Over the past few years, Facebook has faced considerable backlash. The tech giant, run by Mark Zuckerberg, has garnered notoriety for its sketchy corporate practices. These include the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, the IRA’s use of the platform to interfere with U.S. politics, and, most recently, its permissiveness towards false information. Given its size and widespread influence, the international community at large, including America, have attempted to regulate the kind of information allowed on the platform to attenuate misinformation and violent outbreaks. This article explores their laissez faire attitude towards information, the possible ramifications of said attitude, and ways the company can promote the truth on the platform moving forward.
A recent congressional subcommittee hearing on antitrust was held to explore the vast collective market shares of Big Tech giants. Among those in attendance was tech mogul Mark Zuckerberg, who found himself in the hot seat once again, this time for previous business acquisitions. Leaders of the committee labeled these acquisitions as monopolistic power grabs. When questioned about Facebook’s purchase of Instagram, NPR reports that Rep. Jerry Nadler quoted an email he wrote in which Zuckerberg talked about, “… the need to ‘neutralize a competitor’…”
Given the company’s track record, this is not surprising news. Zuckerberg has been at the forefront of numerous controversies. Among other recent problems, the company has come under scrutiny due to the unregulated spread of information. Though Facebook is not directly responsible for the dissemination of false information, it hasn’t done much to stop it. In fact, up until recently, Zuckerberg took a strong stance against the removal of political ads or information containing disinformation, stating, “At the end of the day, I just think that in a democracy, people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.” This is especially alarming now, given the proximity of the 2020 presidential election.
More and more people use Facebook in order to get political information. In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that over four-in-ten U.S. adults get news from Facebook. As a result, the evaluation of sources for credibility needs to be improved. While users should evaluate the integrity of political sources themselves, it’s especially important that Facebook limits incentives for spreading false information. Effective debate and political participation in democracies hinge upon many necessary conditions, including verifiably true information that fuels productive discourse. In her article, “On Democratic Backsliding”, Nancy Bermeo explores ways that democracies degrade in a process known as democratic backsliding. One of the three contemporary forms she lists is the strategic manipulation of elections, particularly by “hampering media access.” While the article focuses on direct election manipulation by incumbent parties, the spread of false information and polarizing content by groups including the IRA mirrors the actions of the aforementioned. These groups were created to undermine America’s democracy by tampering with the information that informs the electorate’s political decisions. In effect, Facebook has become indirectly responsible for democratic backsliding in America.
Now, Facebook has made strides in their efforts to curtail the spread of false information. The company banned two Russian disinformation networks, as well as a troll farm that was found tampering with the 2016 U.S. election. They also said they would disallow new political ads from being introduced onto the site in the week before the 2020 election. Likewise, Facebook marked multiple posts about coronavirus as fake news after the campaign group Avaaz found that over 40 percent of misinformation pertaining to the coronavirus was on Facebook. However, Facebook’s handling of fact-checking, or rather the lack thereof, is still problematic.
A common thread linking each of these developments is Facebook’s lack of initiative. This brings into question Facebook’s interest in protecting the end user, and how much these actions are a ploy to save face. Right now, their main focus appears to lie squarely on self-preservation. The indication, then, is that future accountability cannot be guaranteed, and that users should take extra precautions in verifying the information they view on the website. Zuckerberg’s reluctance towards prohibiting falsehoods should be evidence enough that consumers must remain vigilant.
In the meantime, there are a few ways to try and improve this predicament. First, Facebook can set higher review standards for political advertisements, and to have each advertisement evaluated before release onto the website. Second, Facebook can be broken up given its gargantuan size and monopolistic tendencies, thus increasing competition in the social media market by allowing new companies to enter the market. This could indirectly spark innovations in fact-checking by bolstering the diversity of social media options available to the public. Third, the company could provide users with credibility scores of other websites or sources, using current and reliable metrics best designed for its measurement. And finally, Facebook should increase its transparency with consumers. This will help Facebook improve its tarnished relationship with its consumer base and make it easier for the general public to hold the company accountable for its actions.
Bermeo, N. (2016). On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy, 27(1), 5–19. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012
I somehow severely underestimated just how many people have been relying on Facebook for their news. To learn that 40% of adults are using Facebook as a news source makes me very nervous about the future of politics and the U.S. I have always known to stay away from believing everything I read on the internet and was taught to do my own research but I guess not everyone was so lucky. This brings up quite a few questions in my mind?
1. What percentage of people are using Facebook as their main or only source of news?
2. In my opinion the majority of people I know who use Facebook for news are older people, is this true or are people of all ages relying on Facebook for news?
3. How many of the people who use Facebook for news recognize it as an extremely unreliable place to get news?
4. Do you think that Facebook being broken up would lead to people moving to other news media sources? Or would you predict that the majority of people who currently rely on Facebook for news would still rely on Facebook?
