Facebook offers a product that provides the social interaction, information, and news consumed by 3-billion people. That is why it is so important that critics, lawmakers and regulators have accused the company of using algorithms that promote extreme, hateful, and often false content to drive traffic and maximise profits. CEO Mark Zuckerberg adamantly denies these charges, but governments everywhere are now beginning to recognise the scale of the threat they pose.
In fairness, Facebook isn’t resisting calls for new rules. It doesn’t want direct responsibility for the safeguarding of democracy. It wants to make money and maintain its competitive edge. Its leaders are not trying to build algorithms that polarise the public. Their aim is to expand the company by driving user engagement. Facebook executives say they want the government to set new rules that apply across the internet and all social media, rules that determine how they should function, what kind of information they should post, and what they shouldn’t post. They say they want those rules applied fairly on all companies.
But Facebook executives are calling for change partly because they have little fear that change will really come. Politicians aren’t likely to effectively alter the way Facebook operates, because they can’t agree on the nature of the problem, much less what to do about it.
In Washington, public officials on the right insist that Facebook has caved to pressure for “political correctness”, a form of censorship imposed by the left. Honest discussion of serious political and social problems, they warn, often falls outside the bounds of what is considered socially acceptable debate. They point to Donald Trump, who was “deplatformed” by the company earlier this year, to argue that the right is much more often silenced than the left.
Politicians on the left, meanwhile, say the real problem is that Facebook has too much influence and too much market power — and that it promotes disinformation invented by the right to, for example, support the false charge that the US presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. They warn that its algorithms are making a politically tribal country even more tribal. If left and right can’t agree on the problem, they won’t agree on what actions to take.