Social media has been at the center of the political arena since the innovative tactics of Obama’s presidential campaign. A deluge of political advertisements followed, and the advent of big data allowed for more targeted, inflammatory advertisements that were buoyed by Facebook’s proprietary algorithms.
Following controversy surrounding data collection during the 2016 election, Facebook has maintained a hands-off, free-speech-oriented approach to regulating political ads. However, due to their control over our news feeds, Facebook cannot claim neutrality. As such, Facebook has a social responsibility to more closely monitor the political advertising on their platform.
The creation of targeted political ads begins with the constant data streams that flow through our daily lives. Users transmit tons of information that technology conglomerates like Google and Facebook use to target advertising. Everything from our GPS location to our browsing habits are stored and turned into a portrait of our online personalities.
While traditionally used in consumer markets, firms like Cambridge Analytica pioneered methods of leveraging this information for political messages. Utilizing personality tests and Facebook likes, Cambridge Analytica targeted inflammatory political ads toward specific users. The ads quickly dominated Facebook, resulting in the breakdown of political discourse on the site and the public at large.
Yet, Facebook refuses to do anything about it.
Zuckerberg has tried to sidestep the issue by framing it as a question of free speech in an attempt to absolve Facebook of responsibility for these harmful ads. The claim that Facebook is an arbiter of free speech is disingenuous, because this implies impartiality. However, the site is far from impartial, as Facebook’s algorithms enable misinformed, targeted ads to rise to the top of its users’ feeds.
Through algorithms and personal data, Facebook has a tremendous amount of say over which ads live and which ads fade into obscurity. These proprietary algorithms are the linchpin of their entire business model. This means that Facebook cannot act as a neutral party, since it indirectly controls the flow of information from advertiser to user. Facebook is therefore partially responsible for policing the political advertisements on their site.
At the center of this controversy is personal data. Personal data is what allows advertisers to craft ads that are almost surgically targeted towards the users’ psyche. Personal data allows campaigns to target the users who are most likely to share their ads for maximum impact.
Unfortunately, personal data is also the center of Facebook’s business model. As long as revenue continues strong for Facebook, their plans won’t change. As such, we should look to Congress for legislation to curb the collection of personal data.