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Can Zuckerberg control his monster? Facebook is accused of doing too little to mitigate the effects it is having on society and democracy

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

November 19, 2018   4 mins

It seems incredible Facebook is only 14 years old. The firm’s penetration of the planet, since it was created by some Harvard students in their dorm, has been simply astonishing; there are more active users of the social network across the world than there are followers of Christianity. Yet for all that turn-of the century talk of Silicon Valley as a liberating force for society, this single technology giant has come to symbolise the most rapacious form of modern-day capitalism.

Facebook has had a terrible year, stumbling from one scandal to another. It stands accused of many misdeeds from tax-dodging and allowing dark forces to undermine democracy through to having a pernicious effect on the mental health of teenagers. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we created are destroying how society works—no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth,” confessed Chamath Palihapitiya, the firm’s former vice-president of user growth, last year. “Bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really bad state of affairs.” Yet many people seem oblivious to the dangers.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, once touted as a possible US President, has been desperately trying to deflect criticism and deter regulation, determined not to abdicate his domination of the company – he is both chairman and CEO – in the face of fierce investor criticism. Last month, he claimed the firm was cracking down on the dissemination of fake news but insisted they could not solve such problems alone. “Bad actors don’t restrict themselves to one service, and we shouldn’t approach the problem in silos,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post. Yet a series of investigations exposed the limpness of their weak efforts – and now shocking evidence has emerged of how they sought to discredit critics and deflect attention.

The New York Times has revealed that while Zuckerberg was busily saying sorry and the firm was presenting itself as a force for global good, his colleagues had commissioned an aggressive lobbying campaign to discredit critics. One tactic was to link Facebook’s foes to George Soros, the Jewish financier and philanthropist routinely targeted by the far-right with vile anti-semitic conspiracy theories. “It is disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platform,” responded Patrick Gaspard, president of the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations. “To now learn that you were active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale.”

So Zuckerberg has been back in the spotlight defending himself again; he is having to deny he knew about smears or anti-semitic narratives and has put a new recruit, one Nick Clegg, in charge of a review of lobbying. But the platform’s sinister effect reaches beyond democracies in the West. Take recent events in Nigeria. In June, at least 11 men were butchered or burned to death in Plateau State, a region riven with ethnic violence. Now police say tensions were inflamed by images circulated the day before on Facebook that claimed Fulani Muslims were slaughtering Christians from the Berom minority. “Fake news on Facebook is killing people,” said Tyopev Terna Matthias, spokesman for the police.

A BBC investigation found some of the most incendiary images did not even come from Nigeria and had nothing to do – as claimed – with mayhem in another district of the state. One widely-shared video showing a man’s skull sliced open was six years old and had come from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Jos South was not under attack. But because of those images they saw, the next day, roads were blocked. People died. Vehicles were burned. So many people died.” said Matthias.

Facebook claims to take such incidents seriously. Of course. Zuckerberg himself has visited Nigeria, such is its importance as his firm’s largest African market and the continent’s biggest economy. Yet the BBC found only four fact-checkers hired for 24 million monthly users. Meanwhile, the firm’s most recent figures showed a global profits surge in the last quarter above $5bn, so it clearly does not lack cash to hire many more monitors in the country. But that one regional police spokesman alone claimed he knew of at least 12 more incidents in which Facebook played a role in fanning violence from a riot though to a stampede and a double killing.

This is far from the first case in which fake news hurtling unchecked around this social media site has been tied to dead bodies in developing nations. Facebook has been linked to lynchings in India, Indonesia and Mexico over false rumours of child abductions. Online dissemination of hoaxes were blamed for fuelling bloodshed in Sri Lanka against the Muslim minority population, with far too few Sinhalese-speaking moderators for five million users on the island. In Libya, ‘keyboard warriors’ use the site to spread ethnic hatred, taunt rivals and help target attacks.

The firm also played an insidious role in Myanmar during the Rohingya crisis, which saw the largest forced migration in recent years after house burnings, murder and mass rape. Members of the armed forces were found to have led a systematic drive targeting Muslims on the widely-used platform, with sham accounts and trolls used to stir hatred.

Following media questions, Facebook took down many such accounts with a total of 1.3 million followers. Yet signs of  its malign power date back to 2014, when a nationalist monk sparked a deadly riot against Muslims by sharing false reports of a rape; critics claim the firm ignored warnings to tackle the spread of such inflammatory fake news.

Facebook believes its algorithms and artificial intelligence can tackle abusive posts, yet a new transparency report reveals it detected just 15% of those removed over the past three months; the remainder were the result of the alarm being raised by users. No wonder even Prince William accuses it and other social media behemoths of putting profits before values, saying they need to learn that power brings responsibility. “Their self-image is so grounded in their positive power for good that they seem unable to engage in constructive discussion about the social problems they are creating,” he warned, adding rightly that social networks had allowed “misinformation and conspiracy to pollute the public sphere”.

This is certainly true in the West, where amplification of extremist views and failure to thwart flows of fake news has corroded public discourse, devastated reliable media, widened divisions and weakened democracies. These issues are intensified in volatile places with weak institutions and bubbling tensions – especially when the firm is so focused on rapid global growth that it fails to impose adequate checks on content. The dangers in developing nations are not just to democracy but to people’s lives. For all the benefits of mass connectivity, Zuckerberg needs to face up urgently to the monster he has created or be stripped of his control.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


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