How Facebook became mired in election controversy
From fake news to advertising, the social media giant has drawn attention for its influence on voters, writes Jon Stone
Facebook has been at the centre of a number of political storms in both the US and UK in recent years. Most of these have revolved around two issues: the first is “fake news” or disinformation; and the second is the nature of Facebook advertising. The latest has combined both.
What’s the issue with fake news?
Facebook has long had a fake news and disinformation problem. In short, false stories spread fast on the platform, pushed by the company’s algorithm as more people read and share them.
Some of these stories are concocted and pushed by people for profit – hoping to sell ad revenue on viral news. Others are pushed for political motives, either by domestic political groups trying to influence public opinion, or allegedly in some cases foreign actors. Some are pranks, memes or just downright shoddy. There’s concerns that these stories influence public perception and distort political debates.
The network has made some progress in combating disinformation, and has worked on a number of projects including an “early warning system” in concert with other networks to help get disinformation taken down that “threatens human life or disrupts democracy”. But the European Commission warned at the end of October that “large-scale automated propaganda and disinformation persist” online.
It’s worth noting that this issue isn’t specific to Facebook, and that such stories can spread anywhere. But because Facebook is so ubiquitous, it is often where they do.
What about advertising?
Facebook’s advertising platform has also been the subject of intense criticism. Facebook allows advertisers to target people very specifically – often down to the level of a parliamentary constituency, by political viewpoint or demographic.
This allows adverts to be tailored very specifically to a particular person, and for what users see to be almost private and have very little scrutiny applied to them from the outside.
Parties and campaigns have made huge use of these to target carefully calibrated messages to marginal seats and voters with things they wouldn’t say to other voters. Sometimes these claims are false: the notorious £350m-for-the-NHS claim featured heavily in adverts promoted by the Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum, for instance.
Other social networks such as Twitter have recently decided to ban political advertising. Facebook has not done this – in fact, in its latest storm, it has done the opposite.
What’s the latest storm about?
The latest storm is so potent because it has combined both fake news and Facebook adverts.
Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s CEO, said last month that Facebook would not stop politicians from running false and untrue adverts on its platform.
This caused outrage, but Facebook said it did not want to become the arbiter of what was true and what was not. The storm prompted more than 250 Facebook employees to sign a letter to Zuckerberg decrying the policy, warning that it was “a threat to what FB stands for”.
For now, Facebook has doubled-down: but the stance has reignited the debate about whether Facebook should have the same responsibilities as other publishers, and whether regulation is needed. Either way, it’s probably too late for the UK as it approaches a general election.