Facebook’s power to influence the news is fiercely debated in the United States. But in some parts of the globe, Facebook is almost the the only source of news, says James Jacoby, director of the new Frontline documentary “The Facebook Dilemma.”
Facebook’s outsized influence makes the threat of fake news even more intense, he told TheWrap about the two-part film, which premieres tonight.
“The problems that we’ve seen with our elections and Facebook’s role pale in comparison to what’s happening internationally,” Jacoby said. “Facebook is the de facto internet in several parts of the world. When they are the dominant information source for entire countries, that is a potentially very frightening prospect that we should all be aware about.”
His film looks closely at Myanmar, where misinformation and hoaxes on Facebook’s News Feed have exacerbated sectarian violence.
“If this is a place that can be polluted with misinformation and disinformation,” Jacoby continued, “that has tremendous implications for the future of democracies around the world.”
In an email obtained by The New York Times earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company had added “dozens” of content reviewers focusing on Myanmar and had “increased the number of people across the company on Myanmar-related issues.”
“The Facebook Dilemma” comes as the company scrambles to improve its image after the revelation earlier this year that Cambridge Analytica accessed up to 87 million accounts in 2014. The political firm used the leaked data to target voters through carefully crafted ad campaigns.
The Trump campaign hired the company during the 2016 U.S. election, leading to questions about how much Facebook influenced the vote in key swing states.
Facebook did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
Addressing Congress earlier this year, Zuckerberg took responsibility for the company’s slow response to fake news in the U.S.
“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy,” Zuckerberg said. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
Tracing the company from Zuckerberg’s dorm room up through today, “The Facebook Dilemma” shows how Facebook went from a site that connected college kids to one that serves as a vital news source for billions of people.
Around 2011, Jacoby said, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter enjoyed near-universal acclaim as “forces for good in the world.”
In Egypt, Facebook played a crucial role in rallying dissidents and organizing protests — leading to the eventual overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. “In a country where a dictator controls the media, social media was a liberating force,” said Jacoby, who is also a producer and correspondent on the film.
But things became more complicated when Facebook went public in 2012. The company, now answering to shareholders, had to maintain its unprecedented growth. Hiring moderators was a secondary concern, “in part to keep costs down, and in part because ideologically they didn’t think of themselves as responsible for what people were doing there,” Jacoby said.
“We’ve heard this from [dozens] of insiders that were there at the time, the company took a much more hands-off approach as soon as Wall Street got involved,” Jacoby added.
That approach threatened to erode the company’s mission statement, crafted by CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “making the world more open and connected.”
To Jacoby, the portrait of Zuckerberg in the 2010 film “The Social Network” as a vengeful, petty computer nerd was “complete inaccurate in terms of what his motivations were.”
Jacoby believes Zuckerberg “really does believe in his invention as a force for good.” The problem has been Facebook’s inability to avoid being weaponized by trolls.
Now, the company is playing catchup. Zuckerberg, after initially scoffing at reports that the company affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, has said he’s “dead serious” about weeding out fake news. Facebook has invested in an “election war room” to thwart bad actors. And ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, the company has removed hundreds of troll accounts, tied to Russia and Iran.
“There were various points in time where they didn’t invest the energy, the thought and the resources to figuring out what to do with a what is a very difficult set of problems,” Jacoby added. “It’s only now that they’re starting to deal with these issues that are so complicated.”
You can watch the first half of “The Facebook Dilemma” on Monday on PBS at 9:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m., depending on your local station. The second half will air Tuesday at 10:00 p.m. “The Facebook Dilemma” will also be available online after Tuesday.