Book review: Can mighty Facebook control false information?


“An Ugly Truth,” by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang (Harper)

Authors Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang in “An Ugly Truth” build a compelling case that Facebook has grown far past its origins as a sharing place for birthday parties, vacation pictures and news of family and friends into a delivery system perfectly suited for the propagation of extremist views and outright untruths.

It’s worth keeping in mind that in signing up for Facebook, we all willingly surrender personal information that provides the fundamental net worth to Facebook’s computer algorithms’ ability to guide targeted messages to us.

How to curate and check the range of postings and ads produced by Facebook users, good and bad?

The book details how it took the company months to find the origins of some of the ads that Russian interests had placed during the 2016 presidential campaign. One ad, for example, featured a doctored image of Hilary Clinton in a hijab, a veil that Muslim women wear. You can imagine the reception to that ad among conservative Americans.

From the beginning, Zuckerberg envisioned an online site that would connect the world, a place where people could share their lives, hopes, favorites and news. No one seems to have anticipated that Facebook and other social media could become such powerful tools for disinformation campaigns. Recently, many have argued that it allows outright fiction about COVID-19 vaccines to flourish.

Facebook says it is promoting authoritative vaccine information. Moreover, Facebook says neither the FBI nor any U.S. intelligence agency knew the extent of Russian interference efforts in the 2016 election.

Can Congress regulate Facebook and other social media giants? As the authors write, in a 2018 Senate hearing, many senators didn’t seem to grasp the basics of how Facebook operated. It’s tempting to conclude from Frenkel and Kang’s book that Zuckerberg lacks the leadership and management skills to guide the colossus he created. Where would he get those skills? He started Facebook in college and has been the boss ever since then.

Did the ads with outright lies sway the 2016 presidential election? We don’t know – yet. And we may never, but Frankel and Kang offer a compelling argument that in the interest of preserving democracy, we must take steps to purge Facebook of outright falsehoods, hate and disinformation now.

No one has quite figured out how to do that yet.

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