How Will Stronger Internet Privacy and Election Laws Impact Facebook?

Logan Sweeney

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

During his election campaign, President Trump hired Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm, to gain access to the private data of more than 50 million Facebook users. The data included users’ personal identities, friend networks, and “likes.” The election campaign and Cambridge Analytica team used users’ data to target political and digital ads, increase online fundraising, and reach out to and sway undecided voters.

In 2019, following intense public criticism and accusations of political bias and censorship, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, began advocating for the regulation of four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy, and data portability. However, no legislation has been passed, no regulation has been implemented, and Zuckerberg has not offered support for any proposals. A blank promise with no action. Congress needs to work with countries around the globe in order to regulate Facebook as a public utility and ensure that hate speech and incitements of violence are not tolerated.

United States Issues with Facebook

Cambridge Analytica used their access to users’ data, targeted political ads, and voter disengagement tactics, to discourage and demobilize black voters in the 2016 election. In a comparison of the 2012 and 2016 Presidential Elections, there was a 7.5 percent difference in black and white voters of all ages between the two elections, where in 2012 black voters were more likely to vote by 4.5 percent, and in 2016, white voters were more likely to vote by 3 percent. Many believe this dramatic swing was a result of Facebook allowing hate speech, targeted disengagement and political ads, and data tracking.

Additionally, with regards to domestic terrorism, there have been multiple terrorist attacks which have been perpetuated by Facebook’s lack of regulation of community guidelines. Facebook has been a platform in which extremist groups have organized their activities, spread hate speech, and incited violence. In 2017, before committing arson to destroy a mosque and Islamic community center, Marq Perez used Facebook groups to detail his plan and spread hate speech. In recent years, we have seen a trend in terrorists using Facebook to spread hate and communicate their plans before they execute them, however Facebook is not doing enough to protect the greater population from the dangers it is perpetuating.

International Issues with Facebook

Terrorism and hate speech spread via Facebook is not something that the United States faces alone. Many countries are trying to regulate Facebook with the continuing violence that Facebook allows to spread. In 2018, Sri Lankan government officials blocked Facebook, after viral calls to violence on Facebook appeared to provoke a wave of anti-Muslim riots and lynchings. Prior to the violence, Sri Lankan officials repeatedly warned Facebook of the incitements of violence, but Facebook took no action until after it was blocked, at which point it removed some of the posts. Additionally, in 2017, Myanmar military personnel created a systematic campaign on Facebook to incite murders, rapes, and the largest forced human migration in recent history. Facebook has since confirmed many of the details of the campaign and it has removed the official accounts of senior Myanmar military leaders. However, even after Facebook became involved, many of the messages of hate and incitements of violence remain posted. Similarly, German researchers tied anti-refugee attacks to the Facebook anti-refugee vitriol viral posts portraying refugees as a threat.

Clearly, Facebook enables the perpetuation of hate speech, privacy scandals, data dumps, surveillance, and targeting. However, as countries around the world try to address this issue, there is not one clear solution.

How Can We Regulate Facebook?

It is apparent that Facebook needs to be regulated in order to control hate speech, incitements of violence, and disinformation. However, how can we do that? Can one country act alone or do all countries need to implement the same regulations? The answer lies in a collaborative and collective effort amongst all countries.

Zuckerberg suggests that Facebook will be improved if governments were to clarify what counts as harmful and hateful content. Additionally, he proposes more uniform and standardized privacy regulations. Facebook recognizes that they need to improve its detection and enforcement, increase the size of its team, and give people resources to leave behind hate, but we need more than Facebook’s promise to improve.

A first step may be advertising taxes, data collection restrictions, data use restrictions, and financial penalties for breaches. However, countries may also going as far as severing the companies owned by Facebook, including Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, in order to increase competition.

Domestically, the United States could expand their current political advertising regulations beyond elections to reach general political interference. This expansion would ensure that Facebook’s content creators were forced to create more “neutral content”, share stories from all perspectives, or even restrict their ability to share political ads entirely. Additionally, the United States could provide Facebook the opportunity to declare itself an “information fiduciary.” This would create a duty to look out for the interests of people whose data Facebook regularly harvests and profits from. An information fiduciary has to implement a set of fair information practices, create security and privacy guarantees, and disclose any breaches. Facebook would have to voluntarily make the switch to become an information fiduciary, and in exchange, the federal government would avert several state and local laws.

All countries could help protect consumer data by implementing privacy guidelines similar to what was implemented in the European Union. Like government officials in France, countries can investigate the content moderation policies in order to ensure consumer protection. Additionally, in following suit of Canadian regulators, countries may take Facebook to court for regulatory issues to impose fines. India has also implemented protective measures, where telecom operators are tasked with finding ways to block Facebook after a large number of cases of misuse.

One thing is clear, global scrutiny is required in the fight against Facebook.