From what I have read by people who really understand what happened during the last election, almost all suggest Facebook played a role in the final outcome. From last June through the election, my Facebook feeds were heavily populated with political commentary and personal agendas from people I know and follow on both sides of the political coin.
With 1.8 billion users, Facebook has become one of the most powerful communications mediums we have ever seen and it grows every month. While it can deliver real news, it is also a vehicle for fake news and allows people to spout off on their personal beliefs ad nauseam. Consequently, Facebook and its leadership are faced with new levels of managing content I am sure was not in the original business plan.
While they want the site to maintain its freedom of speech profile, Facebook must now combat fake news, hateful speech and other issues of non-ethical content that runs rampant on this platform. This means there is a new level of responsibility that has been thrust upon Zuckerberg and his highest officials and, since Mark appears to have the last word on things, it kind of makes him the most powerful person at Facebook and, in some ways, the most powerful person in the world.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many “powerful people” in the world and millions could be impacted by their good or bad actions. However, Facebook/Zuckerberg is the only site/person with 1.8+ billion followers that crosses all geographical, ethnic and political lines. As a communications medium, he and his site have emerged as a means of influencing people in ways we have never seen in our history. Facebook as an influencing platform is where it potentially gets into some very tricky waters that demand more hands-on navigation from Zuckerberg and team.
Last week, my Tech.pinion’s colleague Jan Dawson, laid out these same issues when he commented on Zuckerberg’s 6,000 word manifesto. In his article, he gives commentary on the role Facebook should play in the democratic process. He includes a quote from Zuckerberg:
“Nowhere is this more striking than when he (Zuckerberg) starts talking about participation in the democratic process:
“The second is establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making. Our world is more connected than ever, and we face global problems that span national boundaries. As the largest global community, Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.”
That sounds like Zuckerberg envisions a world where Facebook itself becomes the medium through which communities (i.e. cities, states, countries) would govern themselves. Given existing concerns about Facebook’s power to shape media consumption, the idea it would take a direct role in governance (rather than merely allowing people to vote or connect with their elected representatives as it has done in the past) should be terrifying.
It’s arguable that even Facebook’s “Get Out the Vote” efforts have potential to distort the democratic process, given that usage skews younger than the overall population. But at least it doesn’t give Facebook a direct role in the democratic process itself. If I were a local government, I’d be extremely wary of allowing Facebook a deeper role in any of these processes – I think it’s time for both individuals and organizations to push back against Facebook’s enormous power rather than embracing an expansion of it.
But this concern should go beyond just the democratic process and institutions – we should all be thinking about how much power we want Facebook to have over our lives.
On the face of it, this seems great – Facebook would be helping to identify those who would hurt others while they’re still in the planning stages. But it refers to terrorists using private channels, which implies Facebook looking into the contents of private messages shared between users on Facebook’s various platforms. This is yet another area where Facebook’s power is already considerable – not only does it control much of our media consumption but it also hosts and carries much of our communication via four huge platforms: Facebook itself, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram.
Facebook’s instincts here are understandable but also worrying. It finally recognizes its power and the ways in which that power has caused problems in the world but its instinct is to wield that power even more, rather than back off. Given Facebook seems unlikely to police itself, it’s up to its users and other organizations to start to exert pressure for it to do so.”
Jan’s perspective is important but I believe Facebook has to also police itself and be more aggressive in doing so. Putting this much power into the hands of Zuckerberg and a few key members of his team, given its influence, needs to come with extra checks and balances.
They need to have outside teams of independent ethicists, educators, constitutional scholars and others with special skills that truly understand democracy as well as fairness to serve as strategic advisors as they craft an ongoing policy to “do no evil” and make sure Facebook’s power and authority is always in check.
I am uncomfortable putting that much worldwide power into the hands of just a few, even if their intentions are good. Facebook needs more outside help to make sure they are advancing the role of democracy and in no way derailing it by allowing things like fake news and hateful speech to influence anyone’s thinking on making the world a better place.