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Facebook Scrutinized Over Its Role In 2016's Presidential Election

Sep 26, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 8:52 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

New reports are putting Facebook under more scrutiny over its role in last year's presidential election. We already know about those 3,000 Facebook ads, which were purchased by a Russian agency during the campaign. Here's a new twist - according to The Washington Post, some of those ads specifically sought to deepen disagreements about Muslims and the Black Lives Matter movement. This revelation comes days after Facebook said it would turn over all its Russian-sponsored ads to Congress.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: I wish I could tell you that we're going to be able to stop all interference, but that just wouldn't be realistic. There will always be bad actors in the world, and we can't prevent all governments from all interference. But we can make it harder. We can make it much harder. And that's what we're going to focus on doing.

KELLY: That was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg - part of his promise to get the situation under control. NPR's David Folkenflik is here to help us sort through all of this.

Hey there, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Good morning. OK. Before we get going, let me just note that Facebook pays NPR and many other media companies to create video content on the site. So with that, David, briefly lay out what we know about the role that Facebook may have played in the spread of fake news back during the election.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's growing concern among investigators that the Russians used Facebook as a platform - after all it's so influential, you know, over, you know, I guess, two billion users monthly to use that to disrupt the election and to influence voters in significant ways by microtargeting them with specific kinds of messages, including the ones you just alluded to, the questions are raising anxieties about Muslims, about Black Lives Matters and the like. This, you know, latest video of contrition announcing certain kinds of reforms that actually may include some pretty decent ones from Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO, comes on the heels of revelation also in The Washington Post that President Obama just after the November election said, hey, man, this is serious. You guys are going to have to take a look at this. You guys are going to have to take some responsibility for the diffusion of fake news and of other kinds of misleading information that just whips around your site. And he said - Zuckerberg reportedly replied, this is complicated and, you know, it's not clear that we really have that kind of influence on people, which is a surprising message given how Facebook makes its vast fortunes off the ability of advertisers to microtarget people and presumably get them to do things desired by the advertisers. At that time, Zuckerberg was saying, you know, maybe in advertising, politics - we don't have that kind of influence. Now you're hearing a different message. They're trying to cooperate to some degree with investigators on the Hill and on some of these reforms.

KELLY: OK. And with - there's also - we have reported on this ProPublica expose that had to do with anti-Semitic advertising that showed up on Facebook. There's another new twist that involves Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist. What's up with that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, BuzzFeed reported that that he seemed intrigued by a suggestion by a conservative activist that Breitbart essentially flood Facebook with job applicants for a policy position job for WhatsApp, the platform which they own, in Washington as a way of trying to get - infiltrate the job application process and see what insight they can get from Facebook. At minimum, the stirrings of an idea that this was some - an outfit that early on Bannon, before joining the Trump campaign and then returning more recently to Breitbart, understood the power of Facebook on political issues.

KELLY: Right. So where this goes next among other places is that Facebook says it's going to hand over these Russia-funded ads to Congress. But is that likely to be the end of it? I mean, what are the stakes here for Facebook?

FOLKENFLIK: Here's the problem that Facebook has not wanted to confront, and it may have to start doing so. Does it take responsibility for the content on its platform? It says, hey, we're just a vehicle for people to communicate. Or, if it fails to do so, will there be mounting calls on Capitol Hill to regulate it like a public utility like was done to the phone companies? That is, if this is the way people are communicating, you're not taking responsibility, we're going to make you highly regulated, as a result. You're going to start to see calls for that up there on the Hill. We'll see what happens.

KELLY: NPR media correspondent, David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.