Facebook Lied To The Public. Now What?
Last week, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg proclaimed “Without Facebook, Donald Trump would not be president.” And as shocking and explicit as that statement is, we now know this to be true.
Shortly after the US election in 2016, rumours began to circulate that “fake news” had influenced the results. Those rumours quickly turned into cold, hard facts as it was uncovered that Russia had created hundreds of Facebook accounts designed to circulate damaging misinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech, ultimately influencing the minds of American voters. Facebook soon became the focus of thousands of articles, receiving intense criticism and backlash for its inaction to get the problem under control and continue to allow propaganda to spread. But what was more problematic was Mark Zuckerberg’s inability to recognise his company’s own power. Following the backlash, Zuckerberg sat on stage in an interview and said he didn’t believe social media had any influence on the way people voted, “I don’t think that’s true. I think people vote based on their lived experiences.”Audience members couldn’t believe what they were hearing, how could this guy not get it? Facebook is a platform with two billion members. Population-wise it is larger than any single country in the world. Zuckerberg then took it a step further by saying in a Facebook post, “Identifying the truth is complicated.” Um, actually Mark, I feel like nah it’s not??
In April of this year, the 34-year-old founder sat before the U.S. Congress to share his side of the story about Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica sh*tstorm. You can read my unpacking of that here, but what Zuckerberg was ultimately made to face was the realisation that without his company, Cambridge Analytica wouldn’t have been able to harvest the private information of 87 million people. In the last few months, things have gone from bad to worse for Facebook and it’s leaders as it was revealed that not only did the company know about the extent of Russia’s hack, but they made the fateful decision to conceal the problem from the public. Reportedly, Facebook engineers discovered suspicious Russia-linked activity on their site directly linked to the 2016 election, and when they took their findings to Zuckerberg and C.O.O Sheryl Sandberg, the leaders chose to cover up the evidence because they knew it would implicate the company. Specifically, it is being reported that Sandberg was more concerned with the legal risks of them tackling the problem and the consequences for them as a business. So instead of shutting down those accounts immediately, they chose to not interfere (arguing that it is not their job to filter opinions) and instead conceal it from their users because they were terrified of the consequences for their reputation. Yes, they alluded to there being “a problem”, but Sandberg and Zuckerberg reassured congressional and federal investigators that they had it under control. It was only when Facebook’s security chief, Alex Stamos, decided he was too uncomfortable with the secret that he told board members that in fact they didn’t have it under control, they had made some serious mistakes, and that this was a severe problem that wouldn’t go away quickly. He revealed that Facebook had unwittingly sold $100,000 worth of ads on its platform to Russian government trolls who intended to influence the US election. Zuckerberg and Sandberg saw this confession as a betrayal in loyalty and Stamos was fired. But all Stamos wanted the US government to assess was: What does it mean when the most powerful platform in the world can’t be trusted to regulate itself?
Because in addition to all of this being a huge abuse of power, in addition to the recognition that Facebook needs to be regulated, this all feels really, really toxic. Just this month we found out that Facebook has hired a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit their critics following the backlash. This is clearly a company that is either in denial of it’s power, or extremely uncomfortable with it. And if they are uncomfortable with it, should we trust them to safeguard the values of privacy and democracy?
For so long we’ve looked at social media as a tool. Maybe it’s time we start looking at it as a weapon instead.