Facebook profited from polarization, critics say

Now trending: criticism over the use of Facebook to spread misinformation and the effect it had on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Yes, it’s still trending in 2018, because tech-industry figures continue to speak up and push for changes at the world’s largest social network. There will be more elections, after all. This year, even.

“Facebook is a living, breathing crime scene for what happened in the 2016 election — and only they have full access to what happened,” said Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, in an interview with NBC News, which aired Tuesday.

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Facebook has acknowledged that Russians bought ads and planted fake news stories — many of which exploited American political divisions — on its platform ahead of the elections; has been grilled by lawmakers about the issue; and is making tweaks to its practices.

Harris — who was interviewed along with early Facebook investor Roger McNamee and former Facebook employee Sandy Parakilas — says that for Facebook, “polarization is profitable” and was “built in to the business model.”

McNamee has been making the rounds lately, writing in various publications about what he thinks Facebook ought to do: Apologize, be more transparent about what it’s doing to keep it from happening again and make CEO Mark Zuckerberg available to testify in a public hearing before Congress. (Last year, Facebook and other companies sent their general counsels to testify in front of lawmakers about Russian ads and content on their platforms.)

McNamee, the longtime tech investor who years ago counseled Zuckerberg not to sell Facebook to Yahoo, says the company is his biggest investment.

SiliconBeat’s request for comment to Elevation Partners, the VC firm McNamee founded, has not been returned.

In the interview, which NBC News appears to be drawing out and airing on different shows, the men talk a lot about what Facebook can do in to avoid foreign interference in future elections, but Parakilas and McNamee also say they tried to warn the company before the 2016 election.

Parakilas told NBC he tried to warn Facebook executives in 2012, during the Arab Spring that was helped along by social media, that Facebook was a possible target for misuse by foreign governments.

“It makes me terrified that something that I had a small part in helping to build is being used by people with really bad intent against America,” Parakilas said. “They don’t have sides. They’re just trying to sow chaos.”

McNamee said in the interview that he expressed concerns to Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg about “suspicious activity” on the site the month before the November 2016 elections, and that they responded by “treating it like a PR problem” and not a substantive one.

“We are taking many steps to protect and improve people’s experience on the platform,” the company said in a statement to NBC News. “Last week, we started prioritizing meaningful posts from friends and family in News Feed to help bring people closer together.”

McNamee said in an op-ed last week that the News Feed changes are not a solution, and may even serve to make misinformation worse.


Photo by Associated Press


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