If my post-election reading and conversations I’ve had with politically active individuals is any indication, Facebook played a big role in the 2016 race. Starting last summer through Nov. 8, my Facebook feed was heavily populated with political commentary from those on both sides of the political coin.
With 1.8 billion users, Facebook has become one of the world’s most influential communication mediums, and its influence grows every month. But while it’s an important resource for news, we saw Facebook also become a haven for so-called “fake news” in 2016. Consequently, Facebook and its leadership are now faced with managing content, which I am sure was not in the original business plan.
It’s not just fake news; Facebook must also combat hate speech and other problematic posts. Thus, there is a new level of responsibility thrust upon Mark Zuckerberg, which—given Facebook’s reach—makes him in some ways the most powerful person in the world.
Don’t get me wrong; there are many “powerful people” in the world who affect the lives of millions, for better or worse. However, Zuckerberg is the only one with a direct line to 1.8+ billion people who cross all geographic, ethnic, and political lines. As a communications medium, Facebook can influence people in ways we have never before seen in our history.
That, according to one of my Techpinions colleagues, Jan Dawson, is troubling. He pointed to Zuckerberg’s recent manifesto, in which the Facebook CEO pushed for “establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making,” from voter-registration efforts to helping “establish direct dialogue and accountability between people and our elected leaders.”
“That, to me, sounds like Zuckerberg envisions a world in which Facebook itself becomes the medium through which communities (i.e. cities, states, countries) would govern themselves,” Dawson writes. “Given existing concerns about Facebook’s power to shape media consumption, the idea it would take a direct role in governance (rather than merely allowing people to vote or connect with their elected representatives as it has done in the past) should be terrifying.”
Dawson’s perspective is important, but I believe Facebook has to also aggressively police itself. It needs to have outside teams of independent ethicists, educators, constitutional scholars, and others with special skills who truly understand democracy to craft a “do no evil” policy and make sure Facebook’s power and authority is always in check.
I am uncomfortable putting too much power into the hands of just a few, even if their intentions are good. Facebook needs more outside help to make sure it is advancing the role of democracy, not derailing it by allowing things like fake news and hate speech.