June 6th 2010 – Alexandria, Egypt. Khaled Said, a 28 year old computer programmer was sitting in a cafe, known for his verbal disapproval of his country’s politics. Moments later police arrived. He was dragged into the streets; beaten, tortured and killed.
Hosni Mubarak’s regime ruled the population with an iron fist, yet opposition groups had discovered a weapons so destructive that it could topple the Egyptian autocracy and ripple throughout the Middle East: Facebook. ‘We Are All Khaled’, a Facebook group, reached 1.5m members in the wake of Said’s death. The organisations that had been so ruthlessly suppressed had begun to find their voice, with the omnipotent dictator paralysed to the online force that was to lead to his collapse.
Egypt was not alone; from Tunisia to Iraq, Facebook had cultivated revolution. The Arab Spring, a momentous wave of uprisings that changed the course of Middle Eastern history, was aided by the online platform to overcome suppressive governments and determine a new path for their nations.
This begs the all important question: is Facebook a force for good or a necessary evil?
1 billion members; 14 years; 1 network connecting more of humanity than ever before. Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard innovation has become a fundamental platform for corporate marketing, as well as news – with 63% of people reporting social media as their main source of news. Facebook has become a mecca for advertisers – by connecting businesses to the world of consumers, Facebook has helped to create $225bn of economic activity and 4.5mn jobs worldwide according to Deloitte. Its importance for spreading messages far and wide is immeasurable; the Conservative party’s £120,000 monthly Facebook expenditure in the 2015 election campaign is testament to this.
Yet the power it beholds presents new dangers. The vastness of its reach is shrouded in mystery; with such a large proportion of the world depending on Facebook for the news, Zuckerberg and his army of programmers wield the power to determine humanity’s view of the world. Zuckerberg could be manipulating his creation to favour certain media outlets or political candidates, affecting our global future. And with no third party regulation, the future of fake or preferential news lies in Facebook’s hands.
After a stampede of recent scandals, from the US election to Cambridge Analytica, nothing highlights the immensity of the challenges that Facebook faces more than its newest employee: Nick Clegg. With experience in both the British government and European Parliament, Clegg can provide the expertise to bridge the divide between global politics and Silicon Valley – with hostility from the left and right creating tensions regarding the enormity of Facebook’s control over news and personal data. Clegg’s position as an EU Trade Commissioner provides invaluable experience for negotiating with Brussels; a political monolith that Facebook will undoubtedly have to appease in the near future.
Yet it also represents a profound change from Facebook’s history. Zuckerberg and his COO Sheryl Sandberg have for the first time opened up their inner circle. Unmasking the opaque technocratic interior, this move is symbolic; Facebook has recognised that cooperation with political spheres is unavoidable. Facebook has armed itself with a new weapon in the fight against political hostility; yet despite his intellectual credibility, the man best remembered as David Cameron’s shadow will be unable to rise to Facebook’s problems alone.
Facebook has been a victim of its own success. Its network of subsidiaries, including Instagram and WhatsApp, have allowed in a near-monopoly on global news distribution. The Arab Spring and Conservative election spending are testament to the unnerving reality that within the heartlands of Palo Alto lies control over our political destiny. Facebook users are bombarded by political messages selected by mysterious algorithms, with no concern for the underlying misuse that may be at play. Facebook’s dissemination of fake news is the toughest mountain to climb – the once benevolent platform used to connect the world has been hijacked by malicious groups seeking to promote their own will, often with negative social consequences.
Amidst the furore, a growing quorum have been demanding an iron government fist to halt the flamboyance of the tech giants. Yet government regulation would be a maze of complexity. Facebook is truly global, and it’s legal tussle raises one of the most contentious issues in political history; freedom of speech. What may pass in Westminster would likely be slammed down by the First Amendment across the Atlantic, and so a globally universal code of conduct for the dissemination of news by social media is an immense challenge. And, as Clegg has recently repeated, regulation mustn’t stifle this holy grail of innovation – a necessity for advertisers, business connections and even the social benefits of searching for long lost relatives are the advantages that we would have to concede in return for greater oversight.
Whilst Facebook has implemented regulatory procedures to prevent the speed of the spread of fake news, the problem is far from solved. This week the Facebook algorithmic tools detected the false picture of a main alleged to have attacked Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, proving its ability to limit fake news in political affairs. Yet the 2017 viral circulation of a story claiming NASA were paying $100,000 to stay in bed for 60 days suggests the contrary. Innovative responses to fake news are in their infancy; whether Facebook will choose to deploy them at the risk of their own success remains to be seen.
Facebook holds the power to create and destroy worlds. This technological masterpiece from a Harvard campus has brought boundless benefits, albeit with inevitable trade-offs; news vs memes, education vs indoctrination, connecting to better our world vs connecting to destroy it. Facebook has long shunned the political scene, reclining in its Silicon Valley heartlands to focus on the technology without concern for its social risks. Yet with great size comes great responsibility. Clegg’s appointment marks a change in direction by Facebook towards a realisation of the implications of its own success – but one man cannot change all. The world of social media must be subject to tighter rules regarding fake news. If it isn’t, those with malicious intent have the opportunity of a lifetime to change the course of history.