Facebook profiteering

Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, have been slow to accept responsibility for how Russian operatives manipulated the social media network to try to influence last year’s presidential election.

Under pressure from federal lawmakers, Facebook reluctantly provided congressional investigative panels with more than 3,000 ads linked to a Russian ad agency, many of which were apparently designed to boost Donald Trump’s election chances.

As with most of the advertising placed on Facebook and other social media, such as Google and Twitter, there was no human interaction on the seller’s part with the buyers. The transaction and the ad placement were all done automatically over the Internet, using Facebook’s sophisticated algorithms to put the ads — many of them reportedly spreading false information and accusations — only in front of the voters that the Russian operatives felt they could influence.

Initially, Zuckerberg and other company officials tried to claim they are not responsible for vetting the ads they sell, saying that they leave it to their billion users to monitor both paid and unpaid content and report anything that’s objectionable.

That’s a cop-out and contrary to the way that most newspapers, broadcasters and other traditional media have long operated, which take responsibility, both for legal and ethical reasons, for vetting political ads before they run.

In response to the mounting criticism, Facebook has pledged to add more employees into the content-vetting process. A company official said it will be hiring more than 1,000 people globally to review advertisements, up from its initial plan for 250.

Even at 1,000, that’s probably nowhere near enough. For a company that earns tens of billions of dollars a year to publish and promote content, it should be expected to spend whatever it takes to keep false, blatantly offensive or illegal postings — at least those for which it’s paid — from ever showing. Let Facebook establish internal standards for what paid political speech is acceptable and what is not, just like other media organizations do.

The days when Facebook could claim that it’s just a disinterested provider of a platform to exchange ideas ended when it started taking money for disseminating some of these ideas.

Don’t expect, though, Facebook and other social media to voluntarily show the required degree of civic responsibility. There’s too much financial incentive for them not to. It most likely will require legislation and some court battles to pierce the idea that the Internet is a special creature that can’t be expected to live up to the same standards as the physical world it is trying to supplant.

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