The heat is on for Facebook. After The Washington Post reported that the platform accepted advertising buys from an agency tied to a Kremlin-backed company seeking to influence American voters during the 2016 US presidential campaign, calls for transparency from the social media giant have reached a fever pitch.
Facebook’s refusal to make public the ads, or to explain who they targeted, has fueled calls for government oversight and congressional hearings. Virginia Senator Mark Warner said yesterday that the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which he is vice chairman, would discuss the potential for public hearings into Facebook’s role in the political process.
In the wake of this week’s news, BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith writes that there has been a “palpable, and perhaps permanent, turn against the tech industry.” Concerns with the dominance of tech titans like Facebook go beyond grumblings from publishers and complaints from users about an unknowable algorithm. Companies including Google, Amazon, Apple, and—perhaps most prominently—Facebook, “are increasingly portrayed as sinister new centers of unaccountable power, a transformation likely to have major consequences for the industry and for American politics,” Smith writes.
ICYMI: A comprehensive timeline of developments at Facebook
For those who have been following Facebook’s role in public discourse and media disruption, these concerns are nothing new. In the pages of CJR, Emily Bell has written forcefully and persuasively about the dangers posed by social media, which hasn’t just swallowed journalism, “it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security.”
The nearly 80 percent of Americans who use Facebook deserve to know if and how they’re being influenced. Publishers deserve a better understanding of how their content reaches consumers on the platform. And we should all desire greater transparency from a company that possesses unprecedented control over the flow of information in the world.
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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.