January 21, 2020

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Editorial

Social media mischief changed elections

Nick Wass / The Associated Press files</p><p>Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg </p>

Nick Wass / The Associated Press files

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Is it time to #DeleteFacebook? The megacorporation isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but many users are pondering whether to permanently delete their accounts on the social network.

Facebook’s problems go beyond being a mere drain on a person’s productivity. For all its purported attempts to moderate content, there are some glaring deficiencies. Friends and relatives sharing opinions we don’t agree with is part of life, and arguments are part of our online discourse. But outright propaganda and disinformation go beyond mere disagreement when Facebook’s tools allow organizations to target people according to their interests, age, gender or location.

It’s doing real damage to civic and political discourse, especially during election campaigns.

Facebook has allowed political ads that feature misinformation or outright lies, which was highlighted recently by Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. The campaign to re-elect U.S. President Donald Trump used an ad on the platform to advance a baseless conspiracy theory about Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden. In response, Ms. Warren posted a claim that Facebook had endorsed U.S. President Donald Trump in the 2020 election — an assertion she pointed out was wholly untrue but still allowed by Facebook’s moderators.

Ms. Warren’s gesture served a double purpose by demonstrating the act she was criticizing — false advertising — while at the same time taking a swipe at Facebook’s decision to allow the Trump campaign’s ads on the platform to spread lies.

Speaking at Georgetown University last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered a response that amounted to little more than a shrug.

"Political ads on Facebook are more transparent than anywhere else," Mr. Zuckerberg said. "We don’t fact-check political ads… because we believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying."

In other words, Facebook is fine with politicians running for office lying in their ads, which gain more traction as more people engage with them.

Canadian Facebook users have also recently been subjected to plenty of political posts, whether composed by friends and relatives — the sort of dialogue one would hope a social network would be used for — or in the form of memes created by third-party groups.

As the National Observer recently reported, those third-party groups are often funded by corporations and wealthy donors that use Facebook to circumvent limits imposed on donations to political parties in order to advocate for issues identified with particular parties. Right-wing groups such as BC Proud and Ontario Proud and left-wing groups such as North99 create shareable memes and posts.

The power of simplified images with a political punchline in large text is hard to deny. These are the posts that go viral, shared and reshared among Facebook’s 1.5 billion users. Don’t think a post about Canada’s federal election would have legs? Think again. According to the platform’s own information, there are 19 million Facebook users in Canada, and 14 million Canadians check their Facebook news feed every day.

To properly navigate the challenges of the current political landscape, Canadians need to go beyond the filter Facebook offers, which seems tailored only to evoke an emotional reaction, not to inspire careful consideration of an issue.

Politics in 2019 is full of disagreement and discord. As you cast your ballot and wait for the federal election results, take a moment to consider how we got here. It might indeed be time to #DeleteFacebook — or at least stop using it as a news filter.

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