By now, we know that Facebook has become a key tool for anyone — troll, politician, state power — hoping to spread disinformation and manipulate political communities online. That is, in part, what the social network was designed for: amplifying reach and influence across borders. But in line with Silicon Valley’s generally utopian footing, Mark Zuckerberg has been slow to acknowledge that a tool such as Facebook can be used in bad faith.
As the Washington Post reported last night, Zuckerberg even shrugged off warnings from President Obama himself.
[H]uddled in a private room on the sidelines of a meeting of world leaders in Lima, Peru, two months before Trump’s inauguration, Obama made a personal appeal to Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously. Unless Facebook and the government did more to address the threat, Obama warned, it would only get worse in the next presidential race.
Zuckerberg acknowledged the problem posed by fake news. But he told Obama that those messages weren’t widespread on Facebook and that there was no easy remedy, according to people briefed on the exchange.
Obama’s warnings, as described by the Post, line up with what we already know about Russian influence operations: that the White House knew about the meddling but was undecided about how to handle it, and that Zuckerberg didn’t see it as a big deal. But that was a year ago. The site is now grappling with revelations that Russian government-linked agencies purchased political ads as part of a sophisticated and wide-ranging disinformation campaign, and Zuckerberg is — slowly — admitting publicly how badly his platform was misused. It would have been nice if he’d listened to Obama in the first place.