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Facebook must be prepared for next election

Bloomberg

By nearly any measure, Facebook Inc. is an extraordinary success. Its market capitalization exceeds $500 billion. Its user base outnumbers all but one continent. Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive officer, is one of the world's wealthiest people.

No one should begrudge Facebook (or Zuckerberg) this success. Yet as it begins to play a more central role in American media and politics, the public has a right to expect it to accept the responsibilities that come with its growing power and influence.

Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation and have pledged to bring more transparency to political advertising on the network. Such ads proved immensely powerful during the 2016 election—Donald Trump's digital guru says they were "how he won"—yet they're free from the kind of disclosure required of television and radio ads. That no longer makes sense: Campaigns spent $1.4 billion on digital advertising in 2016, more than they spent on cable TV, while 67 percent of Americans now say they get news from social media.

The company has announced it is hiring 1,000 people to manually review ads with significant political content. It will also require more disclosure of ad buyers and will make ads available for anyone to see, by visiting the buyer's Facebook page.

Those are positive steps, but the company can go further. The public has a right to expect Facebook and its competitors to be more alert to intrusions by foreign governments. It's now clear that Russia engaged in a pervasive online campaign to sow discord in U.S. politics and help elect Trump. In part, it did so by using fake accounts and buying divisive advertising on social media—including some worth $100,000 so far disclosed by Facebook, which may have reached 10 million Americans.

Better controls are necessary to ensure foreign governments and entities aren't running political ads—admittedly a tough task as effective political ads need never mention a candidate or election. Nevertheless, Facebook could start by opening up more of its data to outside security researchers and sharing more information with government officials and other tech companies. On this score, the industry's counter-terrorism efforts could serve as a model.

All this will require investing in people and technology. And then there's the company's vaunted ability to innovate: Once Facebook acknowledged that the proliferation of fake news on its network was a problem, for instance, it soon found that a relatively simple flagging system could reduce the reach of such hoaxes by 80 percent. Similar ingenuity can be brought to bear on these other challenges.

Part of Facebook's genius has been profiting from media content produced by others, not paying for the reporting, researching, editing, fact-checking and lawyering that good journalism requires. The problem is that such hard work is what upholds standards, prevents hoaxes, educates voters, shapes civil discourse, holds politicians to account, and generally stands between democracy and the abyss.

Facebook is not, as Sandberg and Zuckerberg are fond of pointing out, a traditional media company. That simple fact, however—for which its shareholders are undoubtedly grateful—does not allow it to abdicate its civic responsibilities to the political system in which it has flourished.

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