One highlight from the conference was Recode Executive Editor Kara Swisher’s interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The two discussed, among other topics, Facebook’s role in the 2016 presidential election, the repercussions they faced afterward, and the steps they’ve taken to remedy their blunders.
Sandberg emphasized that Facebook has taken measures to prevent bullying, terrorism, and bogus accounts that violate their community standards and that ran amok in the time leading up to the 2016 election.
“Things happened in the last election on our platform that were unacceptable that we were not prepared for, and we are taking that responsibility really seriously,” said Sandberg. “There’s nothing more important to us than the ability for people to express themselves freely…Authentic identity has always been a hallmark of Facebook, and that did not happen here. So we have been very careful and very thorough to find everything we can, report it to the public, and cooperate with the Mueller investigation and with Congress.”
Sandberg stated that in the immediate wake of the election, half of the company’s 20,000 member workforce was dedicating their time to resolving the platform’s issues, but that the entire company will be working toward that goal by the end of 2018. Additionally, the company’s profits will reportedly take a hit as a result of sizeable investments in machine learning and artificial intelligence, which will hopefully curb the amount of propaganda and fraudulent accounts on the website.
“We’re working very closely with election commissions all around the world,” Sandberg continued.
“We know this is a new form of a very old problem…People have tried to undermine our democracy and our values and have tried using any platform available to do so, and so we take this incredibly seriously.”
Sandberg asserted that since November 2016, Facebook has been proactive in elections in places like France, Germany, and Alabama to prevent similar abuse of the platform.
When Swisher brought up the widespread feeling among Americans that “tech is hurting this country” and asked Sandberg if Silicon Valley can grow from this, Sandberg shared her theory on how tech companies can understand what’s happening.
“I think there are two major things that underlie this,” she said. “One is that there’s a real fear of and feeling of economic insecurity…The second is that as the tech companies have gotten big, and so big, we have a really deep responsibility and that responsibility grows as we grow. So we need to address both sides of that, and that’s what we’re doing.”
As far as responsibility, Sandberg said that Facebook is holding itself accountable for the content on their website, including false information and fear mongering. On the economic side of things, Facebook plays host to 70 million small businesses and uses their nationwide Community Boost initiative to invest in things like digital skills training, technology, and research.
Swisher capped off the discussion of this subject by asking if Sandberg thought there was any legitimacy to the public sentiment that Facebook doesn’t listen to its audience.
Sandberg replied, “We’ve all gotten criticized with our companies and personally. There are parts that are legitimate. But what really matters is you figure out what your values and responsibilities are, and you act on those. We’re doing all we can to do that.”
Despite Sandberg’s repeated claims that the company is “taking really strong steps,” she glossed over most of the concrete details of what those steps entail. Facebook is facing a pivotal moment right now; they desperately need to inspire trust in their users, and reassuring them with vague platitudes may not be the most effective strategy. A little transparency could go a very long way for the company.
Go here to watch the entire conversation.
Image: Japan Times