Facebook wins, democracy loses

Siva Vaidhyanathan writes: On Wednesday, Facebook revealed that hundreds of Russia-based accounts had run anti-Hillary Clinton ads precisely aimed at Facebook users whose demographic profiles implied a vulnerability to political propaganda. It will take time to prove whether the account owners had any relationship with the Russian government, but one thing is clear: Facebook has contributed to, and profited from, the erosion of democratic norms in the United States and elsewhere.

The audacity of a hostile foreign power trying to influence American voters rightly troubles us. But it should trouble us more that Facebook makes such manipulation so easy, and renders political ads exempt from the basic accountability and transparency that healthy democracy demands.

The majority of the Facebook ads did not directly mention a presidential candidate, according to Alex Stamos, head of security at Facebook, but “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from L.G.B.T. matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

The ads — about 3,000 placed by 470 accounts and pages spending about $100,000 — were what the advertising industry calls “dark posts,” seen only by a very specific audience, obscured by the flow of posts within a Facebook News Feed and ephemeral. Facebook calls its “dark post” service “unpublished page post ads.”

This should not surprise us. Anyone can deploy Facebook ads. They are affordable and easy. That’s one reason that Facebook has grown so quickly, taking in $27.6 billion in revenue in 2016, virtually all of it from advertisers, by serving up the attention of two billion Facebook users across the globe.

The service is popular among advertisers for its efficiency, effectiveness and responsiveness. Facebook gives rich and instant feedback to advertisers, allowing them to quickly tailor ads to improve outcomes or customize messages even more. There is nothing mysterious or untoward about the system itself, as long as it’s being used for commerce instead of politics. What’s alarming is that Facebook executives don’t seem to grasp, or appreciate, the difference. [Continue reading…]

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