The more Facebook examines itself, the more fault it finds

The more Facebook examines itself, the more fault it finds


In October, I started writing a daily newsletter about Facebook and democracy. Fallout from the 2016 election had resulted in a daily deluge of journalism about the unforeseen consequences that Facebook and other social networks were having. By organizing those stories into one place, I hoped to chronicle a cultural reckoning and help give it some shape. I entered into it without a strong sense of how social networks should respond to the unfolding crises around the world. I simply wanted to understand: how is social media reshaping our world?

Today, we learned that Facebook itself has been grappling with this question. In a remarkable set of blog posts from a company that is publishing ever more of them, the company owned up to some of the ways that Facebook can negatively effect democracy. “We’re as determined as ever to fight the negative influences and ensure that our platform is unquestionably a source for democratic good,” wrote Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director. “Our role is to ensure that the good outweighs the forces that can compromise healthy discourse.”

Samidh Chakrabarti, a product manager who works on civic engagement, outlined some of those forces in a separate post. So here’s what we now think we know about Facebook and democracy — or, at least, what Facebook no longer disputes:

  • Facebook’s targeting tools are easily abused by bad actors, including foreign governments. Russia’s use of these tools in the 2016 US presidential election was of course instrumental in kicking off this entire discussion. (Some of it is still online!)

  • Sophisticated misinformation campaigns will defeat Facebook’s best efforts to defeat them, at least some of the time. In one case, a single firm in Poland created 40,000 fake accounts to be deployed for propaganda purposes.

  • Filter bubbles are real, and difficult to burst. Pew says that political polarization in the United States began more than 20 years ago. But Facebook’s design can accelerate that polarization.

  • Governments are using Facebook to target and harass their own citizens, sometimes resulting in real-world violence. In Cambodia, authorities have arrested opposition party leaders based on false stories — and also arrested citizens who spoke out against Prime Minister Hun Sen.

  • Social media can distort policymakers’ view of public opinion, in part because minority viewpoints are underrepresented. Women are underrepresented in political discussion on Facebook, for example.

Whether social media is a net benefit to democracy is, at best, an open question. “I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t,” Chakrabarti writes. “That’s why we have a moral duty to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil, and trustworthy as possible.”

There is little precedent for a technology company to call itself out publicly in this way, on its own corporate blog. Today’s series of essays on democracy —which will continue over the coming days and weeks, the company said — comes on the heels of two other significant announcements, on subsequent Fridays, about changes to the News Feed that will reduce the amount of news in it while promoting more trustworthy journalism. And less than two months after a post about how browsing Facebook could be bad for your self-esteem.

What to make of this? Certainly there is ammunition here for anyone considering the idea of spending less time on Facebook and its apps. It could also be a gift to governments, democratic and otherwise, who would use the information here to subject Facebook to new regulations. That Facebook would invite — and publish — this level of criticism speaks to how high the stakes are for its business. Of the big four tech companies, Facebook is arguably the easiest to quit using. The company is more sensitive to pressure in part because it has to be.

Of course, Facebook highlights the company’s positive contributions to democracy. It does expose some people to journalism who might not otherwise see it, and encourages them to discuss it. It registers voters and created a tool to let Americans explore their local ballots.

But compared to the negative effects that Facebook now admits to, these contributions can look small. Meanwhile, in a near-weekly series of blog posts, Facebook builds the case against itself. Most people will continue using it as normal. But increasingly, they have reason to wonder: should we?



The TentofTech.com is a platform that brings together everything related to technology under the leadership of Hussein Abdullah , a 24-year-old Sudanese who seeks to unify technology under one roof to facilitate the task of obtaining information

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