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In our opinion: Tread lightly in regulation of social media

FILE - In this Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Facebook Elections signs stand in the media area in Cleveland, Thursday, before the first Republican presidential debate.
FILE - In this Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Facebook Elections signs stand in the media area in Cleveland, Thursday, before the first Republican presidential debate.
John Minchillo, Associated Press

Facebook and other social media platforms exist to help people share things — information, opinions, data or anything else they might find entertaining or interesting. And yet information, even if it might seem trivial, equals power when collected in vast quantities.

Which is why Facebook spent much of last week attempting damage control in the wake of information showing a firm known as Cambridge Analytica may have used private information to help Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, said last week he is open to government regulation. Certainly, a bit of that seems in order. The reports say an outside researcher used data harvested from Facebook to craft popular campaign slogans and possibly influence people to vote for Trump.

Trump’s forces are certainly not alone in this. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton used big data to help their campaigns. More nefariously, Russian operatives apparently were busy on Facebook trying to influence the election, as well. The full extent of that involvement, of course, still is unclear.

The Cambridge Analytica data harvesting can be traced to an app a researcher from Cambridge University developed in 2013, which at the time was allowed under Facebook’s policies. Later, those policies changed and Facebook demanded the harvested information be deleted. Apparently, that never happened.

Zuckerberg made a public apology last week, which didn’t stop Facebook stock from tumbling, nor did it keep some people from fleeing the service. The founder said he was open to government regulations, mentioning that users ought to have a right to know who is paying for advertising.

We agree with that. Political ads on television and radio provide this information. Certainly, a notice at the bottom of a political Facebook ad naming Russian operatives as the sponsor would change things. However, the world seldom is so straightforward. Russian operatives would set up shell corporations to hide their identities. Social media’s dangers also go beyond the obvious and include fake accounts spreading fake information.

Any regulation would be inexact, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.

However, government needs to tread lightly. Social media already contains vast amounts of personal information people voluntarily hand over. This information concerns not only Americans, but it is global. Beyond laws requiring disclosures on advertising and prohibiting the harvesting of vast data, government can’t get too close.

China is providing a frightening example of what might happen if government reaches too far. The government there is in the process of developing a scoring system for citizenship — a social credit system that rates everyone according to their shopping habits, the bills they pay, their civic involvement, their friends and a variety of other factors available online.

The plan is to make this system mandatory by 2020. The website last year quoted a scholar with expertise on the program, calling it “Yelp reviews with the nanny state watching over your shoulder."

Certainly, the United States shouldn’t follow that example, and yet it’s sobering to know so much personal information exists about so many people online. It’s a reality that argues for both greater regulation and government restraint at the same time.

Zuckerberg, with so much personal interest in the outcome, needs to be a leader in finding that balance. Like it or not, nearly everyone — as well as the health of the nation’s political system — depends on it.