Our relationship with Facebook is complicated.
Contemporary distrust of Facebook is at peak levels commensurate to the goodwill it enjoyed when its fresh-faced CEO talked about “changing the world” with an inspiring story we were eager to trust.
It’s therefore particularly bitter to realize that, from the beginning, Facebook blatantly broke faith with us by putting profits over people.
This trust lapse was baked in from the beginning even as Zuckerberg was talking a good game about giving voice to those who were voiceless. Early on, their platform was engineered to scale profitably at the expense of creating a safe, trusted space. In pursuit of profits, Facebook asked us to trust that AI and algorithms are good enough to flag untrusted content (ads or posts) AFTER they ran. News flash – it isn’t. Now, the worst of content or ads mix freely with authentic content undermining the trustworthiness of everything. Never did Haters have a better friend than in Facebook.
How did they get away with it?
The key question many fail to answer is why Facebook was able to skirt its trust responsibilities with near complete impunity.
The answer is simple when you stand back. Facebook plays the “we are a neutral platform – not a publisher” card when it wants to avoid onerous and expensive “trust-centric” vetting processes publishers need to adhere to. This “neutral platform” argument is one Facebook clings to religiously since it absolves them from most vetting responsibilities.
Then, they are quick to call themselves a communications company, like AT&T or Verizon, to seduce investors with their “network effect” advertising monetization opportunity but are quick to resist taxes normally levied on communications companies.
By adopting this brilliant albeit despicable strategy meant they could monetize the advantages of being a distributor of content (in other words, a publisher) and a network but avoid all the regulatory or financial responsibilities (ie FCC taxes) that are the bedrock of these industries.
No wonder there are calls for trust accountability across the political spectrum given the flagrant abuses. Business and political leaders have suggested a range of remedies from regulating Facebook to a full Facebook breakup ala AT&T in the 1980’s. I, for one, do not believe any proposed remedies will work until we address the foundational loophole that allows Facebook to avoid any of the regulations normally imposed on publishers and communications companies.
What can be done?
To change Facebook, we have to change what we call them. Till now, Facebook has lobbied successfully to avoid being pigeon holed into any traditional industry, understanding that any industry standards will constrain them financially.
Therefore, to effect change means we label Facebook specifically as both a publisher and communications company and we treat them as such.
It means, for instance, we can impose a “Trust Tax” on Facebook, similar to the FFC line charge tax that is used to build up infrastructure in underdeveloped areas. This “trust tax” would be assessed for every live Facebook account (and other social media platforms like Twitter), with the proceeds going to create the digital trust verification infrastructure of all social media content. This “trust layer” verification process would be independently run by (wait for it), national and local news outlets – not Facebook itself.
By defining what Facebook is, we elegantly solve many issues at once.
It doesn’t require Facebook to be trusted to adhere to outside regulations that would be hard to police anyway. It forces Facebook to reckon with the real cost of fake/ troll accounts that pervade its platform. Most important, imposing a “trust tax” can be done relatively quickly given the bi-partisan support to reign Facebook in.
And in one final cosmic delicious twist to this approach, news outlets have a new revenue stream from the very company (Facebook) that nearly destroyed them.
Creating an accountable Facebook has not been considered an easy task but the reality is that getting Facebook to be responsible members of the digital ecosystem is simpler than we may have thought. A trusted Facebook is within our reach. We just need to get it done.