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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Blurring the line between social media and news


The problem with unfiltered information on Facebook

When certain industries are deemed excessively large or influential, they are often highlighted by the media or government as being “too big.” This has been seen before with the categorization, criticism and regulation in the rise of the tobacco industry—Big Tobacco—and the wide-reaching influence of the pharmaceutical industry—Big Pharma. In the past decade, with the exponential growth of technology companies, we have seen the rise of a new type of attention on the tech industry—Big Tech.

In the tech industry, critics focus on five companies due to their controlling size in the sector. Recently dubbed “The Big 5” or “The Frightful Five” by those weary of their size and influence, this group is composed of Facebook, Apple, Alphabet (the company that owns Google), Microsoft and Amazon. Together they account for over $3 trillion in wealth and have remained the focus of controversy—such as for their role in consumer privacy or monopolistic tendencies. However, lately these companies are under increased scrutiny for assisting in further dividing the country.

In a world increasingly consumed by technology, we have become conditioned for convenience.  This convenience, however, has led many in society to turn to these tech companies for their news consumption, which has led to several recent issues.

While being able to receive news and social media in the same place may seem positive, the 2016 election revealed the potential side-effects of this convenience. Many members of U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential campaign by spreading false information about candidates, but the extent and scope of this false information wasn’t revealed until recently.

Facebook, just one of the platforms utilized by Russia, released over 3,000 ads last month, reflecting the efforts undertaken by these foreign agents to influence the minds of the American people. Some ads were more blatant in their support for one candidate—such as a picture of Jesus and Satan arm wrestling with the caption, “If Hillary wins, I win” above Satan—but not all of the efforts to influence the election were so obvious.

Several Facebook pages linked to these efforts also had content supporting Democrats as well. In fact, the only clear objective in these pages and advertisements was to create instability and further divisions among Americans.

Some ads were pro-Bernie Sanders, some ads spread anti-Trump information following the election. But the complexity of these efforts went as far as organizing pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim rallies at the same time and location in Texas, crossing from the boundaries of Facebook into the real world.

The problem with the Russian information campaign is that it is rooted in cheap, easily targeted and highly unfiltered ads. These ads are highly customizable, targeting users with a variety of demographics, such as declared interests, location and even more complex parameters such as issues viewed as important based off content posted on profiles.

This controversy poses a new, unprecedented problem regarding the balance between freedom of speech on the internet and the need to regulate  flow of information to protect citizens from false information by those attempting to influence the American people.

Government reactions to these foreign influence efforts has been strong, not only in the U.S. with the proposal of the so-called Honest Ads Act, but also abroad with Germany’s Network Enforcement Law.  If there is one thing to learn from Germany, however, it’s that a law such as this cannot be rushed, which many feel the U.S. government is doing.

While I believe something must be done to fix the issue of foreign interference in our elections, I am wary of the speed with which representatives have jumped to support this bill. The bill needs to be carefully debated to weigh the benefits with the possibility for First Amendment infringement—something that many in Germany regret, reflecting on the passage of their law.

No matter which path we take as a country, through the Honest Ads Act or something else, we need to have a solution before the 2018 midterm election, because there is no sign that the dissemination of this false information on social media will stop any time soon.

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