Can Facebook Be Fixed?

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One week after a Facebook security breach exposed the accounts of 50 million users, a collection of leading thinkers on the social media giant’s outsized impact on democracy and information privacy joined a Facebook executive for a revealing and timely conversation at Fordham Law School.

The Oct. 4 event centered around University of Virginia Media Studies Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan’s new book, Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. Facebook Global Civic Partnerships Manager Crystal Patterson, investigative journalist Julia Angwin, and Fordham Law Visiting Professor Danielle Citron ’94 also participated in a panel discussion moderated by Fordham Law Professor Olivier Sylvain.  Fordham University’s McGannon Center, which Sylvain directs, presented the event.

In recent years, as Facebook reached an unprecedented 2.2 billion users worldwide, the American social media platform has faced increasingly complex questions about its potentially deleterious effects on not only U.S. democracy but also global affairs. Much of Facebook’s lingering negative publicity in the U.S. centers around how Russian misinformation and Cambridge Analytica used the platform to sway the 2016 presidential election. Angwin’s reporting has also highlighted serious concerns about housing and employment discrimination on the site. Abroad, Facebook is the preferred tool for tyrants in countries like the Philippines and Myanmar to target dissidents, Vaidhyanathan noted.

“If you wanted to create a propaganda machine that would help authoritarian and nationalist forces around the world rise to power, you could not invent something better than Facebook,” Vaidhyanathan said in his opening remarks. Facebook’s three defining characteristics—scale, algorithmic amplification, advertising—don’t offer much hope that it can fix its problematic relationships with democracy, data privacy, discrimination, and other ills while still retaining the qualities that make it so successful, the scholar said.

Facebook is open to government regulation, Patterson said during the panel, reiterating a statement made by CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his testimony to Congress in April 2018. The corporation hasn’t “taken anything off the table” with regard to the best ways to respond to domestic challenges Vaidhyanathan and other panelists described. “We have community standards that we do try to enforce as evenly as we can,” Patterson said. “I think ours go above and beyond the other social media sites.” Reports of revenge porn and hate speech are reviewed by humans, she added.

Patterson also rejected Vaidhyanathan’s accusations that Facebook, particularly Zuckerberg, is partially responsible for human rights atrocities in places like the Philippines and Myanmar because it has cozied up to dictators there to advance its bottom line. Facebook believes it is important for people to have access to the Internet and be able to communicate with one another, while also recognizing its role in mitigating the effects bad actors can have using these tools, the Facebook executive added.

“I can say unequivocally that there is no one who works at Facebook that is okay with [genocide],” Patterson emphasized.

The entire shape and scope of the Facebook problem in American and global life is unknown, investigative journalist Julia Angwin observed, likening the social media platform’s impact on human life to “social climate change.”

Angwin’s reporting with her previous employer, ProPublica, exposed how Facebook’s platform tools presented users opportunities to discriminate based on race in their housing ads and based on age in their employment ads. The countless number of categories one can use to target ads on Facebook makes Angwin question whether discrimination can be totally eradicated on the platform.

“How can we solve discriminatory action on Facebook?” asked Angwin, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Markup. “It remains to be seen.”

Facebook plans to be as transparent as possible as it adjusts policies on emerging issues, Patterson noted. Citron, who has consulted with Facebook on a pro bono basis for years, credited the corporation for its ongoing willingness to listen to outside voices.

“I appreciate the fact they welcome advocates, scholars, and people who are deeply critical of them to come inside and have a conversation about how they can improve,” Citron said.

The McGannon Center is an interdisciplinary center that features the work of communications scholars across Fordham University as well as the work of prominent scholars on communications-related issues. Later this semester, the center will release a report on the limits and promises of Blockchain technology.

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