To date, the major social networks have fought as hard as they could to avoid any notion of being accountable to anyone but their chief executives and shareholders. That despite increasing weight in determining the direction of public discourse coupled with an unwillingness to explain how they go about targeting people with ads, what they use to determine how stories are shown and other practices. They’ve scoffed at the notion that they are media companies, insisting they are dumb platforms for people to share and see what they want even as they tout their ability to define audiences for advertisers.
Those days could be coming to an end. A report earlier this week revealed Facebook did indeed sell ads targeting American voters to organizations with ties to Russian “troll farms,” groups of people and bots designed to intentionally spread disinformation. As many people have pointed out, the budgets weren’t huge, but sufficient to target key swing districts. More pressing is the question of where these groups got the kind of audience information necessary to do such targeting.
A few months ago, after it was already widely accepted that “fake news” was used to sway last year’s election, Facebook announced it would implement fact-checking features, enlisting a few organizations to put a “disputed” tag on the suspicious news. Even that effort seems to be plagued by a lack of internal knowledge-sharing, hampered by Facebook’s unwillingness to show anyone how its system works.
It’s not just Facebook. Again, this isn’t surprising to anyone who regularly monitors social media activity but Twitter was utilized by bots and state actors to spread lies and other misinformation.
I’m having trouble coming up with a scenario that doesn’t involve more federal regulation of the social media industry in the next few years. If you read about the efforts in the early years of the 20th century to break up the monopolistic trusts of that time – oil, steel, railroad etc – you’ll see the situation then is strikingly similar to where we are now with online companies. Facebook and Google control a massive amount of the online advertising industry and, as the examples here show, do so with very little accountability even while yielding outsized influence.
That’s exactly the scenario U.S. Steel and other companies found themselves in over a century ago. Theodore Roosevelt and other progressives, along with their allies in the press, sought to expose more of their practices to the light of day, requiring they submit details about their financial situation and more to regulators.
Similarly, television broadcasters were required to commit to serving the public good in exchange for using the airwaves licensed from the government to make money via advertising. That came at a time when everyone realized television was gaining traction and becoming a powerful tool for shaping public discourse.
Change Won’t Come Organically
A recent op-ed in the MIT Technology Review points out that one reason Facebook feels no pressure to open any of its black boxes is that there’s so little marketplace pressure on it. There are few competitors at its scale, so it feels it can operate with impunity. If net neutrality concepts and rules are overturned that situation will only get worse as it will be able to afford to pay for quick access startup competitors can’t.
I’ll go farther than “this might happen” and say it should happen. Facebook, Google, and other companies should be held accountable to officials for their business practices. These networks may not want to be seen as media companies but that’s a lie that never passed the laugh test in the first place. Now we’ve seen not just in theory but in practice how much they can change the course of history via tools and algorithms that no one has audited or assessed for credibility and accuracy.
Someone needs to put checks and balances on Facebook and other companies. If the marketplace won’t – or can’t do so, then the government needs to step in. That’s the only other recourse available. There’s too much on the line – democracy, the fate of global ecosystems and more – for one company to wield this much power without being taken to task for how it is or isn’t serving the public good and make substantive, transparent changes when it fails in that goal.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.