Face­book should get ready for 2020


By nearly any mea­sure, Face­book Inc. is an ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess. Its mar­ket cap­i­tal­iza­tion ex­ceeds $500 bil­lion. Its user base out­num­bers all but one con­ti­nent. Mark Zucker­berg, its chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, is one of the world’s wealth­i­est peo­ple.

No one should be­grudge Face­book (or Zucker­berg) this suc­cess. Yet as it be­gins to play a more cen­tral role in Amer­i­can me­dia and pol­i­tics, the pub­lic has a right to ex­pect it to ac­cept the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that come with its grow­ing power and in­flu­ence.

Zucker­berg and Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Sh­eryl Sand­berg seem to ap­pre­ci­ate the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion and have pledged to bring more trans­parency to po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing on the net­work. Such ads proved im­mensely pow­er­ful dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion — Don­ald Trump’s dig­i­tal guru says they were “how he won” — yet they’re free from the kind of dis­clo­sure re­quired of tele­vi­sion and ra­dio ads. That no longer makes sense: Cam­paigns spent $1.4 bil­lion on dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing in 2016, more than they spent on ca­ble TV, while 67 per­cent of Amer­i­cans now say they get news from so­cial me­dia.

The com­pany has an­nounced it is hir­ing 1,000 peo­ple to man­u­ally re­view ads with sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal con­tent. It will also re­quire more dis­clo­sure of ad buy­ers and will make ads avail­able for any­one to see, by vis­it­ing the buyer’s Face­book page.

Those are pos­i­tive steps, but the com­pany can go fur­ther. The pub­lic has a right to ex­pect Face­book and its com­peti­tors to be more alert to in­tru­sions by for­eign govern­ments. It’s now clear that Rus­sia en­gaged in a per­va­sive on­line cam­paign to sow dis­cord in U.S. pol­i­tics and help elect Trump. In part, it did so by us­ing fake ac­counts and buy­ing di­vi­sive ad­ver­tis­ing on so­cial me­dia — in­clud­ing some worth $100,000 so far dis­closed by Face­book, which may have reached 10 mil­lion Amer­i­cans.

Bet­ter con­trols are nec­es­sary to en­sure for­eign govern­ments and en­ti­ties aren’t run­ning po­lit­i­cal ads — ad­mit­tedly a tough task as ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal ads need never men­tion a can­di­date or elec­tion. Nev­er­the­less, Face­book could start by open­ing up more of its data to out­side se­cu­rity re­searchers and shar­ing more in­for­ma­tion with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and other tech com­pa­nies. On this score, the in­dus­try’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­forts could serve as a model.

All this will re­quire in­vest­ing in peo­ple and tech­nol­ogy. For­tu­nately, Face­book is not short of re­sources. And then there’s the com­pany’s vaunted abil­ity to in­no­vate: Once Face­book ac­knowl­edged that the pro­lif­er­a­tion of fake news on its net­work was a prob­lem, for in­stance, it soon found that a rel­a­tively sim­ple flag­ging sys­tem could re­duce the reach of such hoaxes by 80 per­cent. Sim­i­lar in­ge­nu­ity can be brought to bear on these other chal­lenges.

Part of Face­book’s ge­nius has been prof­it­ing from me­dia con­tent pro­duced by oth­ers, not pay­ing for the re­port­ing, re­search­ing, edit­ing, fact-check­ing and lawyer­ing that good jour­nal­ism re­quires. The prob­lem is that such hard work is what up­holds stan­dards, pre­vents hoaxes, ed­u­cates vot­ers, shapes civil dis­course, holds politi­cians to ac­count, and gen­er­ally stands be­tween democ­racy and the abyss.

Face­book is not, as Sand­berg and Zucker­berg are fond of point­ing out, a tra­di­tional me­dia com­pany. That sim­ple fact, how­ever — for which its share­hold­ers are un­doubt­edly grate­ful — does not al­low it to ab­di­cate its civic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem in which it has flour­ished.

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