Facebook, neutral protector of elections? No way


I mean, could Facebook be anything different?

Thanks, Facebook, for Catching Russia, China, Iran Red-Handed in 2020 Election Interference. Or not?

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A sophisticated groundwork for highly sophisticated campaigns

A few days ago, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook has already “caught Russia, China and Iran trying to sabotage the 2020 U.S. elections - and elections in other countries too - by laying a sophisticated groundwork that it can build upon”.

Zuckerberg explained that Facebook “found a set of [highly sophisticated] campaigns, that signal that these nation-states intend to be active in the upcoming elections.”

Am I the only one to find “we’ll lay sophisticated groundwork… for highly sophisticated campaigns” just a bit too much like “in my great and unmatched wisdom I will totally destroy and obliterate attempts to interfere with elections”?

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But never mind that, let’s continue: the article also recaps how, since 2016, Facebook has tried to curtail fake news and election interference, with mixed success, and confusing positions over its responsibility to do so: a quest that “poses a potentially fatal fall for Facebook and democracies everywhere”.

A social network assisting nations… Or ANOTHER nation?

I do get the point of that sentence. But I can’t help but feel that, if “Facebook and democracies” are in the same sentence, on the same level in our political discourse, we are already screwed. Another sign of Facebook’s claim to statehood. Regardless of that, there are at least three problems here.

John McClane, help us!

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If you are not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem, said John McClane in “Die Hard”. These last measures announced by Facebook are like the “War Room” it prepared to protect the EU elections, just a few months ago: the opposite of the Fight Club, and full of elephants.

How much can we trust measures that, if taken seriously, would contrast the ultimate essence and needs of Facebook itself?

If people believe and repeat so much hate speech or fake news from party or Russian trolls, is because Facebook needs to maximize user engagement, by amplifying strong feelings. Especially negative ones. Facebook is a behavior collection business that, by its own nature has “a devastating effect on the capacity for freedom and self-government.

Problem two: just imagine the opposite

If Facebook were a USA-only matter, OK. Its influence would be still wrong, but at least only US citizens would bear its consequences (yes, I’m ignoring for simplicity the still strong influence US still has on the rest of the world). But just imagine the probability of ever seeing this headline:

“Facebook Catches USA Red-Handed in Election Interference in Russia, Iran, China”

Sure, there are no real elections there, at least in China, but you get my point. You can replace those countries with India, Bolivia, Ukraine… Journalists and free press uncovered Watergate, but Facebook is not free press, and has much more money to lose than free press ever had, to really cross its home government.

Problem three: neutrality? Which neutrality?

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The measures that Facebook announced include “Fighting voter suppression”. If all the articles like this that I see online are accurate, there is one mainstream US party that does much more voter suppression than the other. And if that is the case, Facebook is not neutral when it fights voter suppression. It is right, and I’m personally happy that it does, but not neutral.

That may be an extreme example, but what I’m trying to say is that a company that got that big and rich by handling, of all things, communications among billions of people and organizations cannot be neutral. Whatever it does, or doesn’t, it won’t be neutral. It will influence elections, by simply being there doing its business: it’s the “Facebook’s Observer Effect. And there is only one thing worse than Russians or Chinese using social networks to influence your elections.

Final note about encryption

The article also quotes a tech analyst noting that “Without encryption, our democracy will be at risk of collapse”. Yes, but please let’s not forget that putting encryption first, or in the front row anyway in this kind of discourses can be astroturfing.

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