Columnists, Opinion

BERMAN: Facebook is a corporation, let’s not forget that

Just in time for Hillary Clinton’s book “What Happened” (also known as “Clinton’s Five Stages of Grief”) Facebook and Russia have re-entered the news cycle. Social media and Russia, the two immortal enemies of Hillary Clinton, “combined forces” when Facebook announced it discovered more than 5,000 ads, costing more than $150,000 were bought between June 2015 and May 2017 from “inauthentic accounts,” most likely based out of Russia.

Consequently, columnists scrambled to type a plethora of articles highly critical of Facebook, and its well-known CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. Opinion titles range from “Why we can’t trust Facebook’s story about Russian ads” to “Facebook’s role in Trump’s win is clear. No matter what Mark Zuckerberg says,” and even “Facebook Wins, Democracy Loses.” Could you be any more melodramatic?

While I love a dissenting opinion, I find it hard not to jump on the anti-Facebook/Zuckerberg bandwagon.

Zuckerberg is one of the most intriguing public figures (at least to me). His tour around America – visiting South Carolina, Wisconsin, Alaska and others — seemed to send the message of “I’m a caring CEO” mixed with “I am definitely not running for president, even though I’m doing all the things to run for president.” While he clearly has a high sense of self — what young billionaire doesn’t? — he consistently downplays his and Facebook’s role in shaping people’s political decisions.

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook … influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

Margaret Sullivan, the writer behind the Washington Post article, rightly criticized him on this point:

“In fact, voters make their decisions based on many factors, not just their ‘lived experience.’ Disinformation spread on Facebook clearly was one — a big one. That was obvious in November. It was obvious in April when Facebook, to its credit, announced some moves to combat the spread of lies in the form of news stories.”

The six-figure ad spending isn’t singularly that huge of a deal. That’s only about one tenth the salary of Boston University President Robert Brown; moreover, the total campaign spending of the 2016 election was over $1 billion. The larger issue is that Facebook clearly doesn’t employ strict enough standards to these internet ads.

You can blame Facebook for causing the election of Donald Trump — as Margaret Sullivan does — or you can understand why Facebook acts so nonchalantly about ads. The answer is simple: money.

Facebook — lest we forget — is a corporation engineered to maximize future profits. Like other Silicon Valley corporations, it decries regulations yet preaches social liberalism. So why would it regulate itself? Only through law or intense public outcry will Facebook take itself seriously.

Facebook recently changed its mission statement from “making the world more open and connected” to “bring the world closer together.” Personally, I see no difference; it’s all corporate mumbo-jumbo used to show “purpose” to the shareholders. Both statements are ironically inaccurate to what Facebook does. It provides a platform for people, organizations and ideas to interact. The purpose is highly noble, yet it is also highly corruptible. Facebook changes people’s minds, it can’t hide beyond the fact that it isn’t providing the content itself (for now).

The owner of a marketplace is responsible for each of its vendors; why isn’t Facebook? Legislators should put the same restrictions that are on radio ads and television ads to internet ads, especially ads on social media disguised as “sponsored content.” If I am watching the ad, I want to know where the ad is coming from, and who is paying for it.

To be frank, I don’t think Facebook caused Trump to win — to place blame on a single entity when so many variables are at play is inequitable. I’m also not a proponent of boycotting Facebook; where else would I watch Tasty videos? But I do hope that a combination of legislative action and public pressure causes Facebook to strengthen its advertising requirements and disclosure policy — at least before we see the Zuckerberg 2020 signs.

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