If the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, Facebook is taking baby steps.
On Wednesday, the company said it shut down tens of thousands of fake accounts ahead of last weekend’s election in Germany, according to a blog post by Richard Allan, Facebook Ireland’s vice president of public policy. Facebook also used a related-articles tool to recommend stories to users that might portray a different point of view, an effort to deflate concerns that Facebook can create ideological “bubbles.” The company also gave political parties a way to publicly display their policy positions and created a so-called Election Hub to show Facebook users the candidates on their ballots. On the security front, the company worked with Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security to help officials report any odd behavior they detected.
“Protecting the integrity of our platforms during elections is a huge focus for us and something we are committed to—particularly in the face of hostile and co-ordinated interventions,” the post reads. “Staying ahead of those who are trying to misuse our service is a constant effort led by our security and integrity teams.”
The disclosure follows months of backlash against Facebook over its role in the 2016 US election, concerns that were amplified after the company confirmed it sold $150,000 worth of political ads during the campaign that were linked to Russian accounts. Last week, CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a long list of changes the company is making to ward off foreign influence in future elections. Facebook’s report on the German election, where Chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected, suggests that the social-networking giant may be learning from its 2016 mistakes.
Facebook’s recent attention to such concerns marks a stark change from a year ago, when Zuckerberg asserted that fake news on Facebook “surely had no impact” on the US election result and that those who made that argument exhibited a “profound lack of empathy” for other people’s experiences. Now, at least, the company is taking proactive measures to address a problem that even President Obama reportedly urged Zuckerberg to take more seriously last year.
Just because Facebook wasn’t asleep at the wheel this time doesn’t mean it’s solved the issue entirely. Germany is, after all, a relatively stable democracy with a quarter of the US’s population, shorter campaigns and stricter laws regulating data privacy and political speech. “This shows that at the scale of Germany, Facebook is willing to take these steps,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at University of Virginia and author of a forthcoming book on Facebook. He’s less confident the same measures would be effective in the US. Further, he asks, “Is it capable of taking sufficient steps at the scale of India, which has 1 billion people and 750 million voters? Can Facebook still perform as admirably? That’ll be the big question.”
Vaidhyanathan also worries that, as is often the case, Facebook seems to believe the way to fix the problem of Facebook’s influence in elections is to use Facebook to further influence elections. With features like Election Hub and related articles specifically designed to reflect a dissenting point of view, Facebook is only further shaping the way people consume information about politics.
“If Facebook can convince people it is the right tool to use to learn about candidates and party positions and to register to vote, it will increasingly centralize power. If that happens we are at the mercy of the benevolence of Facebook’s leaders,” Vaidhyanathan says. If Facebook someday changes leaders and, for instance, someone like investor and Trump backer Peter Thiel takes over, Vaidhyanathan says, “It’s a very different question.”
That said, Facebook hasn’t had to work hard to get people to discuss politics or consume news about politics on the platform. As people shared more of their lives on Facebook, sharing political content came naturally, and that seems unlikely to stop, whether Facebook tries to extricate itself from politics or not. As long as voters are looking to Facebook for information on who should lead their countries, it’s critical for Facebook to at least acknowledge the outsized influence it can have in the electoral process and begin to act accordingly.