Why The Campaign Against Social Media Won’t Work


Lawmakers demanded that technology firms do more to fight “shocking” foreign efforts to influence U.S. politics on Wednesday, a day after Facebook identified a new influence campaign tied to November’s elections.

Since May, major companies such as Facebook and Google have adapted some of their privacy practices even beyond the mandate imposed by the E.U. to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. But Privacy hawks remain unsatisfied, pressuring the Trump administration is exploring some sort of national privacy proposal — so the pressure remains on Facebook, even as the company removes dozens of pages and fake accounts from its platforms and endures the largest stock plummet in recorded history.

In what has turned into a national apology tour for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook surrogates have remained out in front of privacy concerns posed by Washington. In addition, Facebook has issued same-day press releases to the media on significant strides and investigation results as promised back in April when executives have traveled to Washington several times to testify in Congress. You’ll recall Zuckerberg’s testimony, in particular, lasted over two days and totaled ten mind-numbing hours of questions and grandstand statements from Congressional Leaders. Four months later, it’s clear that Congress’ demand on the social media outlet to kill all fake news is more than ambitious — it’s practically impossible.

There is an inevitable trade-off between privacy and utility , between free speech and harmony ,  between a neutral platform and a content curator.

Social media companies have long been asked to deny their neutrality, and identify their mission as a platform for, or conveyor of communications. Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal though, the charge has essentially become a request for the premonition of user-wrongdoing and eradication in real-time.

Facebooks’ efforts across the water in countries like Sri Lanka and India, Facebook is working with local civil societies making its first attempts. Once the company has verified that information is false and could be a contributing factor to “imminent” violence or harm to physical safety, Facebook will take it down. For example, in June Facebook said it removed content that falsely claimed Muslims were poisoning food – still,  imminent disaster is hard to intercept. What is the unanimously consented upon threshold for violence? (A mean word? A nationally recognized slur? An act of force?)

“You will never know the harm you prevent,” said Joan Donovan from Data and Society, “It’s an immeasurable win.” Consider, even our own federal investigative agencies, who cannot always discern when rumors will escalate into real-world violence — until they do (e.g. Parkland)

It begs the question, if Facebook can master its efforts, what is next? Will it retroactively delete hoaxes like Pizzagate that bubble up for months before someone shoots a gun in a pizza parlor? Will Facebook defer to civil society groups on all sides? If so, what will it do if there is no consensus? Taking this analysis a step further, where are the controls on the receiving end of fake news? How is the public as a willing social media consumer, devoid of responsibility if challenged by bots and trolls? What are we really learning about ourselves as adults or of-age users when it comes to our critical thinking abilities? Are we so innocent as we ‘like’ ‘share’ and ‘comment’ our days away? Even if this activity is what fuels foreign trolls’ trips across our screens?

If Facebook is any indication, the tech industry is taking the topic seriously. The risk for them is the slippery slope of government regulation which always moves counter-liberty. If Congress can somehow come to a consensus on a national privacy policy, no matter how narrowly it’s tailored, it opens the door to all sorts of new rules. There is a huge chance that privacy advocates won’t stop after they’ve made headway.

Privacy advocates consider themselves friends of the first amendment but mistake the internet as a unique threat to privacy and personal dignity. The fundamental flaw in their thinking is that ‘tests’ for free speech are the same, regardless of how they are distributed. We cannot justify scaling back protections for free speech for the sake of the occasional bot, less any step forward in technology would ratchet back the freedom to speak in this country. Ultimately all citizens and especially first amendment supporters should be rallying behind tech lobbyists to fight back sweeping legislative changes that could impact free speech. If they fail, I’m sure policy changes for Facebook and its peers will remain a mind-bogglingly complex and thankless task.