Facebook must wake up to its disastrous potential – it has the power to subvert American democracy

James Moore
Zuckerberg might play the benevolent guru with his grey T-shirts but his mask on this issue has slipped: Getty

It’s high time that Facebook came up with a “scared” emoticon: the social media giant appears to have been used by Russia in an attempt to subvert America’s democracy.

The latest twist in the slow-burn scandal came when maverick Republican John McCain announced his intention to join Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner to co-sponsor the Honest Ads Act.

The legislation would require political commercials running on the internet to follow the same rules as those that apply to TV or radio ads. They have to declare who has paid for them.

McCain’s decision came in the wake of suggestions that Russian propaganda efforts were seen by 10 million Americans.

Facebook finally admitted last month that 3,000 politically divisive ads were bought by the country during the bitter and tightly contested presidential campaign.

According to Vanity Fair, some former Facebook executives were shocked at how the network was used during the campaign, amid a growing recognition of the power that the social network can exert over its users. One executive was said to have described it as the “oh my God what have I done moment”.

The whole affair is indeed #deeplydisturbing to anyone who cares about the preservation and health of democratic government.

Facebook is in many ways a wonderful invention but it has a dark side, and it’s troubling how little thought its bosses have given to how their business can be used by those with malign intent.

Ironically, Facebook itself has been the victim of this. You may remember the spate of memes that went around purporting to detail sinister changes made by the company to its T&Cs and advising how users could foil its evil plots.

The vast majority of them were utterly fictitious.

Such scaremongering was pathetic; the work of sad little trolls with too much time on their hands, and eventually the fuss died down as people started to realise the hoaxes they had been exposed to.

But those memes, or some of the other falsehoods propagated via the social network, clearly led to a “eureka” moment among people of ill intent working in dark rooms: we could make use of the susceptibility of people to this sort of thing. There’s real potential for us in exploiting their credulity.

Cue Blofeld-style manic laughter. Where’s James Bond when we need him?

In reality, this is no laughing matter because it’s not just Russia that has made use of Facebook. So have other political actors. Bad ones. And so have extremists of various types.

Nudity is a no-no, and if you want to post a “brelfie” of you and your new baby, just make sure there’s not so much as a hint of a nipple in the pic. But if you’ve money to spend on winding people up with pages using words such as “Sharia law” and “border wall” and you don’t want to tell people who you are? If your money’s good then come on down!

Money appears to be what is at the heart of Facebook’s worrying complacency when it comes to this issue (Vanity Fair reports a belief inside the company that boss Mark Zuckerberg and his senior executives think that the extent of Russia’s influence has been “overblown”).

Facebook and other tech giants don’t want to police the platforms they are allowing to be used by some very bad people because it would cost them money to do so.

Zuckerberg might play the benevolent guru, with his grey T-shirts, his charm, his promises to put his fortune towards making the world a better place. But on this issue the mask has slipped and he looks like just another money-grabbing tech CEO.

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg said last week that the company owed the American people an apology over foreign meddling, and it does.

But she also said this to Axios: “At our heart we are a tech company. We don’t hire journalists.”

That is frankly appalling, because the #truth is that Facebook is far more than just a tech company. It is an enormous media machine that needs to wake up to that fact.

Facebook does need to hire editors, sub editors and fact checkers. It needs to formulate better rules for the people who use its site, both members and ad buyers, and then it needs to have in place enough people to enforce them.

Mark Zuckerberg is in a position to get that done. He has the clout to be able to tell Wall Street to pipe down if it whines about him spending money for the good of both the business and of the society within which it operates.

If he isn’t willing to do that, then he is arguably no different from the oil executive or the chemical plant boss who spread pollution and make people sick, literally and figuratively, and who refuse to clean up their own mess.

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