On November 19th, 2016 in Lima, Peru, the former President of the United States – Barack Obama – warned Mark Zuckerberg about the infiltration of fake news on the Facebook social network. Obama made a personal appeal to Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously. Unless Facebook and the government did more to address the threat, Obama warned, it would only get worse in the next presidential race. Zuckerberg told Obama at that time that there was “no easy fix.”
To its credit, Facebook did make efforts to shore up its own systems, without impinging on free discourse for its users around the world. That said though, some critics say Facebook dragged its feet, and is acting only now because of outside political pressure.
There’s been a systematic failure of responsibility. It’s rooted in their overconfidence that they know best, their naivete about how the world works, their extensive effort to avoid oversight, and their business model of having very few employees so that no one is minding the store. – Zeynep Tufekci, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
According to reports, Facebook initially discovered elements of the Russian misinformation operation in June of 2016, and notified the FBI. However, efforts to address and fix the problem stalled as the company and government officials struggled to diagnose and fix the problem. For months leading up to the vote, Obama and his top aides quietly toiled over how to respond to Russia’s brazen intervention on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign, without making matters worse.
Like officials in the U.S. government, Facebook did not foresee the strong wave of disinformation that was about to hit social media, or the political attention that would follow. Under pressure from U.S. officials, the social network has turned over more than 3,000 politically themed Facebook advertisements to Congress, that are suspected to have been purchased by Russian operatives.
The issue of fake news has forced Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies to weigh their core values, including freedom of speech, against the problems created when malevolent actors use those same freedoms to broadcast messages of violence, hate and disinformation.