5. Do you think that if Facebook were to be broken up that social media could potentially become a very reliable source of news in the future? (not necessarily the near future)
I agree that if Facebook is broken up and is not such a monopoly that other forms of social media will hopefully begin to popularize and I look forward to seeing what may come. I imagine there being quite a few social media networks dedicated to being more secure and having a core built around privacy that begin to become popular. I also hope to see the development of social media apps that are not based so much on sensationalism like Instagram and Snapchat. More social media apps that would not be so forceful in encouraging you to spend hours and hours on the app. I think that would be really cool.
The increased control over political information by Facebook is something that I also have observed. It is striking how much people will rely on the information circulated through Facebook, although it makes sense since many people don’t want to go through the work of actually doing their own research. The increased growth and control by Facebook is something to be concerned about but controlling them seems to be also dangerous. I do not believe that Facebook will ever freely give up power or willingly be transparent without being forced. It is also hard for a democracy with a free market to deal with these monopolies without harming its own functionality. If we were to either break up its control or force them to be transparent it could negatively impact all big companies and in turn our economy.
Another thing to consider is that Facebook is a US company that abides by US rules but is a product/platform that is used globally. In more repressive regimes, Facebook and other social media platforms have actually been useful in providing information to the public that the government may not communicate through state-controlled media. It has also given opposition parties who are usually at a disadvantage an outlet to rally their supporters.
But it has reduced the barrier for publishing information making it extremely easy for any individual with a large number of followers to post false information and in extreme cases hate speech that could undermine democracy. Facebook’s lack of ability to curtail the spread of false information is actually giving authoritarian leaders an excuse to shut down this source of information or impose internet blackouts. Thus, I do agree that Facebook’s lack of action not only undermines American democracy, but it also encourages autocratic consolidation.
I also think the issue with Facebook comes down to their business model. Facebook’s business model relies on the ability to sell ads on content that is likely to be shared and viewed by a large audience. Their goal is to get users’ attention and increase time on the platform in order to sell more ads and maximize profit. Thus, their recommendation algorithm is likely to serve users with more and more divisive content and conspiracy theories in an effort to gain users’ attention. So even if Facebook is broken up and there is a lot more competition, the reliance on ads as a revenue source could be a liability unless those companies are non-profit or have other revenue sources.
Evan Hoffman raises concerning issues about how Facebook Inc. is a danger to democracy. The ways that Facebook diminishes democracy include the spreading of fake news, lack of guardrails that keep false information at bay, and acting as an open platform for the distribution of biased news and propaganda. I think that Evan Hoffman raises a very pressing issue for us to consider. I agree with the author’s position on these issues. I would also venture to add several things to enrich his argument.
A large part of the American population admits to reading news off of Facebook and using it as one of their chief news sources. This makes sense as the app combines the lives of your friends, family, celebrities, and news, all in one handy app. However, Facebook is not a news app and therefore doesn’t always have the most trustworthy information. In fact, it is knowingly and openly criticized for not having a strict policy for regulating its news feeds and taking down posts that are found to spread misinformation. This is a serious issue, and steps must be taken to make Facebook a safe place for scrolling and learning.
The first issue that can easily be identified with fake news on Facebook is the app itself. Facebook was not designed to be a news platform. Therefore, the app was not set up to handle the large load of political information it is now filled with. It has also become more heavily used than originally imagined. There are currently 2.6 billion active monthly users on Facebook, making it a premier place to spread information. It is for this reason that many people choose to spread fake news here. It was proven that fake news campaigns were spread from international accounts in an effort to tamper with the 2016 elections. The fact that even after this, Facebook was against taking down political information that may not be true is more than troubling. It is hard for the average citizen to know what is true and false, but a multibillion-dollar corporation should do its part to help the people from being told falsities on its platform.
Another issue is the acquisition of more properties, such as Instagram, to the Facebook umbrella. While I don’t necessarily agree with the author that the “monopoly” of Facebook needs to be broken up, the addition of Instagram is troubling. While not as political as Facebook, there still is political information spread on Instagram. The chief difference here is the people who use Instagram. Instagram is mainly used by teens and young adults. These teens are even more susceptible to being told fake news and believing it, because they are young and don’t have the experience to discern the true from the false. These claims could shape how they view politics and the world forever. They may also share what they learned to their counterparts. Even though Instagram does have a minimum age requirement of thirteen, it is not enforced and, even at thirteen, fake news could be very damaging.
The author provides some options that the Facebook conglomerate could try in order to combat the fake news sharing epidemic occurring on its apps. While I agree that Facebook is a large company, with its social media apps being two of the most popular networking apps out there, I disagree that they should be deemed a monopoly, and be broken up. While breaking up Facebook would invite the possibility of competition, there is no guarantee the new owner will handle misinformation differently. Rather I think that the authors other argument, that Facebook should more harshly scrutinized and regulate any political ads is a more reasonable way to approach the issue. With this strategy all of Facebook’s properties would have a unified way of dealing with, and disposing of, fake news and fake news advertisements. This would mean safer browsing on Instagram and Facebook for all users, without the disruption of one of the apps needing to go under new ownership. This also allows for Facebook’s apps to stay in its current owners hands but would mean they would be held more accountable for the misinformation spread on the sites.
