by Nikita Senthil | October 5, 2020
Of the five “Tech Giants” (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google), Facebook has arguably faced the most congressional pressure in the past decade. In recent years, Facebook has received widespread scrutiny and media coverage due to numerous data leaks of users’ private information, concerns about photo recognition software implemented without user consent, and a general disregard for users’ privacy rights. Of these incidents, the Cambridge Analytica scandal during the 2016 presidential election was perhaps the most controversial. Only after the election was it uncovered that Cambridge Analytica, an external political consulting firm, had illegally harvested the data of over 50 million Facebook users, creating so-called “psychographic” profiles of each user that were then translated into personalized political ads. Although the details are unclear, some government officials, including Nancy Pelosi, also believe that Cambridge Analytica assisted Russian interference during that same election. Before dismissing this incident as merely a mistake of the past, we must consider its relevance today—four years later, before another presidential election. The question, then, is what could Facebook possibly do this time around?
As it turns out—quite a lot. In a bid to limit misinformation, Facebook has pivoted in the opposite direction towards censorship. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently shared a post on Facebook, where he announced that Facebook will be “block[ing] new political and issue ads during the final week of the campaign” because “in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims.” It is important to recognize that while Zuckerberg’s intention may be to provide accurate information, it is incredibly disquieting that a single company wields enough power to restrict free speech in whichever way it sees fit. However, while Facebook can block political ads, it cannot delete posts by users or misinformation spread through private groups.
Samantha Zager, the Trump campaign’s deputy press secretary, disapproves of these changes, claiming, “In the last seven days of the most important election in our history, President Trump will be banned from defending himself on the largest platform in America.” Zager goes on to call Facebook “the Silicon Valley Mafia,” but she raises a good point. In a virtual election, the influence of tech, specifically social media, on ordinary people is enormously amplified; it is growing increasingly apparent that even if the government wants to regulate Facebook, it lacks the power to do so. Democrats are generally dissatisfied with Facebook’s announcement as well, but for a different reason. “[T]hese changes will undermine efforts to ensure voters, particularly voters of color… can access accurate information—including when, where and how to cast their ballots,” argued Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and Representative Cheri Bustos.
So far in the election process, however, Facebook seems to be using its power for good. In a clear effort to avoid a repeat of the 2016 election, Facebook took down two propaganda networks originating in China and the Philippines, removing over 200 fake accounts and groups that “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity.”
In addition, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook has “strengthened [its] enforcement against militias, conspiracy networks like QAnon, and other groups that could be used to organize violence or civil unrest in the period after the elections.” Ironically, QAnon, a widespread pro-Trump conspiracy theory and extremist movement associated with real-world violence, primarily gained traction on Facebook because of Facebook’s artificial intelligence-based recommendation system, which continues to direct users to QAnon pages. Facebook is now forced to combat the spread of misinformation it originally facilitated.
Despite and perhaps because of its controversial history, it appears that Facebook will continue to play a significant role in American politics. While neither the general public nor the government currently exercises any real control over Facebook’s policies and actions, we must continue to hold the company accountable because it has the power to change our lives for either the better or worse.
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