Remember that time, just after Donald Trump was elected, that speculation was rising around a potential presidential run by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2020? That was an interesting side note to the 2016 Election result.
In an unrelated, but sort of related, development, The Washington Times has reported that Facebook is one of several tech companies behind a new pro-tech advocacy group in Washington called 'American Edge'.
American Edge aims to represent 'American innovators' in the tech sector, with the goal of improving the image of tech companies among politicians.
As reported by Business Insider:
"American Edge is registered as a non-profit, which enables it to raise money and spend on advertising without having to disclose all of its donors. Facebook isn’t the only group involved, but the social media giant has been a main driving force in its creation."
Facebook has come under heavy scrutiny from political groups in recent times, with Zuckerberg himself testifying twice before Congress - once in 2018, in relation Cambridge Analytica and Facebook's data-gathering processes, and again last year, in relation to The Social Network's proposed Libra cryptocurrency.
The results in both cases highlighted significant divides in understanding between policy-makers and tech platforms, with Zuckerberg responding to several questions around how Facebook works and what it does to protect its users. And while Facebook did, eventually, get hit with a record $5 billion fine over the Cambridge Analytica incident, by and large, none of these investigations or examinations has altered how Facebook, more broadly, operates.
That means that despite significant concerns around how tech companies gather up user data, which they can then re-purpose for ad targeting and other means, there's no policy or regulation to limit such. Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google are all gathering massive troves of consumer insight, which arguably gives each significant capacity to influence consumer behavior, and potentially, voter activity. Yet the processes they utilize for gathering and using data are complex, and no one seems to have any real answers as to if, nor how, they should be stopped from doing so.
But questions, and challenges, do indeed remain.
In December, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FTC was considering a preliminary injunction against Facebook over its plans to integrate its messaging products, while several candidates in the US Election race called for Facebook, Google and Amazon to be broken up and regulated more heavily.
Would that be a better outcome? Would it level the playing field for competition within the tech sector, or provide societal benefit, in variance to the current situation?
One thing is certain, any significant move on these fronts would dilute the power, and restrict the growth plans of the tech giants, which is why the establishment of an advocacy group to speak on their behalf does make a lot of sense.
Facebook has confirmed its involvement with American Edge, providing this statement:
“We’re working with a diverse group of stakeholders to help build support for our industry, and while we’re leading an effort to start this coalition, it’s one of many we are contributing to and supporting.”
However you look at it, tech and politics are intrinsically intertwined, as is tech and society in general. But more than just the practical, day-to-day connection, Facebook, specifically, is also where elections are being won and lost.
You may not agree with that statement, you may think that Facebook isn't a significantly influential factor in how people act, and how they vote. But the data shows that more people are getting news content from Facebook, more people are engaging on Facebook, more often, they're interacting in Facebook groups around political topics, they're reading posts and updates from friends and relatives. People's understanding of the world is being shaped by what they read on Zuckerberg's creation. Really, that's not even a point of debate.
Facebook's influence is massive, and as such, it's of benefit for political organizations to work with The Social Network. Facebook could well use that as a tool to help lessen regulatory opposition to its progress, and the establishment of an advisory group could be another step in ensuring smooth sailing amid the concerns.