- In a Facebook Live broadcast yesterday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the social media giant is taking steps to make the platform less vulnerable to problematic political issues like the revelation that it sold ads to Russian operatives seeking to undermine democracy in the most recent U.S. presidential election and other elections worldwide, as reported by Recode.
- Regarding the ad buys during the U.S. election, under subpoena Facebook had already turned over copies of the Russian-bought ads to Robert Mueller, the special counsel heading the government’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election. In a course reversal, it will now turn over copies of those ads to Congress as well after initially declining to do so, citing privacy concerns as the reason for not handing them over.
- In the live broadcast, Zuckerberg promised wholesale changes in how Facebook will handle politics stating, “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for.” The changes will include hiring new employees around the world focused on election integrity and providing users with a hub where they can track political ads and who funds them.
Facebook's reversal in deciding to provide Congress with copies of the Russian ads, even though doing so wasn’t legally compelled as it was in the case of providing Mueller with the ads, seems like a tacit acknowledgement that Facebook understands it is more than just a social media platform with this issue. This isn't likely to be the end of the issue for the company, as a congressional hearing with some of the major digital media platforms is a possibility.
By turning the Russian ads over to Congress, Facebook has opened itself to future challenges around its internal data. Even though the circumstances are extraordinary, the decision sets a precedent on turning over data without being legally forced to do so. This is likely to cause privacy advocates to pay even closer attention to Facebook's handling of user data than they already do.
The big picture is that while today the issue is politics and the democratic process the reality is Facebook has grown far beyond a social media platform and its influence is felt across many aspects of society. It’s the second largest player in digital advertising, but its unique relationship with its more than 2 billion monthly active users places the tech giant in a different category than Google. It has become the most influential social media platform worldwide. Facebook's actions this week are the latest indication from the company's leadership that it is willing to accept the responsibility that comes with that reach and influence. The question remains to be answered what that means for user privacy.