Evan Hoffman raises some very important issues about social media, specifically Facebook, and its negative effect on democracy. I believe that we should also consider the original intent of Facebook, Facebook Inc.’s other social networking apps, and the lack of online post guardrails installed by the company. I look forward to and welcome additional response and discussion.
This was a very well-written post about the dangerous presence of fake news on social media platforms, especially Facebook. I very much agree with Evan Hoffman’s argument that the unregulated spread of information is a serious problem that needs to be put in check. However, I think an attempt to regulate this fake news on a mass scale can unfortunately lead to the further polarization of online politics. The wildfire-like spread of false information is an issue plaguing both major political parties in America. People from all across the political spectrum can be subjected to blatant lies spread by frauds charading as experts. The far-right however has been the most obvious offender of this, with the recent rise in QAnon serving as the perfect example. Crazy conspiracies ranging from “Pizzagate” to mass election fraud have been cultivated and promoted in this rabid far-right echo chamber. Some supporters of QAnon have even penetrated the federal government, most notably Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene who has recently expressed regret over her participation in the movement. The unchecked spread of absolutely unfounded claims and blatantly false “facts” has the potential to be incredibly harmful to the durability of our democracy.
Our democracy is in severe danger of backsliding. While the causes of backsliding have been in play for well over a decade, these past four years we have witnessed the erosion and degradation of the norms and safeguards integral to the survival of our democracy. Authoritarian reversion is not a very likely possibility, but constitutional retrogression is a very real and present threat. The rise of fake news points to this. In their article, “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy”, Huq and Ginsberg outline the danger of constitutional retrogression and the different forms it can take. Two forms they highlight are the shrinking of the “public sphere” and the elimination of political competition. The surge in fake news on social media is arguably a cause for both of these occurrences. While most of the fake news polluting the internet does not originate directly from those in power, it can be argued that the promotion of this “news”, both direct and indirect, can be just as harmful. Donald Trump and his administration pushed and promoted many of these fake narratives, both limiting the flow of accurate information to the people and delegitimizing their opposition. So what can be done about this egregious misuse of social media? As Evan said, Facebook can and has made efforts to fight this fake news on their platform. Zuckerberg and his company have implemented methods utilizing fact-checking software in an attempt to limit the spread of fake news and provide more transparency to their users. This effort to “clean up” their platform seems like a win for accurate information and our democracy as a whole, but it has had unintended consequences.
Some perceive this purging of fake news to be an effort to silence and censor unorthodox opinions. Many on the far-right believe “Big Tech” is being utilized to displatform them and their movement. Disparaged with mainstream media, aided by Donald Trump’s continued efforts to discredit the free press, many on the right have opted to turn to alternative sources for information. In recent months, Parler has gained immense popularity with conservatives and those on the far-right. Touted as a hub of free speech, Parler has become a breeding ground for QAnon conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Fake news runs rampant with little challenge and no opposing ideas. This far-right echo chamber feeds false information to hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people. Many of those on Parler do not identify with the alt-right or neo-nazis, but they are being spoon-fed potentially harmful information with little to no checks on its accuracy. Conservatives still have an online presence on mainstream social media platforms, but as more are driven to alternative sources like Parler, we will see a further divide in the information people are receiving.
It could be argued that we are witnessing the collapse of the political center online. As Parler and other sites become more and more popular with the far-right, those on the moderate-right may choose to side with them and leave mainstream media behind. Twitter, Instagram, and other mainstream apps tend to attract a younger, more liberal audience, so many conservatives may feel they have more in common with those on Parler. Continued cultural clashes and the now seemingly perpetual presence of COVID-19 in our daily lives fuels this divide, and the rise of “cancel culture” pushes more moderate-rights to information sources catered to the far-right. According to de Lange in her article titled “New Alliances: Why Mainstream Parties Govern with Radical Right-Wing Populist Parties”, the collapse of the center happens when the center-right party can no longer resist the pull of the far-right and instead opts to join them. Now we have a set of people getting news from Facebook and Twitter, and a different demographic of people receiving completely different news from Parler and other alternative sites. This collapse of the center and rise of echo chambers is harmful to our democracy. Both sides believe the other is being supplied with purely fake news, leading to heightened mistrust and increased resistance to compromise. Open dialogue between parties is now a thing of the past, and it feels like polarization is at the highest it’s ever been.
The presence of fake news online is a detriment to the spread of accurate information and the survival of our democracy. It is admirable for Facebook and other sites to make an effort to limit the spread of false information, but unfortunately their efforts have driven many on the right to flock to alternative sources of information that specifically cater to them. This divide in social media is reflective of, and likely a cause of, increased polarization in politics. The right and the left appear to be the most divided they have been in decades. It is unclear yet whether or not Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election will lead to a decrease of his anti-establishment and anti-MSM rhetoric in the Republican party, or if he will instead be seen as a martyr, causing even more people to turn on the mainstream media and furthering polarization of politics online. Hopefully, as we get further and further away from the Trump presidency and the pandemic becomes a thing of the past, trust in the media can be rebuilt, and open dialogues can resume on social media platforms without the constant threats of fake news. This is the only way our democracy can survive.