The Facebook influence problem


This is an important debate that will define freedom of speech and expression in the years, if not decades, to come.

by Allen Therisa in History

The influencer in our pocket
The influencer in our pocket

This week saw a major Facebook outage, that took down the massive social media platform, alongside the popular (and at times controversial) Instagram, and the ubiquitous WhatsApp messenger service, for around six hours, after an update to Facebook's routers went wrong, sending a wave of disruption and shutting down the three platforms.

It was also the week that former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen gave testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, explaining the technical workings of Facebook's platforms, and pointing to the harms that they can cause to users in her opinion.

According to Haugen, speaking to the Senate lawmakers, Facebook's products "harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy" and put profit over moral responsibility.

"These problems are solvable," according to Haugen. "A safer, free speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible," Haugen said. "Congress can change the rules that Facebook plays by and stop the many harms it is causing."

In response, Facebook's Chief Executive Officer, in a letter to staff, argued that "If we're going to have an informed conversation about the effects of social media on young people, it's important to start with a full picture...We're committed to doing more research ourselves and making more research publicly available."

It is a sign of Facebook's growth, both as a social media platform and as a profitable business, as well as its reach into the daily lives of its billions of users (both on Facebook, as well as on Instagram and WhatsApp) that it continues to be in the political spotlight. Its actions (or lack of) on multiple levels as to its influences and indeed shaping of user behaviour has been discussed for some time, but it is now in the political and legislative spotlight more than before and is likely to be for some time.

Enter Age of Division

We, at AOD, had our brush with Facebook recently in terms of its role as an influential publisher (which it is evidently now becoming, partly because of its growing influence and reach, if nothing else) that was instructive, particularly at a time when the changing (social) media landscape that Facebook that is a major player in, evolves around it.

Back in August, Afghanistan was in violent turmoil, as the US attempted a hasty withdrawal from the country amidst violence and loss of life, and I was trying to persuade Facebook to promote an article we were publishing on US President Joe Biden.

The article, on the historical circumstances surrounding and leading up to the election of Joe Biden in comparison to that of 1970s Democratic President Jimmy Carter, had a contemporary focus on the Biden presidency. For months Biden had been compared to Carter by the former's critics, mainly (though not exclusively) on the Right, and the article examines the central question as to whether this comparison is both accurate and fair.

It also includes an examination of the comparisons between the Trump and Nixon/Ford presidencies and whether the historical context of the 70s and today can be compared on a like-by-like basis.

Not particularly controversial.

Except, apparently, for Facebook.

For those unfamiliar with how publishers, or indeed anyone, can promote content on Facebook, the platform offers a promotional service called Facebook Boosts which allows Facebook members to pay the platform to "boost" posts to other members, targeted by Facebook algorithms, reflecting the budget that serves the interest of the publisher. It is an effective and popular tool that has allowed Facebook to grow its revenue after being introduced in 2012 on the back of Facebook's AdManager service. Ad Manager had been facing criticism for years for being difficult to use and, partly as a result, Facebook introduced the Boosts service as a supposedly easier tool for members to promote content on its platform.

Unless the post that is being boosted falls foul of the mysterious Facebook policies on the promotion of political messages or content, at which point it is none of these things.

We had boosted political editorial content on Facebook before (on President Nixon, for example) without problems, so were bemused when the article on Joe Biden (which is, I should emphasise at this point, non-partisan) was blocked, and instead, we were advised by Facebook to attempt to post it (in one country only) after completing various security protocols and then adding a disclaimer proscribed for lobbyists and political sponsors.

But is this process suitable for editorial content which is neither of these things? Clearly not, we would argue and as I pointed out to Thomas, a Facebook concierge with whom I attempted to resolve the issue at the time of writing, to no avail.

It is a curious state of affairs and one which, in the current politically divided age, raises serious questions as to the role and indeed the power of the dominant social media platforms (Twitter, Google, through its ownership of YouTube, and Facebook), all of which are in the critical spotlight and facing questions over their role, impartiality and power. All are also facing the challenge as to whether they are platforms for members to connect and share content with others, or are publishers by default and action (a debate that has implications for the local and international legislative frameworks they operate within).

This is an evolving and important debate that will define freedom of speech and expression in the years, if not decades, to come, and one which will be at the heart of what Facebook and its legislators decide upon moving forward. Though perhaps the bigger and equally looming question is not so much whether social media companies are platforms or publishers, but rather whether they are behavioural influencers and censors in their own right.

Only time and the confidence of users and those all-important legislators can answer these questions.

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