How Much Political Power Does Facebook Wield?
This week, Gizmodo published a question that Facebook employees want CEO Mark Zuckerberg to answer in an upcoming Q&A session:
“What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?”
We don’t know if Zuckerberg addressed that question, but the mere fact that it was asked should worry Americans who underestimate how much control Facebook has over its users.
Facebook isn’t like The Drudge Report or Salon where readers know what they’re getting when they log onto the site. It’s presented as a neutral tool, not a place where you go to find out what the company thinks about politics. Conservatives don’t log onto Facebook thinking, “All right, I know I’m getting ready to go into the Liberal Zone.” They may expect to see nonsense from their left-leaning friends, but they don’t expect to be trapped in a bubble where only certain news stories are promoted, certain political views are acceptable, and certain events are ignored.
As Gizmodo explains, Facebook isn’t above tweaking their algorithm to mess with their users:
Facebook has toyed with skewing news in the past. During the 2012 presidential election, Facebook secretly tampered with 1.9 million user’s news feeds. The company also tampered with news feeds in 2010 during a 61-million-person experiment to see how Facebook could impact the real-world voting behavior of millions of people. An academic paper was published about the secret experiment, claiming that Facebook increased voter turnout by more than 340,000 people. In 2012, Facebook also deliberately experimented on its users’ emotions. The company, again, secretly tampered with the news feeds of 700,000 people and concluded that Facebook can basically make you feel whatever it wants you to.
When it comes to politics, Zuckerberg’s positions are well known. He is vehemently pro-immigration, and he’s collaborated willingly with Germany’s Angela Merkel in an effort to curb “hate speech” on Facebook. This week, he offered some thinly-veiled opinions on Donald Trump at the F8 developer conference.
“I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as ‘others,’” Zuckerberg said. “I hear them calling for blocking free expression, for slowing immigration, for reducing trade, and in some cases, even for cutting access to the internet.”
As an American, Zuckerberg has every right to say whatever he wants about our politics. But as CEO of Facebook, does he also have a moral and ethical obligation to keep his site free of secretive propaganda that could brainwash millions of unsuspecting users?
“Facebook can promote or block any material that it wants,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh says in the Gizmodo piece. “Facebook has the same First Amendment right as the New York Times. They can completely block Trump if they want.”
From a legal standpoint, he’s absolutely right. But when you have so many Americans using Facebook as their prime (if not only) source of news, it’s clear that Zuckerberg’s responsibilities go beyond the framework of free speech. And since we cannot guarantee that he will live up to those responsibilities, it’s up to us to begin putting cracks in the facade.
“We as a company are neutral – we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote,” said a Facebook spokesperson in a statement.
That’s fine, but this wouldn’t be the first time a company has lied to the public. With the stakes as high as they are, we can’t afford to be naive. The liberal mainstream media is so effective because it’s invisible to most Americans. It’s not like Lester Holt starts the NBC Nightly News by telling viewers how awful Republicans are. The propaganda works because it’s so subtle. With Facebook, the illusion is even more difficult to spot.