Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Zuckerberg’s Preposterous Defense of Facebook

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Zeynep Tufekci writes in the NY Times:

Responding to President Trump’s tweet this week that “Facebook was always anti-Trump,” Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, defended the company by noting that Mr. Trump’s opponents also criticize it — as having aided Mr. Trump. If everyone is upset with you, Mr. Zuckerberg suggested, you must be doing something right.

“Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”

This doesn’t hold water at all.

Are you bothered by fake news, systematic misinformation campaigns and Facebook “dark posts” — micro-targeted ads not visible to the public — aimed at African-Americans to discourage them from voting? You must be one of those people “upset about ideas” you disagree with.

Are you troubled when agents of a foreign power pose online as American Muslims and post incendiary content that right-wing commentators can cite as evidence that all American Muslims are sympathizers of terrorist groups like the Islamic State? Sounds like you can’t handle a healthy debate.

Does it bother you that Russian actors bought advertisements aimed at swing states to sow political discord during the 2016 presidential campaign, and that it took eight months after the election to uncover any of this? Well, the marketplace of ideas isn’t for everyone.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s preposterous defense of Facebook’s failure in the 2016 presidential campaign is a reminder of a structural asymmetry in American politics. It’s true that mainstream news outlets employ many liberals, and that this creates some systemic distortions in coverage (effects of trade policies on lower-income workers and the plight of rural America tend to be underreported, for example). But bias in the digital sphere is structurally different from that in mass media, and a lot more complicated than what programmers believe.

In a largely automated platform like Facebook, what matters most is not the political beliefs of the employees but the structures, algorithms and incentives they set up, as well as what oversight, if any, they employ to guard against deception, misinformation and illegitimate meddling. And the unfortunate truth is that by design, business model and algorithm, Facebook has made it easy for it to be weaponized to spread misinformation and fraudulent content. Sadly, this business model is also lucrative, especially during elections. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, called the 2016 election “a big deal in terms of ad spend” for the company, and it was. No wonder there has been increasing scrutiny of the platform.

However, at the slightest sign that Facebook might be pressured to institute at least some sensible oversight (as has happened recently in the German and French elections, when the platform mass-deleted fake accounts), right-wing groups and politicians can swiftly bring Facebook to its heels with charges of bias, because Facebook responds to such pressure as much of the traditional media do: by caving and hiding behind flimsy “there are two sides to everything” arguments.

This right-wing strategy has been used to pressure Facebook since before the presidential election. It was revealed in April 2016, for example, that Facebook was employing a small team of contractors to vet its “trending topics,” providing quality control such as weeding out blatant fake news. A single source from that team claimed it had censored right-wing content, and a conservative uproar ensued, led by organizations like Breitbart. Mr. Zuckerberg promptly convened an apologetic meeting with right-wing media personalities and other prominent conservatives to assure them the site was not biased against them.

Facebook got rid of those contractors, who were already too few for meaningful quality control. So what did it do to stem the obvious rise in the scale and scope of misinformation, fake news and even foreign state meddling on the site in the months leading up to the election? Clearly not enough — for fear, no doubt, that it would again be accused of bias.

Make no mistake: The flood of misinformation and fake news that went viral on the site was visible even to casual observers. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 September 2017 at 5:52 pm

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