No amount of assurances can repair the trust damaged by a friend’s betrayal. Our feelings about Facebook have come a long way since 2015, when we marveled at this latest Horatio Alger story, which used cat videos and doe-eyed selfies to link a fourth of all mankind in a multibillion-dollar extravaganza. Since then, data breaches, political manipulation and indifference over consequences have exposed a disturbing dark side to the social media company.
In April, Sen. John Thune led a hearing into Facebook’s role in sharing the data of 87 million users with the analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. Thune warned Facebook then it needed to do better at protecting free speech, protecting user data and ensuring our data gets used responsibly. Failing that, he warned, “new laws may be necessary to secure Americans’ privacy.”
We were skeptical of government regulation then, and we remain so, but we also grow increasingly skeptical Facebook will adequately address these legitimate concerns. A recent New York Times expose — relying on interviews from 50 insiders — inspires little confidence the social media behemoth will improve itself.
The company has responded to scandals involving Russian meddling, data sharing and fostering hate speech by resorting to aggressive campaign tactics: attacking others to distract, plus denying, delaying and minimizing the harm.
The company was slow to recognize how extensively Russian interests had exploited its platform to meddle in American democracy, it dragged its feet on investigating the issue, and it was even slower to admit its failings publicly.
Facebook also refused responsibility amid concerns in Myanmar, India, Germany and elsewhere that the company had become an instrument of government propaganda and ethnic cleansing. Facebook claimed to be merely a platform, like a telephone company, but a telephone company does not take notes on conversations, search for keywords and analyze the information to help others influence opinion.
It would be naïve of us to think Facebook allows the use of its impressive and useful platform without benefit. It uses our data to sell advertising. If you don’t like it, don’t use it.
The problem has been Facebook’s secrecy around how it uses our data, how it secures it, and how it prevents the malicious use of this tremendous source of power. Facebook may not be too big to fail, but it is powerful enough to imperil democracy.
We must, however, resist knee-jerk regulation, which risks imposing a solution more dangerous than the problem. A ministry of propaganda, whereby the powerful determine proper usage of data, would be the greatest threat.
Regulation should not focus on ensuring Facebook does the right thing. It should instead focus on making sure the public has some knowledge of how its data gets used. The government makes similar requirements of financial institutions and insurance companies. For years now, we have had the right to know our credit scores. We also know our means of recourse when money or data gets mishandled.
Social media companies should be subject to these same requirements. We should aim to balance the right of a company to profit from the use of proprietary information with that of the public good. More knowledge would answer the question of what else is going on inside these social media behemoths. Scrutiny would enable us to look for deeper patterns.
Social media will continue evolving, displacing markets and industries, and changing the world in ways unforeseen. We should not abdicate responsibility for ensuring these companies do not exploit us in their pursuit of profits.
Disclosure by itself is not a fix. As in every democracy, the public must remain engaged. We must become more discerning and evolve better instincts to avoid sophisticated manipulation.
These past few years have seen the rise of fact checkers and other means of monitoring falsehoods. These help.
The need of social media companies to maintain our trust remains the strongest deterrent against misdeeds. A check of the stock market shows why. Since July 20, the value of a Facebook share has declined 37 percent. We have the power. What we need is information.
We encourage Sen. Thune to pursue a carefully crafted requirement for disclosure of information by all social media companies.