Friday, October 6, 2017

Altruism or Anarchy? More Reasons Why Facebook Deserves Closer Scrutiny

 by Nomad

Facebook CEO

In Praise of Facebook

Until recently, most people believed that social media's influence on politics and on society was overall beneficial. It was the world forum for discussion. It allowed people a voice in nations where free speech was limited. Facebook supporters have often sounded like technocrat crusaders, determined to save the world through CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

For example, in October 2016, author Traci Andrighetti painted a very rosy picture of all of the good things that Facebook was doing to/for politics.
Her list included
  • Communication between politicians and the public on Facebook obliges the media to take a backseat in the reporting process. 
  • Increasing political mobilization of young people, in particular students. 
  • Activists used Facebook to organize inside their own countries and relied on other forms of social media such as Twitter and YouTube to get the word out to the rest of the world.
One can debate the veracity each of these claims, of course. In the last election, did Facebook really improve communications between the public and the candidates? Did the media "take a backseat in the reporting process" or did the mainstream media successfully equalize the candidates of very unequal skill sets?

As far as the other claim, increasing political mobilization means nothing if young people don't actually vote. Overall, 2016 marked the lowest in a presidential election since 1996. According to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the turnout for the 18-29-year-olds showed no marked increase when compared to 2012. In both cases, only about half actually voted. 
Is it just possible that the glowing reviews of Facebook's influence have been exaggerated? 

But there's one claim made in the article that has, without any doubt, been proved to be a case of dangerously-naive thinking.

A Question of Accountability

In her piece, Andrighetti claimed that Facebook also provided voters with "more immediate access to political information and more power to hold lawmakers accountable for their words and actions."

Holding lawmakers accountable is always a splendid idea but that also works both ways. Up until the post-election revelations, Facebook seemed to hesitate about taking necessary steps to screen their content. The policy seemed to be to let things take care of themselves.
However, this eventually opened the floodgates to waves of false news stories- many of them intentionally disseminated- that snookered a lot of undecided voters.  These included so-called spoofs and satire articles that were constantly recycled and linked until few questioned their veracity.

Actually, as we are learning, Facebook's problems went beyond too much reliance of the magic algorithms.

Around the time the author was singing Facebook's praises, Russian-linked ads on Facebook were attempting to shift public opinion, specifically in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states crucial to Donald Trump's victory.
Gary Coby, the director of advertising for the Republican Party, admits that Facebook was also the key to Trump's victory.
"The way we bought media on Facebook was like no one else in politics has ever done."
Putin must have gotten a hearty chuckle when he read that.  

Just this week, the New York Times reported that Russians who posed as Americans on Facebook with a variety of disguises, such as gun-rights supporters, gay rights activists, and even animal lovers. The message was simple: We are you and here is what we think. 
Federal investigators and officials at Facebook now believe these groups and their pages were part of a highly coordinated disinformation campaign that originated in the Kremlin.

Last month, Facebook officials admitted that some of the Russian ads promoted events during the U.S. presidential campaign, such as an anti-immigrant rally in Idaho in August 2016. The full scope of that operation is unclear.
Why, you ask? Because Facebook has declined to provide details of these Russian-backed events to the public. So much for that liberating openness that Mr. Z has long regaled.

Willingly becoming a platform for a highly-sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign has landed Facebook in hot water. 
Under intensifying pressure from Congress and growing public outcry, Facebook on Monday turned over more than 3,000 of the Russia-linked advertisements from its site over to the Senate and House intelligence committees, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee.
This latest scandal might be upsetting to Zuckerberg. He has been caught with his pants down and that's always a painful experience. 
And yet, there are other questions- beyond the complication of Russian collusion- about the negative effect Facebook might be having in politics and on the Internet itself. And those things, highlighted in the documentary below, are not so easily written off as careless blunders or run-of-the-mill corporate hypocrisies. 

Some critics of the "cyber-kingdom" of Facebook would see them more as a calculated policy to expand the company's influence at the cost of everything else.

Facebook and the Disassembling of Internet

With a quarter of the world's population now using Facebook, isn't it only fair to ask who exactly is minding the store and whose side are they on? Are protections of free speech being promoted through Facebook or are they, in fact, being undermined?

Here's a fascinating documentary from the New York Times about Facebook This mega-company, the documentary tells us, has become a challenge to national sovereignty in a variety of ways. How governments respond to that challenge will determine the fate of the Internet.

The documentary asks the all-important questions that have been a long time in coming.

What do you think? 
  • In light of the revelations of the last election, can Facebook be trusted? 
  • Should Facebook remain largely unregulated? 
  • If not, who should be in charge of ensuring that Facebook supports- rather that destroys- democratic values? 
  • Do governments have the right to control how their own citizens communicate?
  • And the larger question, should corporations be obliged to respect democratic values such as free speech?
  • How can that be achieved?