It’s been roughly a year since Twitter and Facebook banned Donald Trump (temporarily, in Facebook’s case, even after Trump spent four years making a mockery of the rules written specifically to accommodate him) and pledged to step up their efforts against disinformation, hate speech and radicalization.
So: Have they?
Facebook “remains an extremist breeding ground,” offering militia groups unparalleled ability to spread anti-government propaganda, recruit new members and even run ads, according to a report by the Tech Transparency Project released last week. That’s even though the platform claimed to have banned “militarized social movements” back in August 2020.
“One would imagine that an event like the Capitol insurrection would have forced Facebook to clean up its militia mess, but, as per usual, the company puts profits over everything,” Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, said in an emailed statement. “The prevalence of these groups is startlingly similar to what we found a year ago.”
In a separate study focused on election misinformation, MediaMatters found Facebook continues to host ― and amplify ― the same “Stop the Steal” falsehoods that boosted Trump’s monthslong attempt to overthrow his 2020 election defeat.
Troublingly, MediaMatters also found that many of the groups have pivoted and are now also seeking to undermine the legitimacy of state-level elections ahead of this year’s midterms.
“Facebook’s advertising tools can now ‘nanotarget’ an individual user, suggesting that we have entered a new era of personalized propaganda,” warned Fight for the Future, a nonprofit tech advocacy group.
These concerns are compounded by more fundamental problems with how Facebook decides to prioritize the content its users see. As documents leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen show, Facebook’s own algorithms, informed by the unregulated use of users’ data, continue to drive polarization at an unprecedented scale.
This polarized audience generates mountains of cash for Facebook and its new parent company, Meta. Because anger is more profitable than comity.
However poorly Facebook and company have done policing themselves, Trump’s own forthcoming Truth Social is likely to do far worse. The venture (no, not that one, or that one, or that one) is slated to launch in February, with former GOP Rep. Devin Nunes at the helm.
If social media companies can’t, or won’t, curb their own worst impulses, the ultimate, urgent answer is federal regulation.
That includes a federal data privacy law of the sort being pushed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), as well as more conventional antitrust legislation championed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
“Facebook cares more about turning a profit by coddling white nationalists, scammers and anti-democratic right-wing figures than protecting Americans’ private data,” Wyden remarked last week in a tweet promoting his bill. “Congress must pass strong federal privacy legislation in 2022.”
Wyden continued making the case for legislation at a news conference this week.
“If we had a strong privacy law on the books, Mark Zuckerberg would already be in jail for his serial lying about Facebook’s abuse of Americans’ data,” Wyden said. “Congress has the opportunity to act now by passing a comprehensive privacy law that can cut off the flow of data to Facebook’s outrage machine by setting strong new rules for how companies can collect, share and use Americans’ personal information.
“That will go right to Facebook’s business model and hit its bottom line, which seems to be the only thing that company cares about.”
Absent federal action, Fight For the Future says we should expect to see Facebook and the social media industry do more harm in 2022 ― and beyond.
“We cannot restructure society’s relationship with social media or have safe and fair elections without ending the exploitation and manipulation that currently underpins our digital lives,” Fight for the Future said in a statement. “Facebook’s business model has evolved into social engineering via psychological warfare, and it’s crucial that lawmakers address this existential threat. In order to protect the integrity of the future elections, lawmakers must disarm Facebook’s data weapon by regulating surveillance, not speech.”