Facebook’s Dream Hire Has Made a Bad Start

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The forthcoming European parliamentary election was meant to be Facebook Inc.’s big chance to please a constituency that trashes it on a regular basis: Politicians.

After all of the controversy around fake news on the website and the Cambridge Analytica scandal (where Facebook user data was harvested for political purposes), the company hired the former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to help clean up its act. The social network has announced a slew of measures intended to fight misleading news stories and foreign meddling in elections, including: Tougher oversight of political ads, a fact-checking operation, and more content moderators to block abusive content.

Clegg was meant to be a dream hire as Facebook’s global head of public affairs because of his insider knowledge of Brussels, where he worked as an official for years. The European Union has been especially forthright in wanting to crack down on Facebook. Yet the company’s new measures have already fallen flat with just weeks to go before the European vote. Some of this may just be clumsiness, but it’s a poor start to Clegg’s campaign to win around the policymakers. 

The new transparency drive to combat foreign interference, for instance – which requires advertisers to register in each specific member state where they want their content to appear – creates problem for pan-EU campaigns by mainstream political organizations. The result has been a backroom spat between Clegg and EU officials over whether exemptions can be granted.

Worse, it’s not clear whether Facebook has the ability to enforce its own rules. Several news organizations have shown how easy it is to get approval from the social network for political ads with false information. Even when trawling the website’s European “ad library” – a searchable database of ads intended to promote transparency – you still find troubling examples. One ad in France that praised far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s top European candidate was pulled for not complying with Facebook disclosure rules, but not before getting thousands of impressions.

Hiring more foot soldiers is one way to stop the spread of fake news designed to polarize opinion and generate outrage, but it’s a monumental task to catch everything and Facebook’s army of content moderators is still too small.

Data firm Alto Analytics recently tracked the spread of a Dec. 2018 story from Infowars, the site run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which claimed several French generals had accused Emmanuel Macron of “treason” over last year’s United Nations migration pact (it failed to mention the generals were retired and had links to the far right). The piece was picked up by several media brands, and Alto found that 1,828 users shared Russia Today’s version.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says there’s no way to guarantee an “interference-free” election, and that the challenge is an “ongoing arms race” against sophisticated actors. But the problem for Facebook is that its own weapons have a habit of ending up in the wrong hands. This is a network whose business model of targeted advertising depends on intimately knowing users’ habits. And these data have been exploited in disturbing ways, from the hoovering up of personal information by Russian operatives to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election to housing discrimination. Facebook’s tweaks to its model have come in fits and starts, and after the fact.

All of which means the company will remain a target for EU politicians. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament’s liberal grouping, called last week for more regulation of Facebook and even suggested building a state-funded alternative to the social network. That latter idea is clearly far-fetched, but there’s still a real need for a robust policy response to the market power, political toxicity and failed self-governance of Facebook and other social networks. Clegg can’t work around that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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