Do Not Regulate Facebook (2018 May)


Barry A. Liebling

Facebook, the colossal, popular and powerful social media site is under fire. The company has managed to provoke angry critics – both from the left and the right – who are calling for government intervention to force Facebook to refrain from committing “odious actions” and to assure that it will behave “properly” in the future. In April 2018 Mark Zuckerberg – the founder and spectacularly wealthy big boss – was grilled before Congress and questioned by some of his most powerful critics.

There are three main problems with Facebook according to the loudest complainers – compromised privacy, biased editing, and unfair political manipulating.

Consider the issue of privacy. Facebook collects an enormous amount of information from its users and the data are retained, analyzed, used by Facebook itself, and sold to outside parties mostly for targeted advertising. The “problem” is that Facebook users are pleased when people, advertisers, and institutions know things about them that they want known. However, they are stunned to learn that frequently Facebook is able to infer information about users that Facebook members would prefer to keep private. Here “private” means only the people and organizations that I like and give explicit permission to see my data are allowed to know things about me.

The most polite way to characterize these carpers is that they are extremely naive. The entire premise of Facebook is that members disclose an ocean of information about themselves (sometimes significant, usually trivial) to share with “friends” – people they may or may not actually know. And as a Facebook member you have the ability snoop on the important events and banal musings of your “friends” as well as on millions of others who have given permission for anyone to see their Facebook entries. Does this scenario seem like it would appeal to someone who craves privacy?

Facebook makes its money by selling information to advertisers that focus on consumers who have bought or liked particular types of products. And the advertisers also aim at consumers who are the “friends” of product purchasers. Again, this is not a secret. Anyone disturbed by this practice can refrain from using Facebook.

Another major complaint about Facebook is that it edits its content and is a cheer leader for leftist progressives and biased against conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans. During the April 2018 testimony Senator Ted Cruz peppered the Facebook boss with questions such as, “has Facebook labeled conservative sites as unsafe?” and “has Facebook labeled Democratic, liberal sites as unsafe?” Of course, Mr Zuckerberg stated the obvious – that Facebook professionals and Silicon Valley residents in general – tend to be highly partisan leftists.

Think about the implications of the Facebook leftist orientation. It is a private company, and its owners are entitled to develop and enforce their own standards about what content is acceptable. There are only two possible policies. Facebook could declare that any and all content is fair game. It is up to the members to decide what to post and up to the readers to view the content, believe it, dismiss it, like it, or condemn it. In this scenario Facebook would make no claims about what is true and what is safe. Here it is guaranteed that everyone who examines Facebook will be able to find things that are offensive.

The other possibility is that Facebook will develop and use rules for labeling the veracity and safety of the content on its pages. This is where we are now. Naturally, progressive leftists will be biased against messages that contradict their values. They will consistently do what they can to shut down their political and philosophical adversaries. Here is a message to conservatives and libertarians – get over it. If Facebook editing is not to your liking start your own social media site and use it instead.

During his testimony Zuckerberg commented that he believes that Facebook will be regulated, and his concern is how it will be done. He envisions Facebook itself as well as “outside third-party experts” having a hand in classifying and possibly censoring content. Who will these “outside third-party experts” be? I foresee both leftist academics and government bureaucrats. You can be certain that if the government gets involved in monitoring Facebook the judgments will be inspired by leftist ideology – at least as much as it is by zealous Facebook employees. Zuckerberg knows that government intervention will result in an outcome that favors his progressive left cohorts. It will set the standard for all sites and make it difficult for new entrants to compete with his creation. In essence, the government will (wittingly or unwittingly) make Facebook even more powerful than it is now.

Then there is the charge that Facebook is guilty of participating in “unfair political manipulations.” Cambridge Analytica – a UK-based company – had access to Facebook profiles that contained information related to their political orientations. The information may or may not have been used by the Trump campaign in the 2016 presidential election. Note that to a leftist progressive this is unfair because it might provide an advantage to a Republican candidate. It is well-known that large social media data sets (some directly from Facebook) were used by the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012 to help in the election. At that time the mainstream media gave Obama’s advisors high marks for using the latest technology to assure a Democratic victory.

What is wrong with targeting potential voters based on their political preferences (and the preferences of their friends)? If it is acceptable to use a technique to sell products and services, what is the problem with using similar techniques for elections? A plausible answer is that it relates back to privacy. Only voters who give permission to use their profiles should be contacted. But if this is valid (I am not convinced) the rule should apply to advertising as well.

The free-market take on the political manipulation issue is let Facebook and other social sites do what they will with their data. The only restriction should be that they are honest about their actions and get explicit permission to use personal data from their users (that is done in the rarely-examined “terms of service” statement). The only role for the government here is to prevent the use of force or fraud.

Is Facebook too big, too powerful, and too threatening to be left alone? If Facebook is to have its comeuppance it should be the result of successful, private competitors.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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