By Christoffer Orre
Many questions have been raised in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election last fall. One of those questions regards the suspected meddling from Russia, and if they actually did have a hand in the election’s results. Over the past few months, parts of that question have been answered by disclosures from Facebook.
Thanks to the information that has been handed to the public, we know that a Russian company with close ties to Kremlin created thousands of ads on Facebook before, during and after the U.S. election. The main focus of these ads was to amplify divisive opinions in matters relating to race, gun control and immigration. Some of these ads targeted specific geographical areas, in what seems to be an attempt to create maximum political effect. This information leads us to the conclusion that there has been a violation of the federal law which prohibits foreigners from interfering in U.S. elections. It is interesting — and frightening — that the extent of the meddling is broader than we could begin to imagine, due to the use of a social media platform where a majority of the electorate spend much of their time. It also raises new questions related to the protection of our democracy.
From the very start, the main purpose of Facebook has been to enhance connections between people in order to create a more open and progressive world. It is sad, but true, to say that Facebook today is a massive outlet for disinformation and hatred. In addition to this, we now can recognize the platform as an effective tool for disrupting a general election, and in doing so the democratic process itself. All this in total opposition of the founder’s view when they created the platform. The utopia has turned into a dystopia.
Slowly but surely, Facebook is realizing how much influence their platform actually holds. Right after the election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg commented on the claims that misinformation on the platform had an impact on the presidential election, calling it “a pretty crazy idea” and saying that “voters make decisions based on their lived experience”. In a later statement, Zuckerberg regretted his previous statements and said that “it was too important an issue to be dismissive”. During the summer, Facebook followed up on Zuckerberg’s new stance when they unveiled that their mission statement has changed from “to make the world more open and connected” to “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. Given the circumstances of what happened last fall, this should be seen as recognition of responsibility by Facebook.
How do we fix this? Though Facebook has recognized the role it plays in public discourse, we need it to commit to being more transparent and responsible. In order for this to become reality, it is our job, as users and citizens, to unite in our concern over the democratic dilemma of Facebook. As their existence relies on us, the users, we should have the opportunity to have a say in the development of the platform. For this to happen, we need to be loud and confident in voicing our concerns.
Many of the questions about the actions (or non-actions) of Facebook regard responsibility. Is Facebook to be held more responsible for not protecting U.S. democracy in the course of the election? In the future, should Facebook be given an editorial responsibility for everything published on the platform? What should Facebook choose if there is a conflict between democracy and privacy of their users? To be honest and fair, these are hard questions, and answering them will be a challenge for anyone who attempts to do so. But one thing is certain, and that is that with great power comes great responsibility. It is fair to say that Facebook is a major institution in the global society. Therefore, their role in our democracy is something that is ought to be discussed, debated and decided.
Image: Melinda Nilsson