Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Facebook Is a Dingleberry on Democracies

Stevan Dojcinovic, in an op-ed for the New York Times, reacting to the fallout from Facebook’s announcement last month that they would move unpaid news stories from pages into a separate News Feed in some countries:

It wasn’t just in Serbia that Facebook decided to try this experiment with keeping pages off the News Feed. Other small countries that seldom appear in Western headlines — Guatemala, Slovakia, Bolivia and Cambodia — were also chosen by Facebook for the trial.

Some tech sites have reported that this feature might eventually be rolled out to Facebook users in the rest of the world, too. But of course no one really has any way of knowing what the social media company is up to. And we don’t have any way to hold it accountable, either, aside from calling it out publicly. Maybe that’s why it has chosen to experiment with this new feature in small countries far removed from the concerns of most Americans.

But for us, changes like this can be disastrous. Attracting viewers to a story relies, above all, on making the process as simple as possible. Even one extra click can make a world of difference. This is an existential threat, not only to my organization and others like it but also to the ability of citizens in all of the countries subject to Facebook’s experimentation to discover the truth about their societies and their leaders.

It’s pretty astonishing that an experiment like this would be announced around the same time that Facebook is being questioned about the possible role that misleading targeted ads may have played in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. There’s no indication yet just how influential these ads were on specific voters or the election itself, but if they had even a slight sway in a developed democracy like that in the U.S., just imagine how influential highly-targeted ads may be in newer and, usually, weaker democracies. Facebook’s careless U.S.-centric attitude is frightening from this non-American’s perspective.

A small quibble with Dojcinovic’s piece: its headline is “Hey, Mark Zuckerberg: My Democracy Isn’t Your Laboratory”, and he refers to “Mark Zuckerberg’s arbitrary experiments”. I think ascribing the actions of a company to its notable figureheads is unproductive as I feel that it reduces a concerning issue of egregious corporate influence and accountability to a personal spat.