Not long after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. presidential election last year, observers started asking about how much of an impact Facebook might have had on the outcome.
At the time, the social network’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg brushed away concerns and famously said it was “a pretty crazy idea.”
But since then, the company has been under mounting pressure as revelations that Russia purchased thousands of Facebook ads during the campaign forced Zuckerberg into an about-face and took to Facebook live in September.
To many, this swirling controversy has brought to light how massively influential the social network is and some say Facebook may have grown too big to be left to its own devices.
“Facebook probably merited regulation anyway but by its reaction to the election controversy, it has in effect invited it to come much sooner,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect.
Kirkpatrick questions why Facebook wouldn’t have anticipated the misuse of its platform.
“Facebook is designed to affect — essentially favour — incendiary material,” Kirkpatrick tells The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti.
“Because it’s an attention-based, advertising-driven business, things that command attention are prized and more distributed than other things, and encouraged by Facebook to be distributed because they generate page views and page views generate platforms for advertising.”
As a result, an advertising-based platform is going to lean towards posts that get people’s emotions engaged.
“Anger and … fear are two emotions that are quite easily implicated.”
Kirkpatrick says there needs to be a different relationsip between government and social media companies.
“But there is absolutely a risk that we could suppress speech that should not be suppressed. In fact, I think that’s already happening. Many people call for companies like Facebook to you know do more to suppress this and that but in effect that’s a form of censorship that’s being put on a commercial entity which I think is principally inappropriate.”
While calculating influence on voters is difficult, digital culture writer Virginia Heffernan points out there is a toll on our collective psyche that social media left behind.
“There’s an ascendant concept called cognitive security; it’s sort of in the same breath as national security or financial security. People talk about cognitive security and there’s a strong idea that our thinking to some extent has been hacked by this particularly angry rhetoric that shows up on Twitter Google and Facebook.”