Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent apology tour reaches its crescendo this week with testimony before members of the House and the Senate. In his remarks Tuesday, Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook’s social networking tools pose risks, and that the company “didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm.”
Facebook’s public relations trouble started months ago when it revealed that it found hundreds of fake accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, or IRA, a St. Petersburg “troll farm” with ties to the Kremlin. The trolls reached 126 million people on Facebook and at least 20 million people on Instagram, which Facebook owns. But Zuckerberg’s apology tour didn’t kick off until a whistleblower’s disclosures revealed that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica obtained data on 87 million users without their consent.
On Tuesday, Senators grilled Zuckerberg on the social network’s policies around privacy, data collection, and the use of data to target advertising. Zuckerberg repeatedly said that Facebook users own and control their data. But that doesn’t seem to reflect the public outrage at the revelation that Cambridge Analytica collected user information to target political ads.
What’s more, we don’t know how related the Russia and Cambridge Analytica scandals are. Were they sharing data with each other? In response to questioning from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Zuckerberg said the investigation into the question is ongoing, noting, “We believe that it is entirely possible that there will be a connection there.”
The status quo, then, is that users don’t know what information Facebook is collecting about them or how political operatives are using that information to sway voters. The company has promised a raft of transparency improvements, including a searchable database of political ads and “paid for by” disclaimers in ads themselves.
These changes are a step in the right direction, but they shouldn’t get Facebook off the hook. There’s more the company should already have done to help us understand what Russia did in the last election.
Facebook has shared the Russia-connected ads paid for by these operatives with Congress, and a few have been made public, but the vast majority are still secret, leaving the electorate in the dark about which messages Russia was using to try to sway them. In addition, the Internet Research Agency reportedly wasn’t the only troll farm used by Moscow, so Facebook’s estimates of IRA activity could represent just the tip of the iceberg of Russian meddling.
Since Facebook hasn’t explained its methods for finding fake accounts tied to Russia, we don’t know how accurate its estimates are. With every scandal, “trust us” gets harder and harder to hear.
Also, Facebook decided not to affirmatively notify users who interacted with content from the Internet Research Agency. Instead, users must visit a special page to check for themselves. And that tool only tells users whether they like or followed an IRA account, not whether they saw a post from one.
In addition to these backward-looking issues, we need to make it harder for Russia (or another foreign power) to interfere in the next election. For that we need regulation that expands transparency and other protections for online political ads, as explained in a recent Brennan Center report. We have to shine a light on political ads and their targeting so that Russian trolls don’t know more about our online habits than we even realize we’ve shared.
Strong, commonsense regulations would keep us from depending on voluntary actions by Facebook, which could change next year and don’t affect all the other internet companies out there.
(Image: Getty Images)