A little (election) manifesto for Facebook

When an issue starts to surface at literary festivals, you can tell that it’s gone middle-class mainstream. Over the weekend, TV celebrity Stephen Fry recommended that Facebook be classified ‘as a publisher’ in order to tackle ‘fake’ news and online abuse.

With an election on in the UK right now, Facebook is the weapon of choice for political parties wanting to spring surprises. The network is being credited with almost magical powers of persuasion and manipulation – largely because few people understand how it works. I live in a marginal constituency in London and printed political nonsense comes through our letterbox every day; I’ve no need to look at Facebook to see people fiddling with the truth.

So how should worry about Facebook be usefully focussed? In a public exchange with Facebook’s Adam Mosseri recently I urged Facebook to think much wider and to worry about helping to rebuild faith in truth in societies where that trust has begun to break down. Unsurprisingly, someone researching platforms asked me what on earth I meant. What follows is based on my reply.

When I talked about a ‘reconstruction effort in civil society’, I was compressing too much into a short phrase. Many journalists were thinking very narrowly about fake news, factchecking and misinformation. That is to say that the concerns about it are perfectly real (as are the solutions which are being tried out and multiplying), but the issue goes wider.

We need to take into account the underlying conditions which are helping misinformation flourish and infect what I would call the quality of public reason. There seem to be three things at work underneath:

  • The ease with which the origins and sources of information can now be disguised. Deception of this sort of course existed before digital technology, but the ability to capture, manipulate, copy and distribute information makes deliberate fakery frictionless and cheap to do and is hard to spot. Macedonian teenagers inventing stories can now be debunked almost as fast as they can create such nonsense, but subtle distortions like this or this are very much harder to spot or disrupt.
  • External threats to accurate reporting represented by malign state actors which can operate at a scale the ‘alt’ right or left can only dream of.
  • Basic differences about how we tell and recognise the truth. Truth changed in the 17th century: it stopped being handed down by kings or priests and became something which could be ascertained by discovery and debate about evidence. Whatever the debate, stable societies agreed on how truth was reached and acknowledged. There have been many assaults on this and it does not apply to totalitarian societies. Even when they stop being totalitarian, the absence of consensus about truth leaves a terrible legacy. Fissures is any society which appear between different versions of truth and how to establish it are extremely dangerous because they are so hard to close.

So what might platforms like Facebook, not to mention Twitter and Google, do?

  1. Get real. Facebook has created the world’s most powerful advertising machine on the back of a network which promises to give people the social information they want. The servicing of individual need is much more important than any public, community or communal interest. They happen to have done this at a time when – to a degree which is still astonishing political elites – large sections of the electorates in the developed world have begun to act on their belief that their governing class is stagnant and corrupt. Facebook has begun to wrestle with dilemmas about truth, privacy, editing and disclosure which have kept lawyers, NGOs and editors awake for more than two centuries. Getting real involves Facebook acknowledging, frequently and everywhere, that they have power and responsibility in questions of law, defamation, free speech and suchlike. They’ve dipped their toe in this maelstrom, but they still have a way to go.
  2. This is not the same as Facebook being ready to be ‘classed as a publisher’. That is a misleading issue because it will end up in endless and expensive lawyers’ wrangles about whether a platform actually ‘publishes’ anything. But platforms are now part of what a wise man (Jack Balkin of Yale) called ‘the infrastructure of free speech’. As such, Facebook, Twitter and Google have civic and democratic responsibilities. Such as….
  3. Transparency. Facebook still doesn’t seem to realise that demystifying what they do and allow-or-block in political communication by talking about it more openly will be to their advantage. A lot of the fear, as Martin Moore noted, is down to opacity. Quite apart from any other advantage, greater disclosure may reduce the lazy journalistic trope that anything any political candidate does with Facebook is covert manipulation of voters amounting to witchcraft. Better transparency will also help to stall efforts to pass unduly restrictive laws. If any social network is going to detect, warn or stop when dodgy information is about, then it will have to be open in defining their terms. What we know so, leaked out of Facebook, is here.
  4. Using engineering wizardry to spot deceit. If one of Facebook’s top geeks used to run America’s defence research agency, they can surely do better at detecting stopping stuff which is intended to deceive.

If I’m honest, the development I’d most like to see is politicians taking an interest in these issues. I’m amazed that so few of them do.




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