As news of the shooting in Las Vegas began to trickle in, those who turned to Facebook would have found pages run by former criminals and organisations known to provide politically motivated propaganda — such as Sputnik, based out of Russia — which would have helped spread misinformation and rumour. A day earlier, Mark Zuckerberg, who had initially rubbished accusations that his company has been used by Russia to manipulate elections, wrote a post saying, “For the ways my work was used to divide people… I ask for forgiveness and I will work to do better.” Zuckerberg’s contrition is well taken. But there are fundamental problems with the social media giant that require an overhaul and need serious articulation and consideration beyond its CEO’s mann ki baat.
Facebook is now the largest publisher in the world. Unlike its more traditional counterparts, however, it does not take responsibility for the content it hosts. While some attempts have been made to introduce nuance in its “community standards” policy, editorial sensibilities are still largely crowd-sourced and the elusive algorithm that decides what is appropriate has often gone wrong: Violence and racism pass muster, while images of women breastfeeding are deemed “inappropriate”. The second aspect of Facebook’s basic structure that has drawn criticism is its tendency to re-inforce and promote what its algorithms perceive as its users’ preferences. So, for example, a Donald Trump supporter is likely to receive content that is misogynistic and anti-minority. Finally, by being “content agnostic”, the platform has blurred the lines between news and opinion, fact and fiction.
Since its inception, Facebook has been controversial: FaceMash, the company’s predecessor, “compared” women. But the sheer scale of Facebook — its users outnumber the population of most continents — means that it wields enormous influence. For Zuckerberg, the best way to do that is through a revamp of Facebook’s technology — no amount of manpower can edit content emanating from over 2 billion users — and an active effort to provide more balanced content.