Facebook is in trouble in Seattle

Facebook spent much of 2017 pledging to increase "transparency" in political ad purchases.

FILE PICTURE: A Facebook logo is displayed on a screen at Facebook's new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters at Rathbone Place in London. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)
FILE PICTURE: A Facebook logo is displayed on a screen at Facebook's new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters at Rathbone Place in London. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)

Facebook wants you to believe that it’s changing.

After spending a good portion of 2017 being lambasted by both the media and politicians for not doing enough to combat fake news on its platform, CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to transform the social media giant. With the threat of regulation looming, Facebook announced last year that it would demand that political advertisers disclose who is paying for their ads — just like political spots on TV.

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Facebook has also re-crafted it’s News Feed algorithm to “bring people closer together,” which means that public content from media and businesses will be less visible, and posts from friends and family will be prioritized. Zuckerbeg doesn’t even seem to mind that users are spending 50 million fewer hours per day on Facebook. “Helping people connect is more important than maximizing the time they spend on Facebook,” he said. “We think that that’s going to be positive.”

But that lofty rhetoric masks the problems that continue to plague the website. The latest example: Seattle, where, on Monday, the city’s election authority revealed Facebook had violated a Seattle law requiring companies to disclose who had bought election ads — a direct contradiction of Zuckerberg’s 2017 pledge.

Facebook’s vice president, Will Castleberry, responded by saying that the company was able to provide the relevant information to the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission (SEEC). But Wayne Barnett, executive director at the SEEC, said that the two-page Excel spreadsheet Facebook provided “doesn’t come close” to matching their disclosure obligation, which ideally highlights who paid for what during last year’s mayoral race and two city council contests. Nearly $5 million was donated to the various candidates and causes during that election cycle.

“We gave Facebook ample time to comply with the law,” Barnett said. “I’ll be discussing our next steps this week with the city attorney’s office.”

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Facebook could now face fines of up to $5,000 per ad. That’s a drop in the bucket for a company which earned nearly $5 billion in profits last year, but is still deeply embarrassing for a company which pledged increased political transparency.

The latest development comes as Facebook is also facing down criticism regarding its handling of various international political flubs. Although much of the attention has been focused on the social media giant’s mishandling of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Russian accounts and ads that ultimately influenced it, Facebook has also failed to address the way its platform has been manipulated to affect smaller communities far outside of the Beltway.

The worst example of this can be seen in Myanmar, where the Facebook program Free Basics has made it one of the country’s main sources of news. According to Matthew Smith, the co-founder of the human rights organization Fortify Rights, that dynamic created an “ugly renaissance of genocidal propaganda” against the country’s Rohingya Muslim majority, which has resulted in ethnic cleansing that has caused 600,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.

“[That propaganda] spreads like wildfire on Facebook,” Smith told the Washington Post in December.

According to The Guardian, Facebook has allowed the hate speech to proliferate anyway, while banning minority groups from posting. It’s barely acknowledged the scale of the problem except to say that it expects enforcing the correct policy “to be a long-term challenge.”

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“Managing a global community in this manner has never been done before, and we know we have a lot more work to do,” Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president for public policy EMEA, wrote in a blog post last summer. “We are committed to improving — not just when it comes to individual posts, but how we approach discussing and explaining our choices and policies entirely.”