ideas, history, culture.

Sign-up for the Age of Division newsletter.

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.

Facebook.
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."


"A safer, free speech-respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible"

In response, Facebook 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.


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.