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Facebook admits social media sometimes harms democracy

Copyright 2018 New York Times illustration

Facebook said Monday that it fell short in preventing the social media network from being used for foreign meddling in the U.S. presidential election.

New blog posts written by Facebook executives appear to be the most critical self-assessment yet of the social media network's effect on American democracy. Samidh Chakrabarti, the company's product manager for civic engagement, said the 2016 presidential election has forced Facebook to confront harsh questions about the role it has played in spreading false information and intensifying divisiveness in the current political climate.

"Facebook was originally designed to connect friends and family - and it has excelled at that," Chakrabarti wrote in a blog post Monday. "But as unprecedented numbers of people channel their political energy through this medium, it's being used in unforeseen ways with societal repercussions that were never anticipated."

"In 2016, we at Facebook were far too slow to recognize how bad actors were abusing our platform," Chakrabarti added. "We're working diligently to neutralize these risks now."

Chakrabarti's post, as well as those from outside contributors, reflect a broader effort by Facebook to wrestle with the implications of its global influence. In recent months, the company has admitted, using internal research as well as academic reports, that consuming Facebook passively tends to put people in a worse mood. On the heels of that analysis, Facebook last week announced major changes to its algorithm that will reduce the presence of companies and brands on the platform in a bid to restore a focus on human relationships.

The posts are part of the company's "Hard Questions" series, which has addressed a range of controversial issues that highlight the challenges of maintaining a global social network with more than 2 billion users. Since the summer, Facebook has posted on countering terrorism, policing hate speech, minimizing foreign propaganda, grappling with facial recognition technology and the impacts of technology on early childhood development. The wide ranging topics underscore the social network's sprawling role in social and civic life.

Monday's blog posts included an acknowledgment of the work still needed to be done.

"Now, we're as determined as ever to fight the negative influences and ensure that our platform is unquestionably a source for democratic good," wrote Katie Harbath, Facebook's global politics and government outreach director. "There is much to build on in this regard, from the powerful role social media plays in giving people a voice in the democratic process to its ability to deliver information on an unprecedented scale. Our role is to ensure that the good outweighs the forces that can compromise healthy discourse."

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged as much in a post earlier this year, saying his "personal challenge for 2018" is to fix the social media platform he founded.

Facebook, he said, makes "too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools."

In response to mounting criticism, Facebook has used third-party fact-checkers to help flag fake-news stories and is planning to survey users on what news sources they trust.

Once a story has been flagged by fact-checkers as problematic, Chakrabarti said, Facebook can limit its spread, reducing the number of times it is seen by users by as much as 80 percent.

For over a year, policymakers have directed greater scrutiny toward Facebook and other tech giants in a broader backlash against Silicon Valley. In November, federal lawmakers called the industry before Congress to account for its role in the 2016 election. Executives from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube also appeared last week before a Senate panel to face questions over whether they were doing enough to curb hate speech and extremism online.

Facebook acknowledged in Monday's blog posts that the negative effects of social media can sometimes amplify each other. For example, Chakrabarti said, a fake news story in Australia resulted in an outpouring of "abusive comments" toward a Muslim lawmaker when the public was misled into thinking that she had refused to lay a wreath on a national day of remembrance. 

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