political advertising on social media given the opportunities for manipulation. That sounds great in theory, a lot tougher in practice. It would be easy to ban official political advertising, but what precisely constitutes the unofficial kind?

Other tech critics are urging users to delete their social media accounts until the companies unplug the ad-driven “manipulation engines” that enrich them. The writer Jaron Lanier has made this case most pungently. But even he does not believe his campaign will persuade many users.

Facebook assures us it will take the lead in cleaning up the mess. Zuckerberg says the company is half-way through a three-year retooling exercise. Its artificial intelligence systems are becoming better at expunging extremist materials. It now employs 20,000 people to weed out offensive content.

Persistent obfuscation

There is no question, though, that Facebook could, and should, go further. For starters, it should co-operate more fully with political representatives and academic researchers, who are trying to address online abuse. The British parliamentary inquiry expressed dismay at Facebook’s persistent obfuscation.

In some respects, the focus on Facebook may only be blurring the far bigger societal problems of information overload and addictive distraction. Smart political operators, such as US president Donald Trump’s former electoral strategist Steve Bannon, have already understood that, in this new mindworld, emotion overwhelms reason and distraction usurps information. “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall,” he told the writer Michael Lewis earlier this year. “Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.”

Focus on Facebook may only be blurring the bigger societal problems of information overload and addictive distraction

In Bannon’s view, the political imperative is to dominate the conversation rather than contest a battle of ideas. “The Democrats don’t matter,” he continued. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

Social media has provided the means to spray faecal matter around the planet at the click of a mouse. And, for the moment, our societies are without an adequate mop. “Resistance is futile,” writes Siva Vaidhyanathan in his latest book, Antisocial Media. “But resistance seems necessary.”

john.thornhill@ft.com

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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