Mark Zuckerberg infront of a Facebook sign

ELEANOR HALL:  Social media juggernaut, Facebook, is back in the spotlight and this time it’s facing criticism from its own employees.

More than 250 of the company’s workers have taken aim at the company’s policies, which allow politicians to use paid ads to spread false information.

The open letter was posted on an internal company forum.

It’s the first time in Facebook’s history that employees have publicly rebelled but will it have any effect?

For more, I spoke with Siva Vaidhyanathanm, a cultural historian and Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia.

He’s written several books about Facebook – the most recent titled ‘How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy’.

Professor Vaidhyanathan, welcome to The World Today.

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN:  Oh, thank you very much, it’s a pleasure.

ELEANOR HALL:  Now how worried would or should Mark Zuckerberg be by this public rebellion from 250 of his employees?

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN:  To my knowledge, this is the first time that Facebook employees have made a stand, voicing opposition to any of Facebook’s policies.

We’ve seen these sorts of protests or rebellions at Google and at Microsoft in recent years but I think the spirit is catching. There seems to be a willingness to challenge the authority, the moral authority as well as management authority, of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook.

So for that reason I think it is a significant development.

The issue itself though, the truthfulness of political ads, I don’t think it’s one for which Facebook’s management is willing to budge.

ELEANOR HALL:  There is very strong language in this employee letter. For example, “misinformation affects us all, … we strongly object to this policy that allows politicians to weaponise our platform.”

How damaging is this policy to the democratic process?

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN:  We have to remember a couple of things.

Number one, false political advertising has occurred on Facebook with alarming regulatory for more than a decade and there’s really no realistic way to imagine Facebook policing its political ads.

The fact is Facebook has been an active participant in eroding democratic norms around the world for more than a decade. It will continue to do so.

ELEANOR HALL:  Well, you say there is not a lot that can be done but the Facebook employees do make a number of recommendations in their letter including that political advertising be held to the same standards as other ads and that Facebook tools that allow the targeting of particular consumers be restricted.

Do you think they could be effective?

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN:  Yes, the latter definitely. So one of the reasons that Facebook is such a destructive phenomenon in terms of the effect of political ads on the democratic norms and processes around the world, is that Facebook allows candidates and political movements to very narrowly target ads at small groups of voters.

You could send an ad to one household, one ad to the man in the household and another ad to a woman in the household and give a completely different position about your policies as a politician – neither would know that the other received a completely different message on a Facebook platform.

That level of targeting not only allows for duplicity, it also means that there is no accountability. There is no way for opponents, for instance, to know what is being said about them in ads.

There is no way for reporters to report on ad campaigns that are misleading or unfair.

I would like to see, instead of Facebook address this, I would like to see legislation in every democracy in the world limiting ad targeting to the district in which the election is being held so that everybody in that district sees the same message and can judge and assess.

ELEANOR HALL:  And are you saying that Facebook should then reduce these targeting tools and police it?

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN:  I would like to see it happen. I don’t think it is proper for a company to take on that responsibility. I think that should be legislated and required.

I have very little tolerance for the posing of corporations. We should be demanding specific levels of accountability through legislation and regulation but I do know that it is technologically possible, politically viable and reducing ad targeting would be a very effective way of reducing the pullugen (phonetic) that Facebook distributes without violating free speech rights and that’s very important around the world as well.    

ELEANOR HALL:  What is the ideal solution for legislators?

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN:  Yeah, there’s no ideal solution unfortunately. I have a wish list of legislation I would like to see.

So number one, I would like to see some strong anti-trust or competition law, interrogation of Facebook and Facebook’s behaviour.

I would like to see that legislation I mentioned limiting the targeting of political ads to the district in which the candidate is running.

I would also like to see data protection much like we see in Europe expanded to other places in the world – Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, India, the United States, Canada.

If a few more large countries would take on data protection and take it seriously, then Facebook and Google and Twitter would have to adjust their policies.

We have to do it in multilateral way. It can’t just be one country acting or one region acting but I don’t pretend that any of them would slay the dragon.

ELEANOR HALL:  Professor Vaidhyanathan, thanks so much for joining us.


ELEANOR HALL:  Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan from the University of Virginia.

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