Facebook: Too big for the truth

FACEBOOK Inc has recently decided that it will not remove political ads on Facebook that are untrue.

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the following comments in defence of this controversial policy:

“People worry, and I worry deeply, too, about an erosion of truth. At the same time, I don’t think people want to live in a world where you can only say things that tech companies decide are 100 percent true. And I think that those tensions are something we have to live with.

“In general, in a democracy, I think that people should be able to hear for themselves what politicians are saying.

“Political ads on Facebook are more transparent than anywhere else. We don’t fact-check political ads ... because we believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.

“I know many people disagree, but in general I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. And we are not an outlier here.”

However Zuckerberg spins it, the shocking fact remains: a political ad on Facebook could be a complete lie, and Facebook would do absolutely nothing about it.

This baffling stance becomes a little less baffling if we examine some of the political context.

One of the frontrunners to become the nominee for President in the Democratic Party in the United States is Elizabeth Warren.

Warren has stated openly and in no uncertain terms that she wants to break up Amazon, Google and Facebook.

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power – too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy.

“They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.

“I want a government that makes sure everybody – even the biggest and most powerful companies in America – plays by the rules. And I want to make sure that the next generation of great American tech companies can flourish.

“To do that, we need to stop this generation of big tech companies from throwing around their political power to shape the rules in their favour and throwing around their economic power to snuff out or buy up every potential competitor.

“That’s why my administration will make big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition – including breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google, ” she wrote in March.

Zuckerberg appears to be well aware of how current President Donald Trump was elected off the back of considerable use of disinformation – a topic examined by movies like Netflix’s The Great Hack.

The power of such disinformation transcends its effect on any one person or party. It is often harmful in multiple directions, given the manner in which the art of influencing opinion is now defined largely by echo chambers and silos.

That said, there is a chance that in the 2020 elections in America, disinformation is a little more likely to benefit Republicans than Democrats.

Zuckerberg’s new policy also comes after reports that he has been courting and hostingconservatives and Republicans at “‘informal talks and small, off the record dinners”.

There have also been leaked statements from internal Facebook dialogues over Zuckerberg’s willingness to fight those who would “threaten” Facebook.

“If she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge.

“And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don't want to have a major lawsuit against our own government.

“But look, at the end of the day, if someone's going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight, ” he said in reference to Warren.

The latest in this saga is the news that Zuckerberg has also been quietly recommending staffers to the campaign of another Democratic contender, Pete Buttigieg.

This should come as no surprise. Someone as big as Zuckerberg will almost never be the kind of person be limited to a particular ideology or set of principles.

He’s likely happy to use anyone who will benefit himself and his company, and it is beyond common for people in his position to play both sides and hedge his bets.

READ ALSO: Journalists urge action against Google over EU copyright dispute

Needless to say, the massive wealth and resources someone like Zuckerberg can bring to bear will – indeed, already is – influence the democratic process.

In many ways, this reinforces Warren’s point, that companies like Facebook have just gotten almost inconceivably big in scale, and are having far too big an influence – sometimes overtly, and often much more insidiously – in the day-to-day lives of everyday people.

While all four big tech companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple) are in similar positions, only one of them has such a big slice of its ownership (in the region of 28%) in the hands of just one man.

A friend of mine recently commented that this could very well in fact make him the most powerful person on earth – a claim that is not so farfetched if you consider just how much data Facebook has about billions of people on this planet.

Malaysia is no stranger to the phenomenon of disinformation on the web.

Lembah Pantai MP Fahmi Fadzil had an interesting run-in with one such case, where he was accused of belittling a driver on Twitter whom another Twitter user claimed was their friend who was struggling to make ends meet.

It turns out the driver was not who the Twitter user claimed at all, and in identifying the actual driver, Fahmi found out he was a lorry driver who was having eye problems, and helped arrange free eye surgery for the man.

We were lucky enough to get a happy ending for this particular story (on Facebook, no less), but as bigger storm clouds gather in America, the rest of us would do well to brace for more misinformation.

Perhaps most importantly, we should all always remember to take a little extra time every time we hear something sensational, and put in the effort necessary to try and verify the things we hear before reacting to them.

Remember: Just because someone you like sent you something, doesn’t make it true. Always double check!

NATHANIEL TAN is a communications consultant specialising in identifying the right goals, and using the right tools for the right job. He can be reached at nat@engage.my. The writer’s views are his own.

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