September 15, 2020

CHEN | To Meddle or Not to Meddle: Facebook and the 2020 Election

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With only a few months left until the highly anticipated 2020 Presidential Election, voters are beginning to request their absentee ballots and presidential candidates are revving up their (virtual) campaign trails. Facebook is preparing as well; CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that the social media platform will not be running any new political ads the week before Election Day, in conjunction with attempting to add more context to misinformed posts on their site.

Now, what obligations do large tech companies like Facebook and Google have to shut down misinformation? Is it their responsibility to monitor what people upload onto the internet via their service, which is pledged to be a free and open space? If Prometheus gave fire to mankind, should he have given them an instruction manual and a set of rules to go along with it, or was he right to let humans run rampant with their new toy, albeit one that could burn down the world if used incorrectly?

At first, building Facebook was just another construction deal, another plan to create spaces for people to connect out of thin air. In the film, The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg’s version of a 19-year-old Zuckerberg pitches the beginnings of Facebook to fellow Harvard peer Eduardo Saverin, rambling that “People want to go on the internet and check out their friends. Why not build a website that offers that?… I’m talking about taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.” Simple enough, right? Fetus social media platforms were just that — platforms. They were modes of transportation for your thoughts and information, aiding you in amplifying your voice, and hands-off when it came to your message’s content.

But in the last two decades, as MySpace and AOL Instant Messenger have been swapped out for Instagram and TikTok, it has been easy to forget that these platforms are not the completely neutral and transparent ways of sharing information that they once were intended to be. If they were simple services and databases released out into the world, then there would be little to no obligation attached. After all, what can a few thousand lines of code do about hefty topics like politics and racial inequality?

However, Google and Facebook are not just lines of code anymore — they are conglomerate companies at the intersection of code and people. Behind every timeline and newsfeed are teams of marketing strategists and software developers. They are composed of competing agendas and human beings with the innate ability to police the spaces they have created online. They are weapons, wielded by the richest people on Earth, that take user data and spit it back out in the form of targeted sponsored posts. They learn from our hesitations, clicks and time spent staring at a certain post a bit too long, all to create a daily serving of individualized newsfeed that is proven to affect your hourly, yearly and life decisions.

If you are thinking, “Who died and made these money-grabbing, silicon-valley-living tech CEO kings?” —  I am too. Facebook’s decision to tamper with their users’ posts, ads and information shows that they  not only acknowledge the impact social media has on the public, but also that they are not ashamed of using this to their advantage. It shows us that just one human being, say, a CEO of a large tech company, has the ability — and the guts — to set some of the most key rules for the 2020 Presidential Election.

That said, playing the bystander game would be much worse. If creating Facebook was initially just a construction deal, a way to create spaces for people to meet and interact, there should be a certain amount of governance in that area. Environments created online shouldn’t be able to run rampant only because you can’t physically stand in it. If anything, these untouchable spaces run higher risk of whatever-the-online-version-of-anarchy-is because of the anonymity they provide. Surfing the web may feel different than walking a deserted street at midnight, but it would be naive to believe that the former is safer than the latter.

Tech CEOs may think that they can throw their unicorn startup onto the App Store and see where their users take it. They may be tempted to use the free will of users as a scapegoat for scandals that take root in a controversial Facebook post or YouTube video. However, social media is no longer a platform — it’s an online space that should not be given special treatment to be left unchecked. With the Presidential Election looming and unrest as heightened as ever on these online platforms, it is up to social media to choose to either play the role of the bystander or the policing leader. As terrifying and backwards as it sounds, the lesser of two evils is undoubtedly meddler-Zuckerberg getting his hands dirty in the 2020 Presidential Race.

Jonna Chen is a sophomore in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at jc267@cornell.edu. jonna.write() runs every other Wednesday this semester.