Facebook offers a product that provides social interaction, information and news consumed by 3 billion people. That’s why it’s so important that critics, lawmakers and regulators have accused the company of using algorithms that promote extreme, hateful and often false content in order to drive traffic and maximize profits. CEO Mark Zuckerberg adamantly denies these charges, but governments everywhere are now beginning to recognize the scale of the threat they pose.
In fairness, Facebook isn’t resisting calls for new rules. It doesn’t want direct responsibility for the safeguarding of democracy. It wants to make money and maintain its competitive edge. Its leaders are not trying to build algorithms that polarize the public. Their aim is to expand the company by driving user engagement. Facebook executives say they want governments to set new rules that apply across the internet and all social media, rules that determine how they should function, what kind of information they should post, and what they shouldn’t post. They say they want those rules applied fairly to all companies.
But Facebook executives are calling for change in part because they have little fear that change will really come. Politicians aren’t likely to effectively alter the way Facebook operates, because they can’t agree on the nature of the problem, much less what to do about it. In Washington, public officials on the right insist that Facebook has caved to pressure for “political correctness,” a form of censorship imposed by the left. Honest discussion of serious political and social problems, they warn, often falls outside the bounds of what is considered socially acceptable debate. They point to Donald Trump, who was “de-platformed” by the company earlier this year, to argue that the right is much more often silenced than the left.
Politicians on the left, meanwhile, say the real problem is that Facebook has too much influence and too much market power – and that it promotes disinformation invented by the right in order to, for example, support the false charge that the US presidential election was stolen from Trump. They warn that its algorithms are making a politically tribal country even more tribal. If left and right can’t agree on the problem, they won’t agree on what actions to take.
There is also a geopolitical angle to this story. US and Chinese leaders increasingly believe they are locked in a struggle for future technological dominance. The US depends mainly on private sector innovators in Silicon Valley and elsewhere to maintain an American advantage in the development of artificial intelligence. China relies on the power of the state to focus money and other resources toward a more centralized tech development strategy. If US regulators take actions that weaken tech giants like Facebook – at a time when China is gathering and processing the data produced by 1.3 billion people, and with little consideration for personal privacy – then American rule-makers are undermining US national security and the online values they say they believe in.
There are common-sense fixes that can be made to prevent Facebook from dividing societies without breaking up or otherwise critically undermining the company. First, ban political advertising. That would minimize the spread of political misinformation and raise the level of discourse. Second, alter algorithms to reduce the importance of domestic politics on the site more broadly. Third, as on the social media website LinkedIn, ensure that every user is verified as a real person. No anonymous accounts and no bots allowed. Make each user sign an agreement to abide by rules against hate speech and disinformation, and then use verification to prevent rule-breakers who have been kicked off the site from signing in under a new name.
These would be modest first steps toward meeting challenges posed not only by Facebook but by digital technology forms more generally. The best strategy that regulators, and the public, can adopt is to launch a global discussion about how best to adapt to a world in which technology companies have increasing power over their digital spaces. World leaders have been meeting each year since the mid-1990s to discuss what to do about climate change. As with rising seas and increasingly erratic weather patterns, we must take action now to limit the harm that information technology companies can inflict on democracy and society. Yet we must also adapt to a world in which some change has already become inevitable. It’s an urgent priority, because technology change in how we live, gather information and understand the world around us is coming much more quickly than global warming.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.” His Twitter handle is @ianbremmer and he is on Facebook as Ian Bremmer.