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Techlash: why Facebook’s approach to #FakeNews ultimately fails

Graffiti depicting Mark Zuckerberg on the wall of separation in Bethlehem. August,2018. Richard Gray/ Press Associaiton. All rights reserved.

Every policy-tweak Facebook attempts to roll out is
faced with public criticism. This signals a structural problem: Facebook
developed quicker than its own systems of governance and now struggles to carry
its own weight. In other words, Facebook seems to lack the legitimacy to
exercise the huge power it has amassed over the years.

If the user base were smaller, Facebook would have
a group of like-minded individuals that could be more easily catered to. But
Facebook has become very big and diverse. With over 2 billion active monthly
users, it’s bigger and more diverse than any community we’ve ever seen.

If Facebook hadn’t taken such an aggressive
strategy towards consolidating itself as a central node for information
distribution, then it would be held to lower standards. But it has amassed such
power that experts and public opinion refer to it as the digital public
square
: the place where people protest, sign up for public events, get
information about politics, and more.

So Facebook’s responsibilities go beyond those of
any other digital platform, and yet people seem to believe it fails to cope
with these responsibilities. The percentage of people who think Facebook is having a negative impact on society is as high as 33% in Australia and 20% in Brazil. This happens against
a background in which many are pointing out that Facebook’s business practices
in the global south represent a new form of colonialism.

Screenshot: Google autocomplete predictions

Creating rules to govern a group that is large,
diverse, and has a lot of skin in the game is a problem that is not in itself
new. It’s actually a problem rulers have faced daily since before the times of
the Roman Empire.

How have they survived? Institution building.
Centuries of iterations towards developing institutions capable of offering
solutions that are fair. Or perhaps, more accurately, perceived as fair.
If a person feels a decision has been unfair, there is a system of checks and
balances: an Ombuds that oversees the acts of government and is ready to act in
defense of people’s interests, a system of independent judges, and, ultimately,
an electoral system through which to change the people in charge of appointing the
heads of institutions.

As part of its efforts to stamp out misinformation,
Facebook is building a network of fact- checking NGOs. This decision might seem
like an approach towards institution building. But the process is opaque and
based on a customer-service model that excludes the chance of real engagement. The process is opaque and based on a customer-service model that
excludes the chance of real engagement.

Facebook needs to engage its users in more
substantive acts of participation. That is how a shared identity can be
developed, a feeling of belonging. The precursors to an actual
community. Wikipedia offers a good example of a participatory governance model
with proven capacity to deal with tussle. Facebook has a larger community to
cater to, but also has more funds. Facebook can and should go further.

Institutions are ultimately built on community and
trust. Facebook has some sort of loose community it can start working with. But
is definitely running low on trust.

Screenshot: Bing autocomplete

Facebook mistakenly assumes that locally respected
fact-checking NGOs can supply the trust Facebook itself is lacking. But NGOs
lack standing to execute the tasks Facebook wants to offload.

In a liberal democracy, NGOs can legitimately
elevate arguments and offer counterarguments to government positions. These
actions imply adding or organizing the arguments of a public debate. In liberal
democracies we assume arguments will be tested publicly, and after the
positions of different stakeholders have been taken into account, perhaps
adopted as policy by democratically elected representatives. NGOs have not gone
through any process that could possibly provide the legitimacy to limit the
arguments available for public debate. NGOs have not gone
through any process that could possibly provide the legitimacy to limit the
arguments available for public debate.

If Facebook wants to remain the digital public
square, it needs to develop its own process of institution building. Bottom-up.
One that resolves the tension between maximizing corporate profit and being
responsive to social problems. It needs to limit Facebook Corp. to selling ads,
and delegate decision-making power regarding all other matters onto a set of
institutions, including enforcing transparency rules over Facebook Corp.

Facebook needs to involve its +2 billion members in
debate, elections and decision-making. Candidates in charge of explaining to
the users how the technology works, and discuss publicly how it should be used.
Candidates in charge of translating human rights to this digital age. Their
impact would go far beyond Facebook itself. It would reduce a gap in information
that is fueling a teclash and is likely to lead governments to implement
bad regulation that would affect the whole internet.

The NGO-network approach is
a reasonable patch to an urgent problem. But Facebook needs to start signalling
what its long-term strategy looks like. Many, including myself, believe the power Facebook (and a handful of other companies) yield is
becoming too big of a risk for society at large. Calls for Facebook to be
broken up are gaining traction as public trust in the corporation gets
increasingly eroded. Facebook can mitigate part of these concerns by
distributing political control over the platform. Wikipedia offers a good
example of a participatory governance model with proven capacity to deal with
tussle.

Screenshot: DuckDuckGo autocomplete

So Facebook should….?

Build institutions is the right answer, I believe.
Yet there are reasons to be cynical about Facebook’s ability to establish
institutions that actually work. After all, Facebook has shareholders to
satisfy on a quarterly basis. But even shareholders should understand that Facebook’s
longterm sustainability requires a new governance structure. One that can ease
the growing tensions between human values and profit. One that, by putting
people first, ensures users feel part of some imagined community that is worth
belonging to. One that is prepared for the challenges the future has in store. Mark Zuckerberg has a chance to take
his promise to build community seriously.

Mark Zuckerberg has a
chance to take his promise to build community seriously. And it could be
a community of a size and complexity the world has never seen. As Facebook
navigates further into uncharted waters, one thing is clear: we can only expect
the waves will get bigger…

This article was original published by Common Dreams under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

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