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Two years later, the platform is, yet again, sowing the seeds for genocidal violence. This time it’s in Ethiopia, where the recent assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, a singer and political activist from the country’s Oromo ethnic group, led to violence in its capital city, Addis Ababa. This bloodshed was, according to Vice News, “supercharged by the almost-instant and widespread sharing of hate speech and incitement to violence on Facebook, which whipped up people’s anger.” This follows a similar incident in 2019, where disinformation shared on Facebook helped catapult violence that claimed 86 lives in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.
Facebook has been incredibly lucrative for its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who ranks among the wealthiest men in the world. But it’s been a disaster for the world itself, a powerful vector for paranoia, propaganda and conspiracy-theorizing as well as authoritarian crackdowns and vicious attacks on the free press. Wherever it goes, chaos and destabilization follow.
The news from Ethiopia comes at the same time as a report about a memo, written by Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook. Obtained by BuzzFeed News, the memo shows the company’s refusal to take action against governments and political parties that use fake accounts to spread propaganda, mislead citizens and influence elections.
“In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,” Zhang wrote. “I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I’ve lost count,” she continued.
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The most disturbing revelations from Zhang’s memo relate to the failure of Facebook to take swift action against coordinated activity in countries like Honduras and Azerbaijan, where political leaders used armies of fake accounts to attack opponents and undermine independent media. “We simply didn’t care enough to stop them,” she wrote. In a statement, a spokeswoman for Facebook said that “We investigate each issue carefully, including those that Ms. Zhang raises, before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company.”
Zhang’s memo only adds to what we already know about the ease with which bad actors use Facebook to further violence and authoritarian politics. “There are five major ways that authoritarian regimes exploit Facebook and other social media services,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media scholar at the University of Virginia, writes in “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.” They can “organize countermovements to emerging civil society or protest movements,” “frame the public debate along their terms,” let citizens “voice complaints without direct appeal or protest” and “coordinate among elites to rally support.” They can also use social media to aid in the “surveillance and harassment of opposition activists and journalists.”
We’ve seen such activity in places around the world. In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s allies use Facebook and other social media to harass critics and spread disinformation on behalf of the regime. In India, Vaidhyanathan notes, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party used Facebook to “rile up anti-Muslim passions and channel people to the polls” as well as “destroy the reputations of journalists, civil society activists, critics of anti-Islam policies, and political enemies.” And in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte leveraged Facebook for “virulent character assassination, threats, and harassment” as well as propaganda in service of vigilantism and violent nationalism.
Here in the United States, Facebook has been the chief vector for QAnon, a byzantine conspiracy theory in which President Trump struggles against a global cabal of Satan-worshipping, life-force sucking pedophiles and their enablers. QAnon supporters believe Trump will eventually go public in an operation that ends with the arrest, internment and execution of that cabal, which conveniently includes many of his Democratic political opponents.
Facebook, according to the company’s own investigation, is home to thousands of QAnon groups and pages with millions of members and followers. Its recommendation algorithms push users to engage with QAnon content, spreading the conspiracy to people who may never have encountered it otherwise. Similarly, a report from the German Marshall Fund pegs the recent spate of fire conspiracies — false claims of arson in Oregon by antifa or Black Lives Matter — to the uncontrolled spread of rumors and disinformation on Facebook.
Zuckerberg clearly wants the public to see him and his company as partners in the defense of democracy. Earlier this month, he announced steps to limit election-related misinformation and stop voter suppression and to support efforts to help Americans register and cast a ballot. “I believe our democracy is strong enough to withstand this challenge and deliver a free and fair election — even if it takes time for every vote to be counted,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’ve voted during global pandemics before. We can do this.”
He is right that our democracy can survive a pandemic. It is unclear, however, if it can survive a platform optimized for conspiratorial thinking. Like industrial-age steel companies dumping poisonous waste into waterways, Facebook pumps paranoia and disinformation into the body politic, the toxic byproduct of its relentless drive for profit. We eventually cleaned up the waste. It’s an open question whether we can clean up after Facebook.