Facebook is in crisis mode, but the company can take major steps to fix itself – and the global community it says it wants to promote. Facebook founder, CEO and majority shareholder Mark Zuckerberg need not wait for governments to impose regulations. If he and other industry leaders wanted to, they could make meaningful changes fairly quickly.
It wouldn’t be painless, but Facebook in particular is in a world of hurt already, facing criticism for contributing to civil unrest and sectarian turmoil around the world, delayed responses to disinformation campaigns, misleading users about data-handling policies, and efforts to discredit critics – not to mention a budding employee revolt.
Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media companies are causing society-wide damage. But they tend to describe the problems as much smaller, resulting from rogue individuals and groups hijacking their systems for nefarious purposes. Our research into how social media can be exploited by manipulative political operatives, conducted with Joan Donovan at the Data & Society research institute, suggests the real problem is much larger than these companies admit.
We believe the roots lie in their extremely profitable advertising systems, which need a major overhaul. We have identified some key changes that these giant powerhouses could make right away. These moves could reduce opportunities for political manipulation and limit the harm to democratic societies around the world.
Users’ minds in the crosshairs
Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media companies have built an enormous digital influence machine powered by user tracking, targeting, testing and automated decision-making to make advertising more effective and efficient. While building this supercharged surveillance system, companies have promised users and regulators that targeted advertising is mutually beneficial for both consumers and advertisers.
In this bargain, users are supposed to receive more relevant ads. Facebook, for instance, explains that its “interest-based advertising” serves users who “want to see ads that relate to things they care about.” It’s true that these methods can identify ads that connect with users’ actual interests. But the very same data-driven techniques that tell a surfer about a new board design can also identify strategic points where people are most vulnerable to influence.
In particular, the leading social media advertising systems let political operatives experiment with different ads to see which are the most effective. They can use these tools not only to see if certain issues resonate with particular targets but also test for fears or prejudices that can be invoked to influence political behavior.