Facebook on the Hot Seat on The Hill: Regulatory Bell Tolls for Giant Social Network

The writing (post) is on the wall (of all your friends):

Regulation is coming to Facebook, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg sat down to testify at a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees today.

Facebook has fallen under the lawmakers’ regulatory spotlight after a whistleblower revealed March 17 to The Guardian and The Times that Cambridge Analytica had purloined the data of 50 million Facebook users in a wide-ranging effort to manipulate those Americans psychologically to vote for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Facebook last week revised to 87 million the number of users whose data the London-based political data-mining firm had commandeered.

In February, a surgically targeted effort by Russians to elect Trump president using Facebook and other social media was revealed in an indictment of 13 Russian nationals by Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Cambridge Analytica is bankrolled by the family of right-wing hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who funded much of Trump’s presidential campaign and also bankrolled right-wing online media outlet Breitbart News, which supported the white nationalist views of a portion of Trump’s base.

The once fairly quiet push to regulate Facebook and America’s other tech giants pre-dates the Cambridge Analytica and Russian data scandals. But the calls for regulation, which have largely been bi-partisan and got a bit louder during the 2016 presidential campaign, have reached a cacophonous roar.

Now 61 percent of Americans favor regulating U.S. social networks and tech companies, according to a new poll by CBS News and YouGov.

For his part, Zuckerberg seems to get that the pendulum has swung toward an oversight that demands his contrition, particularly following the recent revelations.

The social network’s founder and chairman has engaged in a crisis management, PR effort in which he’s apologized and taken blame for allowing Facebook to be used as a political cudgel in a presidential election that will perhaps prove to be the most divisive in U.S. history.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake,” he told reporters in a conference call last week.

Zuckerberg even seemed to say in a March 21 interview with CNN’s Laurie Segall that Facebook should be regulated.

“I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he told the TV host. “I think in general technology is an increasingly important trend in the world and I actually think the question is more, what is the right regulation rather than ‘Yes or no, should it be regulated?'”

NPR’s Peter Overby pointed out today that other Silicon Valley executives have been saying regulation is long overdue for America’s tech giants.

One of those executives, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff told CNBC in January in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, months before the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light, that social networks like Facebook should be regulated “exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry.”

Benioff’s point was to underline the real dangers at the heart of Facebook’s power, which is the addictive influence it holds over its 2.2 billion users – 214 million in the U.S. alone – many for whom the social network represents an integral, moment-by-moment interactive part of their everyday lives.

It’s important to know that Facebook was built to be exactly that: indispensably addictive.

That’s according to Sean Parker, Facebook’s former founding president, who spoke to Axios in November about the psy-op methods that underpin the world’s largest social network.

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'” Parker said. “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.”

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

Hearing the Napster creator provide an inside account of how Facebook was made to manipulate us and insert itself into our lives by exploiting our emotional needs should hopefully put it and other social networks like it into better perspective for people, so we can better judge what we’re seeing, reading, hearing, writing and doing on these digital forums.

It’s important to understand that business-wise, social networks are nothing more than information funnels to advertisers, companies and increasingly, politicians: They are after money via your mind.

But because they are open influence machines for anyone, including those willing to pay for the privilege of marketing to you or those appealing psychologically to you to politicize your news feed for free, remember: You are an object of sway for them all – good, bad and in between.

So the advice from experts is don’t be fooled. Be skeptical of your social media feed. The reason Facebook was so easily manipulated by political forces is because it was made to be ripe for manipulation by companies to uncover users’ desires so they can more easily sell things to people.

And that business model remains, and means it’s likely Facebook will always be ripe for manipulation, political or otherwise.

It comes down now to judgement by Facebook monitors, both robots and humans, who are facing down robots and humans who are looking to take advantage of the open network. And that means it will always be an arms race between Facebook monitors and those third parties who are attempting to abuse user data, as Zuckerberg mentioned during Tuesday’s hearing.

Other Silicon Valley executives like Ashish Toshniwal, CEO of app developer YML, and Aaron Levie, founder and CEO of data management firm Box, have publicly said the central issue is that all of America’s tech giants, including Alphabet, the parent company of Google; Amazon; Apple; as well as Facebook, have grown so large from accumulating money and power that they can no longer be expected to competently or sufficiently regulate themselves.

Congress seems to agree. The questions from Senators at Tuesday’s hearing were pointed in describing Facebook’s failure to protect users’ data and privacy, either as promised or expected.

Zuckerberg told Senators at the hearing that Facebook is “now conducting an investigation of tens of thousands of apps” and will be doing a “full audit” of any apps that appear to be violating Facebook’s data or privacy rules.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) questioned Zuckerberg about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s comment to NBC last week that an option for protecting American’s privacy on Facebook could include having users pay to keep their data private from third parties.

Zuckerberg responded that there was no option currently to pay for privacy from third parties, but that he thought Sandberg was referring to a situation in which Facebook would protect users by not running ads at all. In that case, the company “would need some other business model,” he said.

Russians manipulated Facebook and its American users in an operation aimed at electing Trump as president as part of a wider influence effort deemed “Project Lakhta,” according to an indictment in February of 13 Russian nationals by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The Russians began as early as 2014 to interfere in the U.S. presidential elections, the indictment said, operating under the auspices of a Russian company called Internet Research Agency LLC (IRA).

The effort by September 2016 had a budget of $1.25 million. The defendants were fairly surgical about their influence operations, as described in the indictment, focusing campaigns aimed at disparaging candidate Hillary Clinton and supporting Trump on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida.”

They spent thousands of dollars on social media ads every week on Facebook and Twitter, the indictment said. The defendants created thematic groups based on hot-button issues of race, religion and immigration, complete with content including videos and news clips on accounts that masked their Russian nationalities in part by using stolen identities from U.S. citizens. The defendants also used at least 100 real U.S. persons who they assigned tasks, including organizing rallies aimed at uniting Trump supporters and sowing divisions among Democrats.

According to the indictment, the defendants reached out directly to unwitting members, volunteers and supporters of the Trump campaign, who at times distributed or redistributed the defendants’ materials, which focused on electing Trump by posting and creating hashtags like “#MAGA,” “#TrumpTrain,” and “#Hillary4Prison” and “#IWontProtectHillary” among numerous others.

Zuckerberg told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that Facebook is working with the Special Counsel and that Facebook executives, although not himself, have spoken to the Special Counsel’s office.

He clarified to Sen. Leahy later that he was unaware whether Facebook has received any subpoenas from the Special Counsel’s office, but Zuckerberg added, “I believe that there may be.”

Shane Kite

This Brooklynite covers music, art, film, finance, technology, politics, small business, economics, clean energy, national security and local and foreign affairs.

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