Science, Technology, and Social Media

Facebook Admits Social Media May Be Bad For Democracy


by Eric Lieberman

A top Facebook executive admitted Monday that the social media platform may have a harmful effect on democracy, an apparently dire concern of the company.

There have been many moments in the past where it appeared like social media helped cultivate democratic principles and institutions, however, more recent events changed Facebook’s perception.

“From the Arab Spring to robust elections around the globe, social media seemed like a positive,” Katie Harbath, director of the global politics and government outreach department, wrote in a blog post on Monday. “The last US presidential campaign changed that, with foreign interference that Facebook should have been quicker to identify to the rise of ‘fake news’ and echo chambers.”

Facebook conceded to congressional investigators late last year that it sold political ads to a suspicious Russian firm during the run-up to the 2016 election. The social media company turned over all information to special counsel Robert Mueller, that included copies of the ads and the identity of the purchasers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg originally pledged to do more to protect “election integrity,” but later defended his company on several occasions, arguing the number of ads was minuscule relative to the large digital ad market.

“Campaigns spent hundreds of millions advertising online to get their messages out even further. That’s 1000x more than any problematic ads we’ve found,” Zuckerberg wrote in a September 2017 Facebook post. “The data we have has always shown that our broader impact — from giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote — played a far bigger role in this election.”

Facebook’s latest public comments came in a series of blog posts, as the company’s product manager for civic engagement, Samidh Chakrabarti, also chimed in.

“The Russian interference worked in part by promoting inauthentic Pages, so we’re working to make politics on Facebook more transparent,” saidChakrabarti. “We’re making it possible to visit an advertiser’s Page and see the ads they’re currently running.”

He also said there are two other planned, critical steps:

We’ll soon also require organizations running election-related ads to confirm their identities so we can show viewers of their ads who exactly paid for them. Finally, we’ll archive electoral ads and make them searchable to enhance accountability.

Facebook as a whole seems committed to being more public with their own concerns about the company’s impact on society, perhaps in response to the criticism being levied by former executives and other notable figures.

Sean Parker, a famous tech entrepreneur and founding president of Facebook, said recently that he’s worried about the pervasiveness and ever-growing power of social media companies.

“It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” Parker said, according to Axios. “It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Parker was just one of many, as a number of others like former employee famous for creating the “like” button, also spoke out in November. Facebook felt the need to respond then as well.

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