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Essay: Disinformation on Facebook

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Facebook began as an online directory for college students in 2004 but has since ballooned into the largest social media platform in the world with over 2 billion users. Facebook has also become one of the biggest companies on the stock market, boasting a market capitalization upwards of $450 billion. With this success has also come a large amount of problems, one of the primary ones being disinformation. Disinformation on Facebook has allowed for the use of this platform to manipulate other users and has created a complex problem about what needs to be done about the issue because of the ease in which disinformation is spread, the lack of incentive for Facebook to self-regulate, and the inability of governing institutions to properly regulate Facebook.

Disinformation has long been a problem on Facebook but over the last couple years, there has been an increase in the number of users spreading disinformation as well as a rise in the impact this disinformation has on users. Institutions have been made with the sole purpose of spreading disinformation for their own gain. A primary example of this is the Internet Research Agency in Russia, also known as the Russian troll factory. They used multiple tactics such as “applauding Donald Trump’s candidacy while trying to undermine Hillary Clinton’s” (MacFarquhar) but the real issue lies in how easily they were able to spread this information and impact the American election from St. Petersburg, Russia. The computers were designed to forward the post to the agency’s countless fake accounts, opening and closing the post to create huge numbers of fake page views” (MacFarquhar). With just some programming skill and paid writers, the agency was able to create completely false posts that would receive a large amount of engagement from fake accounts and as a result would be pushed to the trending page (Facebook Dilemma) where real people can see these posts and actually believe them. “Individuals tend not to question the credibility of information unless it violates their preconceptions or they are incentivized to do so. Otherwise, they may accept information uncritically. People also tend to align their beliefs with the values of their community” (Lazer). Nearly sixty-two percent of people get their news from social media, and as the biggest social media platform, a large portion of that is likely from Facebook. With such a large number of people believing news they see on Facebook, it presents a major platform that can be used by troll factories and others to manipulate the truth. Facebook’s algorithm encourages polarization and a post about something that didn’t really happen makes it easy to incite responses from users. This results in high engagement and leads to a large number of people seeing this post. It has gotten to the point where people who had no stake in the election started to post fake news about it for their own monetary gain due to the engagement they could receive from these posts. “We saw Macedonians publishing: Hillary Clinton being indicted, the pope endorsing Trump… getting close to or above a million Shares… How is it that a kid in Macedonia can get an article that gets more engagement… then the New York Times” (Facebook Dilemma). With disinformation being spread so easily and reaching viral levels it is increasingly difficult for users to differentiate between real and fake news, especially when the real news doesn’t receive the same exposure that the fake news does. The overall issue with fake news is that it can change someone’s perspective on someone or something regardless of the truth because it is a difficult task for users to find out the real truth, and users often don’t spend the time to research what they read on Facebook. As a result, people are able to spread fake news easily and have profound impacts on different events such as the election.

Facebook is one of the most successful companies in the world with two billion users and upwards of a billion users on Instagram, and WhatsApp. Their success has been predicated on their ability to connect people across the world but also on their algorithm. This same algorithm has led to a world of problems but as a company with focuses on profits, it has no incentive to do anything about it. The algorithm pushes posts to the top of the feed based on engagement and a number of other arbitrary factors. The algorithm encourages engagement and through fake bots and polarizing posts, spreaders of disinformation can easily increase the engagement of their posts, pushing it to the trending page. “I have a series of different examples that suggest to me that there is something wrong systemically with the Facebook algorithms and business model. In effect, polarization was the key to the model – this idea of appealing to people’s lower-level emotions” (Facebook Dilemma). Even with all these issues that arise from the algorithm, Facebook has had no incentive to do anything about it. Facebook has not needed to self-regulate because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which effectively says “Don’t hold this internet company responsible if some idiot says something violent on the site” (Facebook Dilemma). Facebook has such a large amount of users that they don’ t need to focus on issues such as this since it is difficult for users to leave Facebook for another platform. Facebook is a for-profit company, hiring people to patrol posts or changing their algorithm would hurt their business outlook whether it be higher salary expenses or lower revenue. As a for-profit business, they have no incentive to do such things when everything they are doing with regards to their algorithm is completely legal. Facebook has shown their focus on shareholders and revenue as in the past with a different issue Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth justified Facebook’s tactics saying they are “trade-offs necessary for growth” (Facebook Dilemma). Facebook has begun taking steps to start lowering the amount of disinformation spread on its site by allowing users the ability “to look up who paid for a political ad, whom the ad targeted, and which other ads the funders had run.” (Osnos). There may be more steps that Facebook can take but as a company focused on profits them taking action against themselves only hurts their own best interests.

The role that the government plays in society is to protect the people, and many are arguing that the spread of disinformation has gotten to the point where the government needs to step in and regulate Facebook since it is not doing it itself. There is a fine line that exists when it comes to the spread of information and free speech and it is a difficult problem to solve without crossing that line. One of the more prominent examples of a government putting laws in place to regulate Facebook can be seen in Germany. Germany enacted a law known as NetzDG which was in response to the hate speech on Facebook. Their law requires that online platforms take down hate speech within 24 hours or face a fifty-million euro fine. This law has definitely cut down on the amount of hate speech on Facebook in Germany but it also has had a large amount of negative unintended effects. Critics of the NetzDG movement say “NetzDG will result in unjustified censorship by platforms seeking to avoid large penalties” (Barrett). The United States is a country built on free speech between all citizens and laws such as the one enforced in Germany could cause an effective breach of free speech in a country that is celebrated for its free speech. By requiring platforms to take down certain content, the government begins to cross that aforementioned line and the question becomes what is the difference between the US and China. The internet in China is highly regulated and goes against every rule of free speech. The US will likely never reach that level of restriction but if the US were to impose laws like China or Germany even at a less extreme level these restrictions would “pose an immediate threat to the basic human right of free speech” (Barrett). The US being leaders in the area of human rights has made it difficult for the government to come down on organizations like Facebook for the benefit of its citizens while also preserving human rights such as free speech.

Facebook is one of the most successful companies in history but it is not without fault. The spread of disinformation has had a profound impact on events such as the election or causing violence in countries such as Myanmar. People around the globe are taking advantage of Facebook’s lack of regulation to manipulate society into believing what they want them to believe. Yet, even with all these issues, Facebook has no incentive to regulate themselves as they are breaking no laws on their platform in this case. As a company that has shareholders to worry about, their primary goal is to maximize profit and them regulating themselves will only decrease profits. Many argue that the government should step in because of the amount of disinformation being spread and the impact it has on society. It is a difficult task for the government to regulate what people are saying online while also maintaining the basic human right of free speech. These issues have created a very complex problem between all members of society because this problem continues to exist and there’s very little anyone can do to change that other than Facebook who has no incentive to do so.

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