Facebook Internal Memo Reveals Challenges Social Media Companies Face In Protecting Democracy
from the democracy-and-social-media dept
Is social media good or bad for democracy?
A recent internal memo from a departing Facebook employee may force us to do a deep dive on this issue. And it should – but not for the memo’s allegations that Facebook focuses primarily on protecting democracy and removing fake accounts from Western countries.
Rather, the memo sets out to explain how Facebook – and presumably other social media companies – have become self-directed global state departments trying to triage fraud by the wealthy, politically powerful or simply evil groups creating fictitious accounts trying to sway public opinion and stomp out groups with other views. These bad actors weaponize Facebook and other social media to ridicule those who challenge incumbents – thus twisting the concept of democracy and the value of the media as a town square for dialogue.
All of this was exposed in detail by data scientist Sophie Zhang in her internal memo posted on her last day of work. In it she described her job as tracking down fraudulent accounts and said she was fired for wanting to spend more time on protecting democracies in non-Western countries. The Buzzfeed article that reported the memo quotes a former colleague who lauded Zhang’s integrity and passion for her job of tracking down bots attempting to influence elections.
The fallout from the Zhang piece remains to be seen. She likely will be sought by the State Department, government investigators and private and political organization given her unarguably deep experience, moral judgment and strong skill set in investigating fraud using social media.
But her revealing memo raises the bigger issue of the huge expectations and complex job social media companies now face. Facebook must monitor some 2.6 billion users, along with sophisticated efforts by governments around the world to misuse the platform. For me, the surprising thing isn’t that Facebook failed to remove all disinformation in Honduras or Bolivia or Azerbaijan, it’s that one company is now expected to moderate political discourse across the entire globe, accurately determining in real time what statements are valid and what is not. Even with Facebook’s reach and resources, that is simply not a reasonable expectation.
An even bigger point for Americans is that we are lucky to have Facebook and other major social media companies based in our country. Our cultural affinity and history favoring diversity and different viewpoints, our First Amendment, our melting pot of people and ideas, and our Constitution and history favoring choice in elections should require that we protect and help Facebook and other social media companies as they do the best they can to preserve and expand American – and even global – democracy.
President Trump’s focus on TikTok’s Chinese ownership is the other side of this coin. The Chinese are everything we are not with their Uighur detention centers, social monitoring and rating of every citizen and total control of speech. They have proven that totalitarianism may be effective at controlling the aftermath of a pandemic – although their restrictions on speech and crackdowns on dissent allowed COVID-19 to spread in the first place. But I choose individual liberty and want a choice besides the one communist candidate China offers for each position.
As Americans, we face a quandary. How do we recognize the value to democracy and support our top social media companies which now dominate the world? For one, we should agree that democracy is a foundational principle and fraudulent accounts should be rooted out. More, we need transparency by social media companies in what they expect and allow – along with what they won’t tolerate. This does not necessarily require government action. Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute – a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy research organization – suggests big tech companies follow the comic book industry of the 1950s and develop a voluntary code. Another idea is for a multilateral, democracy-loving advisory board where each country gets input – but not control.
Although Buzzfeed headlines Zhang as a whistleblower, she has not spoken publicly yet and only circulated an internal memo. She came across as seriously diligent and concerned with her job of ferreting out fraudulent misuse of Facebook’s platform to subvert democracy. She noted that Facebook had made efforts to control misinformation: she removed 672,000 fake accounts spreading disinformation about the pandemic, and took down 10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the U.S. in the 2018 election. She said she was overwhelmed by her inability to address government-organized misuse occurring on Facebook in smaller, non-Western countries.
Democracy is the cornerstone of our culture and nation. And social media companies give voice to those with different ideas. Think about the reach President Trump has on Facebook and Twitter!
We should spend less time trying to cut down the size of these American crown jewel companies or removing their legal protections for user-generated content – and more time figuring out how they can operate within principles protecting democracy and the free flow of ideas by real citizens.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. He is the author of the book, Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation. His views are his own.