The Conversation We Should Be Having About Facebook

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Make no mistake about it: Facebook is inherently a part of our world.

If you don’t have a Facebook account, chances are you know someone who does. If you don’t know what Facebook does, chances are you’ve heard about them in the news. But if you’re on that platform, you may be keenly aware of its bombardment of content, coming at you relentlessly. Content moves so quickly and pervasively — as much as life itself often does — it’s hard to discern between fact and fiction on that platform.

Remember the video circulating around Facebook of a “drunk” House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)? The doctored video was circulated over a million times before public outcry forced a reluctant Facebook to “fact-check” it. But Facebook didn’t remove the video. Pelosi responded to Facebook’s refusal to refuse the video, telling California’s KQED, “I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election.”

And this is true. In 2017, Facebook revealed to Congress that Russian agents disseminated deceptive, inflammatory and false content that reached approximately 126 million users on Facebook. Congressional records show Facebook was reluctant to come forward with that information, initially downplaying influence by the Russian government. Then one year later in 2018, we learned Facebook was warned of Russian meddling as early as 2014.

Now Facebook has made it difficult to track that sort of activity. Facebook recently disabled advanced “graph” search features that effectively track purveyors of misinformation in addition to catching war criminals and child predators. This move has stymied the efforts of law enforcement and investigative journalists.

Fortunately, one of Facebook’s former investors have taken notice.

Last month, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote a nearly 6,000-word New York Times op-ed, calling out platform CEO Mark Zuckerberg and their growing monopoly on content. Calling Zuckerberg’s power over Facebook “unprecedented and un-American,” Hughes wrote it was time to break up Facebook.

Not only do they stifle competition and innovation, Facebook also stifles the way users learn about the truth. And when you consider the fact Facebook has over 2.38 billion monthly active users worldwide, the consequences for routinely kowtowing to misinformation and propaganda is staggering. Earlier this year, Facebook claims to have removed 2.2 billion fake accounts — and that’s only factoring those who have used automation to create those accounts.

But Zuckerberg believes breaking up Facebook will change nothing, claiming Facebook accounts for less than 10% of the global online ad market. But that’s ultimately a non sequitur. Anything that goes viral on Facebook winds up in the public conversation. Remember that “drunk” Nancy Pelosi video I mentioned earlier? That made the news. The video was also shared by President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who used the video to question Pelosi’s mental fitness. Though he later deleted his tweet and apologized, Giuliani helped spread that misinformation to another platform outside Facebook’s global online ad market and membership base. Once Facebook allows false and misleading content to metastasize, they can no longer fall back on the argument that their platform is merely a piker.

I believe it’s time to break up Facebook. But in making the argument to do so, we have to first deconstruct the user’s experience and reliance. This will help us communicate to users why everyone should be concerned about Facebook.

Facebook allows people from all over the world to connect with their friends. Though Facebook is a pioneer of such functionality, the “connection” is no longer an exclusive trait to them. Pursuing and enacting antitrust measures against Facebook would allow social media developers to provide a similar “connection” to friends through their platforms.

But the conversation starts getting thorny when we talk about advertising. According to Facebook, six million advertisers use Facebook’s assets to target ads reaching more than 1.4 billion daily active users. That is massive. But that number will drop when users are introduced to competitors that provide similar conveniences to Facebook while aggressively policing pernicious content and enacting stronger privacy protections.

Facebook is so big that it has the power to enable reality distortion, effectively undermining our democratic principles and institutions. We’ve seen it happen in 2016. Given Facebook’s reluctance, refusals and extensive record of severe judgment lapses that resulted in significant interference into an election by a hostile foreign power, it will happen again. This is a matter of life and death for the truth and we can no longer be complacent.

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