Warnings From Recent History About Facebook’s Threat to Democracy

One way to get some perspective on the news Facebook has been part of this week – the whistleblower testimony, and the outage on Monday – is to take a look at recent history.

Four separate screenshots of people. The top two are women the bottom two are men. The top two have text labels the bottom two have video labels.

The 2018 PBS Frontline documentary The Facebook Dilemma is part of Frontline’s Transparency Project, which publishes all the source interviews from a given documentary in an interactive format.

The format allows you to peruse the 29 Facebook Dilemma source interview transcripts and link directly to any particular sentence. For the dozen interviews that include video you can also use the transcript to navigate the video.

Warnings from these 2018 source interviews resonate especially loudly today.

When she was interviewed for the Frontline documentary, journalist Maria Ressa, who today won the Nobel Peace Prize, had already been trying to sound an alarm. She was concerned about how Facebook was handling the stories from Rappler, the publication she founded, and about how Facebook was affecting elections in the Philippines.

The documentary touches on Ressa’s story, but there’s a lot more detail in the source interview. Here are some key quotes:

But I know this personally: The dangers that these algorithms and the lax regulation internally that Facebook has, I know the dangers that that brings.

In July [2016], that was when I really worried, because in July, when President Duterte decided to boycott traditional media, we saw the social media campaign machinery pivot and become weaponized. It was targeting anyone who questioned the drug war, anyone who questioned then alleged extrajudicial killings…

The first part in July was targeting anyone who criticized the drug war. The next targets were journalists, news organizations.

Then we began collecting the data… By August we had gathered enough data that really alarmed me. I gave that data to Facebook because I was hoping that they would share data with us, they would fix it, and then we could do the story with this fixed, because it was extremely alarming.

So we saw Facebook aggressively coming in and helping politicians with their campaigns.


Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill also sounded the alarm:

…it was a clear indication that these companies were terribly understaffed, in over their heads in terms of the important role they were playing.

There’s all these technologically interesting things we could do, all these different business models that could be developed that would let you have all the fun stuff we do with technology, all the conveniences, all the social interaction, like all things that I think are normatively good. Without this pollution, without this radioactive waste, without this surveillance, without this social control, all these things.


But they’re not going to do this as long as they’re doing so well financially and there’s no regulatory oversight, and consumer backlash doesn’t really work because I can’t leave Facebook.

We don’t want to see the world burn down the way it did with World War II before everybody comes to their senses and says, “Can we do this a different way?”


It’s also worth looking at the insights a couple of former Facebook employees had three years ago:

Andrew Anker, Facebook’s former director of product management, left Facebook the year before he talked to Frontline for the Facebook documentary:

I don’t think Facebook realized how important it was to the news industry until the news industry told it how much it was driving its traffic, driving its revenue model, and in some ways driving how people perceived the news industry and news itself, which really happened in the post-2016 election time period.


Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, left the company shortly before he talked to Frontline. Here’s what Stamos says he was most worried about in 2018:

My biggest concern is an attack against the certainty of the election. … I think in the United Stated we take for granted years after years of the peaceful transfer of power, but you can imagine a situation in which direct attacks against tabulation machines, against voter rules, denial of service attacks, making it difficult for people to vote on the day of, combined with an online disinformation campaign to rile people up to believe the other side is stealing it.


If they opened up that crack a little bit, the lawyers for the political parties would put the crowbars in and rip it wide open. That’s my biggest concern in both 2018 and 2020 is that even if our adversaries can’t find a specific candidate they want to back, what they can do is make it so that the day after the election, America is even more divided, and half the country believes it was stolen. Turning every presidential election into Bush v. Gore is, I don’t think, an impossibility right now.