Facing Up to Facebook's Consequences

Help ProPublica document the highly-tailored political advertising that Facebook is hiding from us (unless we're the target audience).

February 14, 2018

Reading the recent Wired cover article about Mark Zuckerberg’s changing perspectives since the last election feels a bit like reading Michael Wolff’s gossipy Fire and Fury. We get a close-up of big personalities trying to figure out how that wreckage around them happened, sort of a Great Man theory of history only the men aren’t great. The focus is on individuals and how they feel, on the inside story of grudge matches and office politics, and that’s only a small part of the story.

Zuckerberg reportedly thought Facebook would bring people together – all of them, always – and couldn’t fathom that it was capable of amplifying rage, being used duplicitously, or having an impact on elections or how we learn about current events. This seems an implausible lapse of imagination given the entire business model of the platform is to manipulate people by selecting exactly the characteristics that would make them susceptible to personalized marketing messages. Also, seducing the public’s attention as long as possible so more ads could be delivered. Also, relying on content provided freely by people who are essentially being trained to market themselves for likes and friends using the same attention-getting ploys as advertisers. How could he not realize this juggernaut of messaging and marketing would be used to manipulate people? That’s the whole point.

Perhaps it’s the eternal sunshine of Silicon Valley utopianism. Whatever we do, it will make the world better. Perhaps it’s just that a massive company was successful beyond its wildest dreams, so couldn’t comprehend the nightmares it was spawning. Or maybe the company leadership was so busy acquiring startups and making money it didn’t take the time to think through the consequences. Or maybe the leadership just didn’t care, at least not until it threatened the brand.

In any case, if you are a Facebook user, you might take a few minutes to help ProPublica do some research on Facebook’s unintended consequences. One of the reasons it’s so hard to know what’s going on is that people only see political ads designed for them. They don’t have any idea what messages others are getting, these ads aren’t as clearly labeled as they have to be if they run on television, on the radio, or in newspapers – and nobody has a chance to fact-check claims that promote a position they don’t have because they never see those ads.

Want to do something about it? If you have a Facebook account, download ProPublica’s ad-on for a Chrome or Firefox browser. Political ads that show up when you visit Facebook will be added to a public database, along with ad-targeting information. Don’t worry, unlike Facebook, ProPublica won’t collect information about you – just about the political ads served to your Facebook feed along with information about the way they were demographically tailored.

Maybe Mark Zuckerberg is finally taking his company’s responsibilities seriously. Maybe Facebook will change the way it does business. But until that happens, journalists with some coding skills will give it a try. Why not give them a hand?




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