In the closest he ever gets to a mea culpa, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he would hand over roughly 3,000 political ads placed from Russia to US officials investigating the country’s influence on the 2016 presidential election.
In a video memo, Zuckerberg effectively owned up to his social network’s power to facilitate clandestine tinkering in our democratic systems. “I wish I could tell you we’re going to be able to stop all interference, but that just wouldn’t be realistic,” he said. “There will always be bad actors.”
Concerns about those “bad actors” have been growing over a year of huge and unexpected political shocks in the US and the UK. Compelling narratives have been built around the malign influence of shadowy billionaires and Russian troll factories in securing Brexit and President Trump. Some of the reporting has drifted into the realm of conspiracy theory, but there have been enough instances of dodgy tactics unearthed to suggest our civil systems are vulnerable to outside interference.
And yet the focus on Evil Masterminds often obscures the more fundamental rewiring of our society that Facebook has undertaken by flipping our public and private spheres.
Once, the act of persuading populations at scale, whether it was to sell bog roll or swing votes, had to be done largely in the public eye. Mass media offered a huge opportunity to influence people, but that required putting your message out into the public realm.
But Facebook offers its advertisers the ability to show tailored ads to small, targeted groups of people, with messages that escape scrutiny from the outside world. Meanwhile, the company defends the confidentiality of what those advertisers are saying, who they are saying it to, and how often. Only a few months ago Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer was arguing that information about political ads should be protected as doing as commercially sensitive.
And while what was once by default public is becoming hidden, the private lives of Facebook’s users are being exposed. Clicks, likes, chats with small groups or even one-to-one communication are turned into data points for targeting by those same advertisers. The social network’s ability to dig into our private identities extends to recording signals and behaviours that even we are unaware we’re producing.
Facebook isn’t the only web firm changing how public discourse operates. Google and Twitter are also having a huge impact. And Facebook’s influence is not purely malign – it has helped the isolated find support networks and the oppressed have a voice.
But what sets Facebook apart is how it has turned an inversion of our private and public spaces into a money-spinning operation that it built entirely on the exposure of the private and concealment of what was once public.
It is that financial basis, that commercial imperative that raises serious questions about whether we can allow it to continue operating with the same degree of freedom.
Do we really want to put our trust in Zuckerberg and Facebook to, as he put it, “ensure the integrity of the German elections”? It feels like that should at the very least be a job for regulators, but which regulators are equipped or authorised to make sure Facebook is doing their work effectively?
It’s great that Zuckerberg is acknowledging that something has gone wrong, and that something needs to be done about it. But each new admission only adds to the sense that the truly transformative impact his company is having shouldn’t be left in the hands of a company at all.