Of all the criticisms Facebook has received in recent weeks, perhaps the most eloquent is the one that came from its own employees. "Disinformation affects us all," said about 250 employees in a letter to the company's management revealed last October 28 in The New York Times. "Allow disinformation paid on the platform," they said, "communicates that it seems good to us to take advantage of deliberate disinformation campaigns by those seeking positions of power."
The United States is just 100 days away from the Iowa caucuses, the true principle of a presidential election that can mark the country and the world for decades. In this context, the eyes turn to Facebook to know what can be expected from an advertising tool unprecedented in history, capable of accurately reaching any voter. In everyone's memory is the precedent of 2016, when between the campaign of Donald Trump and the Russian informal intelligence apparatus they used the enormous power of Facebook to disseminate misinformation and demobilize the Democratic vote in key counties. The social network was a necessary cooperator in that operation. Faced with a growing nervousness about what can happen in 2020, at the moment, it is not clear if he intends to do something different.
The letter came at the end of an October month especially difficult for Facebook. At the beginning of the month, the European justice system dictated a sentence of unknown consequences, according to which any EU country can force Facebook to withdraw messages that are declared illegal worldwide. This is an unprecedented blow to the condition of Facebook's global company and the impossibility so far of controlling content outside the borders. It is not clear, however, how he can be forced to comply.RELATED
In addition, the first signs of what can be expected from Facebook begin to be evident and the candidates begin to exploit it. First, the Donald Trump campaign posted an ad on the web with grossly false data about Joe Biden. Alerted about this fact, Facebook said it was not going to withdraw the ad because it did not violate its regulations. The campaign of Senator Elizabeth Warren then decided to publish an ad with false information to demonstrate the lack of involvement of Facebook. The platform accepted it without problems.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, during the interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg. REUTERS
On October 23, the founder and president of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, had to appear in Congress. Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decided to use her question time to screw Zuckerberg on this matter. "Facebook's rules allow politicians to pay for disseminating misinformation," said Congresswoman, who tried to tell Zuckerberg how far those rules can be used. Ocasio-Cortez asked him insistently if he would remove political ads with false information. "If anyone, including a politician, is saying things that invite violence or can cause imminent physical harm or suppress the vote, we remove that content," Zuckerberg said. Lying, by itself, does not fall into that category.
"That is, there is a limit," Ocasio-Cortez said. That was perhaps the key phrase of the exchange. There is a limit and Facebook does not seem to have problems to detect content that exceeds that limit and eliminate it, as it does with porn. The decision not to do so with false content paid by politicians is conscious and deliberate, the congresswoman came to evidence. "Well, I think lying is wrong," was all Zuckerberg was right to answer. The brief interrogation of Ocasio-Cortez (five minutes) did not throw any news on the policy of Facebook, but it has been key in making patent, visible and in a couple of viral phrases, the concern of many facing the campaign.
To end the month, a few days later, the founder and CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, made an announcement that left Facebook in evidence even more palmarial than Ocasio-Cortez: Twitter will not accept political campaign announcements. Twitter is much smaller than Facebook (320 million users), but its influence on world politics in the era of Donald Trump is inescapable.
Dorsey presented his reasons in a series of tweets on October 30, among which he said that "the political impact must be something earned, not bought." He argued that to fix the problem it was better to attack "the roots, without the burden and complexity that money brings." "For example," he wrote, "it is not credible that we say: 'We are working hard to stop people who want to manipulate our system to spread misinformation, but if someone pays us to select people and force them to see your ad … well … They can say whatever they want! ” Dorsey added a smiley smiley wink. It was inevitable to think of Zuckerberg's words the previous week.
"The moment they say they are not going to accept certain things because they are unacceptable, what they have done is reveal that they make decisions, they are not a simple messenger," says Sam Wineburg, professor of Education and History at Stanford University, In California, he has specialized in recent years in studying the credibility that the public gives to information on the Internet. Facebook's decision to consciously do the same as in 2016 seems “the utmost irresponsibility and a way to dismantle any democratic impulse we may have in the field of social networks”.
Wineburg believes that "verifiable lies are easy to prove," so Facebook is "morally guilty" of not avoiding them. But also "eventually they will be guilty before the law." “An institution cannot survive without the government finally realizing that they are a harmful element for society. It's a matter of time. We will see it in the US as soon as there is an Administration with head ”.
The Wineburg department in Stanford did a study in 2016 to see if young people know how to distinguish real information from misinformation and false news. The results were discouraging. Most of the kids in the last years of primary and secondary school did not know how to distinguish an announcement from a story and that the claims of social networks were believed without asking the minimum verification questions. Wineburg has just made a new follow-up study, still unpublished, and claims that nothing has changed. "If Facebook allows in this election the things we saw in 2016, it will be even worse."
David Greene, director of civil liberties of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) association, which is dedicated to the defense of civil rights on the Internet, warns, however, against a regulatory excess on Facebook. "In a political campaign there is a lot of room for exaggeration, it's almost natural," says Greene. “I think that categorically false statements are the exception and not the rule. It is not good for Facebook to set certain limits that could then be exploited by people who would report each ad. The rich who can afford that fight win, and the poor lose. That is what we see in systems that allow censorship. ”
Greene explains that if Facebook were to ban political campaigns, there would be a risk that it would also affect groups that, without necessarily being candidates, promote some policies or others. “I understand on the one hand that Facebook does not want to put itself in the position of banning candidate content. On the other, I understand that there is something deeply disturbing that they allow something that they know is a lie to follow on their platform. ” "What we ask," says Greene, "is that Facebook has clear and transparent rules that everyone can understand and follow."