By Maurine J. Berens
If Facebook is a neutral platform, as Mark Zuckerberg seemed to imply during his congressional hearings, then why has the company had a job opening posted since last week entitled “Politics and government outreach associate manager”? The job post states that Facebook is “looking for an experienced leader to join its Politics & Government Team.” The stated mission of the team is “to help those participating in the political process worldwide – from candidates running for office and elected officials, to governments and advocacy groups – better use Facebook to connect and engage with people.” Although this particular position is specific to the U.S. political system, the mission is, according to the social network, worldwide. Facebook is seeking to position its employees in these roles as strategic partners of governing bodies, acting politicians and political candidates around the world.
This job post is disturbing. It implies that Facebook is aggressively seeking government bodies and political actors as customers. That market must be lucrative. Facebook works very fast, so the position and positions like it will spread like butter across a warm bagel, and the company will claim “it’s just business.” Facebook selling itself as a platform for politicians and government is different, however, than a company that sells more tangible goods to a government because, as we’ve already seen, dissemination of online information can be manipulated far more easily and its influence and ramifications are far broader than the dissemination of, say, military uniforms. Without a legal requirement that the materials and engagement by the political actors be identified as, in fact, political and government driven, the opportunity for mass manipulation goes unchecked. One phrase in the job description, “work on initiatives that impact politics or government,” is particularly alarming, as it suggests that the company is looking to reach its already very long arms into governing bodies in potentially unrecognizable ways.
Political acts and persuasion are not always recognizable. For example, in the very tiny world of my Chicago neighborhood association’s by-invitation-only Facebook page, politics reared its complex head after the November 2016 elections, when the page became riddled with political organizing, rants and a few trolls. The trickiest political issue occurred, however, when an admin on the site decided independently to boot our alderman from the page, but not a person running against him in the next election. Our alderman became upset, and as I was the president of the association at the time, I received phone calls about the situation.
The association board then had to determine whether the page should allow political postings on it or not. The decision was intricate, even in this five-block realm of Chicago. What is a political post? When is a candidate acting in a political way? When is she simply informing community members about various events? When is an already elected official using Facebook to control the flow of information about contentious issues in the neighborhood? Such questions arose in this extreme local venue. If this type of question comes up in such a small section of the Facebook universe, imagine what might happen on platforms throughout the world where the impact is far deeper. I think it has already happened, in fact.
The Honest Ads Act introduced to the House and Senate on Oct. 19, 2017, is a possible solution to reports about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. It would require those who purchase political ads online to disclose who is paying for the ads. However, there are problems with this proposed solution because it would be regulating the company as a media company, rather than a tech company. It also doesn’t solve all the problems that Facebook contains in the realm of government, because it only addresses advertisements. And as my own neighborhood association experience showed me, paid advertisements are not the only way that government bodies and politicians can influence through Facebook.
The Honest Ads Act, or other regulatory legislation should be enacted. Soon.
That Facebook job has probably already been filled.
Maurine J. Berens is a visiting clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. This piece originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.