“Facebook has played at times a negative role in the political discourse,” according to Facebook co-founder and Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate Chris Hughes. “The algorithms are not neutral,” he said today at a Bloomberg Beta event promoting his new book Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn. Mentioning “the filter bubbles” and “the Russia stuff,” Hughes says, “The first step is recognizing the responsibility that the platform has.”
TechCrunch’s Katie Roof asked Hughes his opinion of Facebook’s influence on politics and well-being. Hughes noted that “Facebook has all kinds of effects on the world,” including positive impacts, citing his ability to share photos of his baby with his family. He believes Facebook is wising up after election interference and fake news plagued the 2016 U.S. presidential election, saying “Facebook is finally coming to recognize the responsibility that they have to shape public discourse.”
“They were a little slow,” Hughes added. He also told the audience that “Facebook is now starting to make normative decisions about what people should see,” implying that he sees it as having characteristics of a media company, not just a technology platform.
The comments follow criticism from other former Facebook executives, including its first president, Sean Parker, growth team leader Chamath Palihapitiya and Like button co-inventor Justin Rosenstein. Hughes left Facebook in 2007 to work on Barack Obama’s campaign. In 2012 he bought a majority stake in liberal political magazine The New Republic, but sold it in 2016 following newsroom turmoil.
Now despite having “turned a corner,” Hughes says, “the jury is still out whether Facebook is going to be able to deliver.” Atop his list of priorities for the company is preventing election interference, and to “make sure that Russia can’t buy ads of fake news.”
Facebook has announced a slew of initiatives on this front. It’s hiring 1,000 more moderators to review its ads, making all ads visible on Pages regardless of who they targeted, requiring more documentation of the identity of U.S. political ad buyers and working with other companies to create new industry standards. Meanwhile, it’s downranking hoaxes, partnering with outside fact checkers and demonetizing fake news.
The question will be whether Facebook can lock itself up tight in time for the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. If reports emerge of further election interference despite Facebook having two years to implement safeguards, it could be hit with significant public backlash and potential government regulation.