Facebook’s reputation is on the line in midterms – Greeley Tribune

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No matter your political leanings, reasons abound for feeling anxious about the upcoming midterm elections in November. One of those reasons is Facebook.

Facebook’s owner, Meta, has been scaling back safeguards aimed at preventing voters from being bamboozled by misinformation or foreign meddling in American elections, the Associated Press recently reported. Worse, they’ve been doing it as quietly as possible.

This is the same Facebook that trumpeted pouring billions of dollars into ensuring accuracy in posts about U.S. elections, following the withering criticism the social media giant received over its inability to firewall its site from outright falsehoods during the 2016 campaign season.

If there ever was a time for Facebook to ratchet up safeguards to ensure accuracy in election-related posts, this would be it. Instead, it’s irresponsibly pulling them back.

Hanging in the balance with this year’s midterms is the fulcrum of power in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as in state legislatures and governors’ mansions across the country. Shifts in control in state capitals could lead to game-changing legislation on everything from abortion restrictions and gun control to climate change and rollbacks of voting rights.

What does Meta have to say in its defense? Not to worry, the social media giant says.

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“With every election, we incorporate what we’ve learned into new processes and have established channels to share information with the government and our industry partners,” a Meta spokesman told the Associated Press.

That sounds like vacuous corporate-speak to us. There’s no shortage of agenda-driven opportunists who potentially could exploit Facebook’s weaknesses and inject their falsehoods into the social media jet stream — Russia and China, extremists of all political stripes, election deniers and, of course, a certain former president with unique truth-bending skills.

Particularly worrisome is what AP reports is Meta’s decision to effectively abandon an online tool it set up to scrutinize trending social media posts. The tool, known as CrowdTangle, was being offered to researchers and media so that misinformation on Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook owns, could be flagged and the source of the dubious content could be identified.

Sounds useful, but CrowdTangle’s former CEO, Brandon Silverman, told a Senate Judiciary Committee this spring that Meta began powering down CrowdTangle a year ago over concerns that the online tool’s transparency mission was generating too much public scrutiny of Facebook. “The tool is slowly dying, and one of Facebook’s most significant commitments to transparency is very much up in the air,” Silverman told the committee.

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Meta also banned from Facebook two New York University researchers who had been probing how misinformation gets amplified in political advertising. The banishment came only after the researchers told the company they were planning to take a close look at the spread of falsehoods on Facebook around the time of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The researchers said Meta told them they were being banned for collecting unauthorized data from the social media platform.

Facebook’s track record for safeguarding its platform from falsehoods and misinformation campaigns is hardly admirable. Following the 2016 election campaign, the social media platform took a lot of heat for allowing Russian trolls to invade the newsfeeds of Facebook users and plant fake political postings and ads. The company was also criticized for allowing Cambridge Analytica, a company seeking to promote Donald Trump’s campaign, to harvest personal information from millions of users.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for these failings and promised earnest reform. But rolling back safeguards meant to shield voters from misinformation during election season hardly sounds like a genuine commitment.

Facebook is a business, and like any business it’s driven by bottom lines and balance sheets. But as one of the world’s pre-eminent social media platforms, it also shoulders immense responsibility for ensuring falsehoods and agenda-driven misinformation schemes get rooted out, particularly as voters gear up for the polls.

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We like the way Silverman summed up his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee: “Ultimately, transparency is one of the most powerful levers we have to help make sure that social platforms live up to their promise of helping protect free and open societies.”

If Facebook continues to push away transparency and a commitment to truth, eventually users could see the platform as unreliable, and walk away. After all, if Facebook can’t be trusted, what’s the value in using it to share intimate details of your life?

Perhaps if Facebook and its parent, Meta, view this issue that way, through a bottom-line prism, they’ll finally stop apologizing and start reforming. It’s good business as well as the right thing to do.

—The Chicago Tribune, Aug. 24

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