Politics & Policy

Facebook and the Calm Before the Regulatory Storm

Cardboard cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arranged as a protest on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
To restore trust, the social-media giant must now take on some gatekeeping responsibility: no more Russian trolls.

In his appearance before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees, Mark Zuckerberg was appropriately contrite. The Facebook founder addressed almost every conceivable flashpoint issue, from censorship of conservative opinions and the company’s treatment of the recent Cambridge Analytica snafu to addressing the long-running concerns over foreign election interference. But the theatrics of Tuesday’s performance belie the deeper significance of Zuckerberg’s appearance before the committee, which signals a historic turning point in Silicon Valley’s relationship with Washington, D.C.

For the past 18 months, amid endless leaks and turbulent governance, Facebook has been precariously occupying the eye of the Russiagate hurricane. That moment of respite has passed, however, and the regulatory storm is quickly approaching. The days of the untamed digital frontier are fading — not just for Facebook, but for the tech industry as a whole.

So how did we get here, and what comes next?

Rewind to late 2016, prior to the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. The full extent of Russia’s imprint on the presidential election was just starting to emerge, Cambridge Analytica was enjoying the spotlight on the back of a stunning upset, and Facebook hadn’t yet fully come to terms with its role in unwittingly channeling a campaign aimed at subverting trust in America’s democratic institutions. In the months that followed, the Trump administration would add fuel to the fire through a series of political miscalculations, beginning with the firing of James Comey and culminating in the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Ever since, the daily news cycle has come to resemble Groundhog Dog, populated by the same characters and motifs: Russia, election interference, President Trump, Cambridge Analytica, the Mueller investigation, Facebook. Every morning we’re greeted by new pieces of information that purportedly help make sense of the incomplete puzzle. By afternoon, pundits and talking heads have funnelled this information into their newest hot takes. The day ends with another salvo of breaking news that either faintly clarifies or significantly blurs whatever picture may have been emerging. And the next day the cycle repeats itself.

Since the beginning, Facebook has been a major player in this ongoing drama, increasingly melded together with the rest of cast of characters. Primed by an environment of news-headline echo chambers, all that was needed was a spark to light the company’s reputation ablaze. The revelation of Cambridge Analytica’s unsanctioned collection of Facebook users’ data did the trick. Indeed, even as the rest of the tech industry continues to enjoy consistently stratospheric public approval ratings, Facebook’s reputation recently took a major nosedive, falling from a net favorability of 61 percent in October 2017 to 48 percent in March 2018.

FB must dissociate its brand from any perceived attachment to foreign election interference and must also rebuild trust with many conservatives who feel unfairly targeted and censored by the platform’s policies.

In pursuing the goal of connecting all of humankind, Mark Zuckerberg had to position Facebook as the nexus of the Internet. Creating a functional and effective online global community necessitates a shared platform from which a budding network can grow with ease. There have been many benefits: Small businesses can reach tens of millions of otherwise inaccessible customers; families and loved ones can remain closer than ever, despite physical distances; and people in search of new experiences, friends, and communities have been afforded a world (literally) of possibilities. Zuckerberg has long claimed that he never wanted Facebook to act as the Internet’s gatekeeper. Ironically, however, the company’s position at the center of online life — the very quality that made it a success — has now forced it to take on at least some measure of that gatekeeping responsibility.

Whatever tarnish may have dulled its erstwhile luster, and whatever regulatory challenges it may face in the future, Facebook has the opportunity to reinvent itself as a champion of democratic norms and values while continuing to embrace the optimism and idealism that has taken it so far so fast. To do that, however, it first needs to exert an even more forceful effort to dissociate its brand from any perceived attachment to foreign election interference. Working for legislative solutions that take small, incremental steps toward those ends can significantly improve its relationship with policymakers. But while that will help mend its reputation with the broader public, Facebook also needs to begin rebuilding trust with many conservatives who feel unfairly targeted and censored by the platform’s policies. It is certainly true that the company is not obligated to provide a soapbox for every opinion; but it is just as true that failing to address conservative concerns, whether real or perceived, will doom any hopes of reconciliation with the broader democratic polis.

Whatever Facebook and Silicon Valley do next, Chairman Chuck Grassley correctly summed up the essence of what this hearing represented: “The status quo will no longer suffice.”

Ryan Hagemann Ryan Hagemann is the director of technology policy at the Niskanen Center.

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