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Policy / DCN perspectives on policy, law, and legislative news surrounding digital content

Facebook’s commitment to shareholders trumps democracy

February 22, 2018 | By Chris Pedigo, SVP Government Affairs – DCN @Pedigo_Chris

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long talked about his company’s goal of “connecting the world.” Clearly, they have succeeded. Families, friends, neighbors, classmates, fans, even employees all around the world connect on Facebook – to the tune of 2.2 billion monthly users at the end of 2017 according to Statista. And more recently, Zuckerberg has attempted to mature this vision with the lofty goal of “building communities.”

But, make no mistake, the platform was also built for advertisers. In exchange for “free” use of the service, people enable Facebook to collect highly personal information about them – information that is used to inform advertising and spread information. As the platform grew in popularity, the tools and information sharing became more innovative – some would even say

When their tools were exploited by foreign agents before and after the 2016 election, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg’s first reaction was denial: “…the idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election is a pretty crazy idea.” In hindsight, it’s seems implausible that a company built on data could be so ignorant about the use or abuse of the service. There was evidence that bad actors utilized Facebook to influence the Brexit election just a few months before. Are we to believe that Facebook employees never investigated those activities or considered how the service was being used around elections?

Given that every family has at least one crazy relative posting full time about politics on Facebook, I’m sure there are several teams of Facebook employees dedicated to understanding political discourse on the platform. Yet, ever since it became clear that Russian agents manipulated Facebook to sow discord in the U.S., the company strategy has been mitigation: slow to share data with the public and lawmakers about what happened, slow to roll out changes to prevent future exploitation, slow to take responsibility for what happened on their platform.

Then came Rob Goldman’s epic, Facebook says rogue, tweet storm. Special counsel Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians for their role in attempting to undermine the 2016 election contains a detailed narrative of how Facebook was manipulated. Goldman’s tweets show that Facebook is STILL in denial. Goldman contends that Russians’ main objective wasn’t to influence the election contrary to Mueller’s indictment and, quite frankly, common sense. 44% of the ads were run before the election. Goldman even admits that the Russian-bought ads were pro-Trump. Worse, Goldman’s defensive tweets focused entirely on advertising, ignoring how foreign actors may have abused other Facebook tools.  All of this bluster is intended to deflect blame, muddy the waters and shield Facebook from taking real responsibility (aka liability).

Ironically, Goldman’s tweet confirms that Russian actors used the Facebook platform to sow discord after the Florida high school shooting. Apparently, the solutions that Facebook has rolled out aren’t working to clean up their platform. One wonders whether the solutions were actually intended to appease lawmakers and regulators as opposed to actually solving the problem. We need to maintain the pressure on Facebook to deliver on it’s lofty rhetoric.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Facebook’s first responsibility is to its shareholders, not our democracy. But, with the 2018 elections just around the corner, we need to continue demanding more from the dominant platforms of Facebook, Google and Twitter. At the moment, it seems they’re still playing the PR game when they should be protecting the “community” they have built.