We use social media to catch up with friends and family, swap recipes, and trade entertainment and recreation tips. Many of us also use social media as a jumping off point to gather information. And thanks to the pandemic, more people are consuming content online than ever. And that’s a problem, because experts say that since 2016, the internet has only gotten more bloated with inaccurate information. “It’s far, far worse in terms of quantity,” former journalist and CEO of NewsGuard Steven Brill told NPR in May. “The same thing is going to happen with the political sphere. There’s just no doubt about it. The great thing about the internet is everyone can be a publisher. The really bad thing about the internet is everyone can be a publisher.”
To try and head things off before the U.S. Elections in November, Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have unrolled a wide range of election initiatives that include new rules on campaign advertising and disinformation. It says it will not allow new political ads seven days before the elections — although ones posted earlier can continue running. It will remove content that might be seen as an attempt at voter suppression. It also will tag political posts that include the suggestion that casting ballots will put voters at risk of COVID-19, as well as early claims of victory before results are final (via The Washington Post).
Mark Zuckerberg announced the new policies on Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, used his own social media platform to announce the changes in a long post, stating: “The U.S. elections are just two months away, and with Covid-19 affecting communities across the country, I’m concerned about the challenges people could face when voting” (via Facebook). He added: ” I’m also worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to be finalized, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country. This election is not going to be business as usual. We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy. That means helping people register and vote, clearing up confusion about how this election will work, and taking steps to reduce the chances of violence and unrest.”
Facebook recently took down a network of fake accounts
Zuckerberg also addressed the a discovery — and removal — of a network of fake accounts created by Russian operatives who had recruited US journalists to write negative articles about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris. The Washington Post notes the accounts were discovered before they had a chance to grow their audience and influence.
Zuckerberg wrote: “It’s important to recognize that there may be legitimate concerns about the electoral process over the coming months. We want to make sure people can speak up if they encounter problems at the polls or have been prevented from voting, but that doesn’t extend to spreading misinformation … In addition to all of this, four years ago we encountered a new threat: coordinated online efforts by foreign governments and individuals to interfere in our elections.”
“This threat hasn’t gone away. Just this week, we took down a network of 13 accounts and 2 pages that were trying to mislead Americans and amplify division. We’ve invested heavily in our security systems and now have some of the most sophisticated teams and systems in the world to prevent these attacks.”
Facebook's new policies are controversial
The new policies have attracted support and criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike. Samantha Zager, deputy national press secretary for the president’s re-election campaign says: “In the last seven days of the most important election in our history, President Trump will be banned from defending himself on the largest platform in America. When millions of voters will be making their decisions, the President will be silenced by the Silicon Valley Mafia, who will at the same time allow corporate media to run their biased ads to swing voters in key states” (via The Washington Post).
CNBC also took shots at the new policies in an op-ed, writing that the new policies “wouldn’t change anything,” because they are so narrow they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the political discourse.
Criticism also came from Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and Representative Cheri Bustos, both of Nevada, who said the new policy could undermine efforts to get people to go out and vote. In a joint statement, they noted: “These changes will undermine efforts to ensure voters, particularly voters of color, who use Facebook as a resource can access accurate information — including when, where and how to cast their ballots” (via The Washington Post).
But other watchdogs were less critical. Joan Donovan, of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, said: “This moment, more so than any others, Facebook knows that if they get it wrong, the company might be imperiled. The public is watching very carefully.”
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