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After latest scandal, does Facebook need to be regulated?

Facebook has been on the defensive since a New York Times investigation found it had hired a consulting firm--founded by Republican operatives--to push negative stories about its critics. Among them: liberal billionaire George Soros, a favorite target of far-right conspiracy theorists. John Yang speaks with the Wilson Center's Nina Jankowicz about whether social media needs to be regulated.

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  • John Yang:

    Now, the latest on the mounting scrutiny of how Facebook does business.

    The social media giant has been on the defensive since a New York Times investigation found that it hired a consulting firm, founded by Republican operatives, to push negative stories about critics, among them, liberal billionaire George Soros, a favorite target of far-right conspiracy theorists.

    Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg first denied knowing anything about the firm, but Sandberg now acknowledges getting e-mails about their work.

    We asked Facebook for someone to join us, but they declined.

    Earlier, I spoke with Nina Jankowicz, who studies disinformation campaigns at The Wilson Center, and she says social media should be regulated.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    I think we wouldn't fly on an airline with a safety record as appalling as Facebook's, and nor would Congress allow it to operate.

    It's become clear that self-regulation is not working. And, in particular, in the recent New York Times expose, we learned about Facebook's duplicitous lobbying attempts, in particular, this anti-George Soros effort run by a conservative P.R. firm in Washington, in which Facebook labeled efforts by activists that were potentially funded by George Soros, as this very rancorous, anti-Facebook effort.

    Now, of course, you know, George Soros has long been the boogeyman of the right. And this just feeds into this anti-Semitic rhetoric that has been long going on about him.

    Zuckerberg and Sandberg say these are not false allegations, that Soros did, in fact, funds these groups. But what's disturbing to me about this is that it shows a lack of understanding about how disinformation operates.

    Disinformation doesn't have to be wholly false to work. In fact, it is often grounded in a kernel of truth. And so it's very frustrating to me that, while Facebook says it has been fighting disinformation and false news on its platform, it was in fact paying a P.R. firm to spread disinformation.

  • John Yang:

    Earlier this week, Mark Zuckerberg talked to CNN about — and was asked about that, hiring this firm.

    Let's take a look at what he had to say, and then we will talk about it at the other — on the other side.

  • Mark Zuckerberg:

    Yes, I wasn't particularly happy about that piece of it. And that — that's certainly a big part of what I — when I read about this, what made me want to look into this more deeply.

    So, the intention here was never to attack an individual.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    It shows a lack of understanding on — about what's going on at the lower levels of this company, and brings up these arguments that many people have made about the fact that Facebook has become this mammoth enterprise — which is not only Facebook, you know, it's also WhatsApp and Instagram — with billions of users that Mark Zuckerberg sits atop of.

  • John Yang:

    Well, you made the analogy to an airline with a bad safety record.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Right.

  • John Yang:

    You said no one would fly it. But you also just said that billions still use Facebook.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Right.

    Well, Facebook has become pretty ubiquitous. For many people, especially outside of the Western world, Facebook is the home page for the Internet. In fact, data plans on mobile phones often allow free access to services like Facebook and WhatsApp.

    So, this is where people are getting their news from. And, in many cases, they wouldn't know how to operate without it, which is why, in the United States, as well as other countries, we need legislators to step in and set the rules of the road.

  • John Yang:

    What would that regulation look like?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Well, there are a couple of things.

    I mean, this is a huge problem. It's going to take a lot of time to suss out. But the first and foremost thing that I would like to see is basic data protection laws, like what the European Union has put in place with their general data protection regulations, in the United States.

    That would ensure that users understand what they're opting into when they sign in for — into this platform, which is the monetization of our personal data for Facebook's monetary gain. That's huge.

    And, in addition to that, informed and meaningful consent to those terms of service means that you understand that Facebook is not a free speech zone. It's a private platform, and you're responsible for the content that you post on there. And Facebook has every right to remove that content, which it has been a bit lax about doing.

    We have seen, for instance, Alex Jones and Infowars be able to spread hate speech and disinformation the platform for years and years, until they were finally removed. And because of that lax implementation of the terms of service on behalf of Facebook, that gave Infowars and Alex Jones and all of his followers cause to say that this was unjust.

  • John Yang:

    There is some form of regulation. And is it working?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    No, I think it's clear that it's not working.

    And there have been a couple of news stories — Cambridge Analytica, obviously, was the largest one — in which we saw that Facebook was not doing its due diligence in protecting consumer data.

    And they have — in fact, in the U.K. just today, they're challenging a lawsuit that says that they didn't protect U.K. users' data to the fullest degree of the law there. They're really trying to skirt around these regulations.

    And that makes me think that we need specific regulations for social media platforms that do not yet exist.

  • John Yang:

    What do you think the likelihood of this sort of regulation is?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    So, I think we have a better chance of that — of that regulation happening with the new Congress.

    Previously, this has been obviously a very polarizing political issue. In the previous House, we saw investigations into anti-conservative bias on the platform, instead of look — hard looks at what regulation would look like, what the protection of consumer data looks like.

    With the new Democratic House, I think there will be much more of a focus on privacy. I think there will be much more of a focus on potential foreign meddling on the platform.

    Whether anything that originates in the House gets passed by the Senate is a different story. But I am heartened by the progress that we have made just with public pressure and congressional pressure on Facebook in the past year.

    They have come a long way. There's still a long way to go. But I think the House Democrats have a big role to play in continuing to apply that pressure.

  • John Yang:

    Nina Jankowicz of The Wilson Center, thank you very much.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Thanks for having me.

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