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Questions We Should Be Asking About Facebook’s Smear Campaign Against Its Critics

EFF: “The New York Times published a blockbuster story about Facebook that exposed how the company used  so-called “smear merchants” to attack organizations critical of the platform. The story was shocking on a number of levels, revealing that Facebook’s hired guns stooped to dog-whistling, anti-Semitic attacks aimed at George Soros 1 and writing stories blasting Facebook’s competitors on a news site they managed. As Techdirt points out, however, while the particulars are different, the basic slimy tactics are familiar. Any organization that runs public campaigns in opposition to large, moneyed corporate interests has seen some version of this “slime your enemies” playbook. What is different here is that Facebook, the company seeking to undermine its critics, has a powerful role in shaping whether and how news and information is presented to billions of people around the world. Facebook controls the hidden algorithms and other systems that decide what comes up in Instagram and Facebook experiences. And it does so in a way that is almost completely beyond our view, much less our control. This fact—that Facebook can secretly influence what we see (like, perhaps, criticism against it), both through what it promotes and what it allows to be posted by others—is deeply disturbing. Users deserve some answers from Facebook to these basic questions:

  • We know that Facebook had staffers embedded in the Donald Trump presidential campaign to help the organization best craft and target its messages. What did Facebook do regarding attacks on its critics detailed in the Times story? Did it use its power to ensure a wide or specifically-targeted distribution of this smear campaign? Did Facebook use its control over how Facebook works to help aim the smears at people who would be most receptive to them? To key policymakers or their staff? If so, how?
  • Did Facebook help develop different versions of the smear campaign to appeal to different audiences, as the Russians have done? If so, we should see all of them.
  • What is the boundary between what Facebook’s policy teams wish to tell the public and how users experience Facebook and Instagram? Is there a firewall and how is it policed?..”

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