The news that Facebook will turn over details of Russian ad buys to Congress recalls a column written by my colleague Eli Lake early year. He wrote that in forcing National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to resign, President Donald Trump “caved in to his political and bureaucratic opposition.” That February column warned: “Flynn is only the appetizer. Trump is the entree.” In the case of Facebook Inc., the 3,000 advertisement buys turned over to Congress are indeed the appetizer. Regulation carrying the force of law is the inevitable entree.
It was only 16 months ago when reports surfaced that Facebook employees were removing stories of interest to conservative users from its trending news section. Facebook responded by automating the section, removing humans from the editorial process. Thus began Facebook’s uneasy journey into self-regulation.
Of course, removing humans from the editorial process and allowing unfiltered content to be distributed has its own issues, as Facebook learned during the election last year. Allegations of “fake news” influencing the 2016 presidential election were widespread after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The site was accused of being played by foreign entities promoting false articles. Facebook responded by pledging to take steps to combat fake news.
Increasingly, Facebook is finding itself in an impossible position as it tries to remain, in spirit at least, a content-agnostic platform that allows everyone to have a voice. Sometimes the company faces scrutiny when it allows certain content to remain, as in the case of fake news or neo-Nazi propaganda. Other times it faces scrutiny for removing content.
Recently Facebook’s algorithmic ad targeting has been faulted as well. ProPublica reported last week the disturbing finding that algorithms allowed the existence of an ad category for anti-Semitic content. The story also noted that algorithms correlated the behavior of anti-Semites with those in a “Second Amendment” category, a finding that upset gun-rights advocates who don’t want to be seen as anti-Semites.
What’s apparent in the past 16 months is a Wild West of self-regulation. Time and time again, Facebook has shown that if confronted with a challenge, the company will listen and often respond. Partisan trending topics, fake news, neo-Nazis, Russian meddling — if it generates enough outrage, it’ll get addressed eventually.
But Facebook’s power and influence seem likely to grow beyond the “self-regulation” phase. That’s why markets are willing to give the company a valuation of $500 billion when its 2017 profits will be in the neighborhood of only $15 billion. (Bloomberg data shows analysts expect Facebook’s revenue to grow to $76 billion in 2020, almost doubling projections for 2017.) The question remains how long self-regulation will be acceptable to the public and Congress.
Now Facebook has tipped its hand. Large, multi-national corporations don’t turn over documents to Congress out of the goodness of their hearts. Facebook’s statement about why it’s turning over information to Congress goes to great lengths to emphasize it was the company’s own decision, and that the first priority is to protect user privacy. Don’t be fooled. Self-regulation will fail, and real regulation will begin. This is how it starts.