Facebook Is Doing its Best to Outrun the Threat of Government Regulation

by Mathew on September 21, 2017 · 9 comments

You can tell how much a specific issue has gotten under Mark Zuckerberg’s skin by the amount of effort he puts into his response. Some things get just a small mention, some get a press release, some get a 6,000-word blog post — and some get the Facebook equivalent of a full-court press. Zuckerberg’s video address on Thursday afternoon, in which he tried to address concerns about Russian election interference via Facebook ads, definitely falls into the latter category.

The Facebook CEO is clearly trying to get out in front of this issue, in a way he hasn’t with anything other than maybe the fake news brouhaha, and for the same reason: Because he’s afraid of what Congress might do if he doesn’t pre-empt their actions with his own remedies.

To that end, his video address offered what Zuckerberg described as transparency around the so-called “dark ads” that political operatives (including those working for Donald Trump during his campaign, using tools like Cambridge Analytica) love to use in an attempt to target specific groups and individuals on the platform.

In a nutshell, advertisers will have to disclose all of their ads on their Facebook pages so anyone can see them, and Facebook is turning over details of Russian involvement to the intelligence committees looking into that country’s attempts to influence the election.

“I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity [and] I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for,” said Zuckerberg, who also posted the text of his remarks to Facebook. “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”

The moves announced by Zuckerberg seem like admirable steps aimed at bringing shadowy political advertising into the light, and an offering that many Facebook critics have been calling for. Some congratulated Zuckerberg for finally listening to their demands for more clarity and transparency.

There’s a catch to Facebook’s offering though, and it’s contained in the term “political ads.” How exactly does Zuckerberg plan to define that term? Some ads might be obvious because they include political topics or personalities. But one of the key aspects of Facebook’s business is that almost anything can function as an ad, including news stories (fake or otherwise). And Russian operatives likely made use of all of these tools and more.

In fact, in a recent report, Facebook’s own security team spelled out some of the many ways in which it suspects government actors of various kinds manipulated the platform to try and influence the outcome of the US election.

“We identified malicious actors on Facebook who, via inauthentic accounts, actively engaged across the political spectrum, with the apparent intent of increasing tensions between supporters of these groups and fracturing their supportive base.”

Zuckerberg may be hoping that his newfound interest in transparency will assuage those who are looking to regulate Facebook’s behavior, but if so his hope is likely to be in vain.

Matt Stoller is an influential political analyst who works for a group called Open Markets Institute (the group was formerly part of the New America Foundation, but left after what its founder alleges was pressure from Google). Stoller clearly believes that Facebook should be subject to government regulatory oversight on a number of fronts — including areas related to political advertising.

Stoller isn’t alone. Brianna Wu, who gained a high profile online after being targeted for harassment during the “Gamergate” uproar, is running for Congress in Massachusetts, and says she is in favor of regulation for Facebook as well. “Facebook has far too much power to not be regulated the way traditional media is. It’s anticompetitive to give them a legal out,” she said on Twitter. And sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has been asking for more transparency from Facebook for some time, said: “I’d been calling for this for many years—but key point here is that Facebook, actually one person, can arbitrarily decide to do this or not.”

So where does this leave Zuckerberg and Facebook? Running hard to try and catch a ship that may already have sailed — a ship whose ultimate destination is regulatory oversight of the network in some form or another. And political advertising is likely just the tip of a very large iceberg.

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