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EDITORIAL

Facebook’s ‘experiments’

05:12 AM January 23, 2018

The latest country to fall victim to misinformation, fake news and propaganda on social media, specifically through the 2-billion-strong Facebook, is Cambodia, according to BuzzFeed News correspondent Megha Rajagopalan, writing from Phnom Penh.

“When Facebook first came to Cambodia, many hoped it would help to usher in a new period of free speech, amplifying voices that countered the narrative of the government-friendly traditional press. Instead, the opposite has happened. Prime Minister Hun Sen is now using the platform to promote his message while jailing his critics, and his staff is doing its best to exploit Facebook’s own rules to shut down criticism—all through a direct relationship with the company’s staff.

“Facebook has also dramatically reduced the reach of independent media in Cambodia after it decided last year to silo off their content as part of a controversial experiment … [It] has styled itself as a neutral platform for information. But its role in spreading propaganda and fake news, as well as its relationship with the Cambodian government, shows how easily that neutrality can be exploited by autocrats.”

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Does that sound familiar? That pattern has happened in many other countries, from France to the United States to Kenya to the Philippines, with Facebook becoming the main platform by which disinformation is spread to mislead the public, stifle dissent, smear legitimate opposition, and evade public accountability. Such has been the worldwide outcry against the unexpectedly insidious effects of the planet’s biggest social network that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to acknowledge his company’s culpability and, over the last several weeks, announce successive changes in how FB works.

On Jan. 11, Zuckerberg said Facebook would change its algorithms to favor more “meaningful interactions” in users’ news feed, to now highlight “personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other” over content from publishers such as news, video and other public uploads. More content will be seen from family, friends and groups rather than posts pushed not only by brands and businesses, but also even news stories by media companies, legitimate or otherwise, who have come to depend on Facebook’s unparalleled reach for their readership and numbers.

This was the “experiment” earlier rolled out in Cambodia. The development may sound like good news in terms of battling fake news, but the fact that the blanket changes designed to make Facebook more “neutral” will affect even genuine news purveyors has rung alarm bells. “Facebook’s retreat from news, and the complexities of taking responsibility for the type of content circulating on its platform, has many implications for press organizations in the United States and Europe, but at least in rich, western democracies, its actions can be mitigated by other strategies,” noted Emily Bell in The Guardian. “In countries such as the Philippines, Myanmar and South Sudan and emerging democracies such Bolivia and Serbia, it is not ethical to plead platform neutrality or to set up the promise of a functioning news ecosystem and then simply withdraw at a whim.”

The latest change announced by Zuckerberg last week appears to be a further retreat from responsibility: Facebook will now prioritize “trustworthy” news—based on member surveys. “We considered asking outside experts, which would take the decision out of our hands but would likely not solve the objectivity problem. Or we could ask you—the community—and have your feedback determine the ranking.”

Not all Facebook users will be asked, but only a “diverse and representative” sampling, whose scores of the news organizations they survey won’t be made public.

Might that secrecy clause raise, in time, more questions about Facebook’s workings? And will this latest tweak fix the network—enough for it to finally drain the swamp of sensationalism and fake news it has spawned?

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