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Federal Election Commissioner Says Facebook Continues to Pose Dangers to Democracy

Elijah Labby

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Photo of Commissioner Ellen Weintraub by IVN News used with permission

May 8, 2020 — Facebook is still affected by many of the problems represented in 2010’s “The Social Network,” as well as some new ones, Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said in a Slate webinar Thursday.

The event was part of Future Tense’s My Favorite Movie series, which invites scientists, elected officials and thought leaders to choose their favorite movie, watch it with an audience and discuss its relevance in their particular field.

“The Social Network” chronicles the beginnings of Facebook at Harvard when a team of young developers sought to create a virtual network to connect students.

Initially, the idea was limited to Harvard students, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg soon realized its potential, expanding it to surrounding universities and eventually to the public. Today, Facebook membership exceeds 3.8 billion users.

Facebook has experienced a substantial amount of turbulence surrounding data privacy issues, physical and verbal abuse on the website and radical groups organizing on its platform.

However, perhaps one of the most publicized topics concerning the company and the driving force of the movie is the polarizing behavior of its founder, with Zuckerberg being portrayed as mercurial.

While obviously acknowledging that the movie was not a documentary, Weintraub noted several changes to Facebook that its founder likely did not anticipate at the start.

“At the beginning, Zuckerberg didn’t want to have any ads on the platform at all, because he thought that it would take away the cool factor,” she said. “And now it’s become all about the ads.”

The decision to support the site with ads has proven both enormously profitable as well as fraught with controversy about political campaign ad policies.

“It's a business, and it has a business model,” said Weintraub. However, she admitted that the platform has not always operated in the best interest of democracy.

“It was a platform for Russian interference in our election in 2016, and that took me by surprise,” she said. “…The Russians were buying ads in Rubles, and nobody noticed they didn't have any system set up to check for that.”

The platform's response to political concerns has evolved, and Weintraub said that she would like to see additional measures taken to prevent the nefarious use of the website.

“I think one very troubling development in the last few months is authoritarian governments taking advantage of the health crisis to consolidate power [by] claiming to be going after disinformation [and] really going after entities to try and quash dissent…” she said. “[I'm] concerned with the risk to dissent and free speech and people's rights across the globe.”

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