Editorials

Amid fake-news revelations, tech titans deserve far more than public shaming

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote speech at last year’s F8 Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote speech at last year’s F8 Developers Conference in San Francisco. TNS

“The idea that fake news on Facebook – of which it’s a very small amount of the content – influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.”

These words, now infamous for their ignorance, were uttered by Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, just two days after Donald Trump was elected president. It took a while, but now we know better.

Not only did fake news probably influence voters, but the proliferation of it was a highly coordinated affair, with Russian operatives buying targeted political ads, and creating bots and fake user accounts to spread discord among the electorate on a number of social media platforms run by California companies.

We’re looking at you, Facebook and Twitter.

These revelations, which have trickled out over the past few weeks, should shake every American to his or her core. It also should embolden every member of Congress – but particularly Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, as well the Silicon Valley contingent in the House – to investigate these behemoth tech companies and support new regulations to rein them in.

Facebook pulls in almost $30 billion a year, mostly from advertising revenue, and reaches a quarter of the world’s population. World leaders communicate via Twitter.

But most of all, it should serve as a wake-up call for Silicon Valley, an increasingly important sector of the American economy run by young smarty-pants who tend to overestimate their ability to anticipate the dark side of human nature.

Some of these things are happening.

Executives from Twitter and Facebook testified in closed sessions before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. And on Nov. 1, executives from the companies, as well as from Alphabet’s Google, have been invited back to Capitol Hill to testify at a public hearing.

Virginia’s Sen. Mark Warner and Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar have introduced a bill to require more transparency from social media companies that run political ads, not unlike the rules TV stations follow.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg has offered a couple of mea culpas and has turned over thousands of Russian-linked Facebook ads to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In the interest of transparency, Facebook should release the ads to the public.

It’s no surprise that Americans are skeptical of his vows to reduce, but not eliminate, interlopers trying to meddle in elections on its network. And many others are disgusted with Twitter, which also has promised to do a better job of catching foreign manipulators.

The problem is, it’s tough to believe Silicon Valley has learned its lesson. That’s because what happened is less of a technology problem and more of a people problem.

Too often, “diversity” is thought of as some politically correct thing to do. But a diversity of people in a workplace brings diversity of thought. A monolithic group, like the young white men who dominate California tech companies, breeds blind spots.

As Zeynep Tufekci, a UNC Chapel Hill professor who has studied Silicon Valley, told Slate: “Every time a crisis like this happens, Facebook executives and engineers are like, ‘How could we have foreseen it?’ I can point them to thousands and thousands of academics. I can point them to first-year grad students who could’ve pointed stuff out to them.”

Public shaming Silicon Valley isn’t enough. Tech companies need to change the way they operate, and Congress need to enact laws to make sure those changes happen. Our democracy is at stake.

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