SMPA visiting scholar Emma Briant, an expert on information warfare, said lawmakers should consider regulating companies like Facebook.
Questions about Facebook’s social media monopoly have been mounting over the last several months as more information about how the platform was weaponized during the 2016 presidential election has come to light.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently testified on Capitol Hill about how his company was used by Russia and Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm with ties to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president.
Emma Briant, a visiting scholar in the School of Media and Public Affairs, is an expert in propaganda and information warfare. She is based out of the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. Dr. Briant has researched Cambridge Analytica and its parent company extensively and has conducted interviews with key leaders at these organizations.
Dr. Briant talked about her research in a Q&A with GW Today and shared what kinds of institutional changes she believes should be made to move forward.
Q: Why is what Cambridge Analytica did a big deal?
A: Many aspects of what Cambridge Analytica did were a big deal. Most people consider their activities online as individuals and struggle to appreciate the significance of what can be done with their personal data when taken collectively and used for influence campaigns.
Q: You recently interviewed leaders from Cambridge Analytica about their work. What were the big takeaways?
A: There is a lot of focus on the effectiveness or otherwise of the tools Cambridge Analytica deployed which is unquantifiable and distracts us from some of the really key issues, which are questions of how they could engage in such deeply unethical activities worldwide, and how we can stop future abuses of power. One of the issues is that some of the things they did were legal but deeply unethical and our systems are perhaps not protecting us.
Q: What kind of changes should Facebook make to ensure users are not being manipulated through content spread by foreign actors?
A: I would say it is not just a problem of foreign actors. The solution is not to isolate America from other countries' communications and there is plenty of deeply problematic misinformation from within its borders.
Regarding possible changes, for a start, Facebook should be forced to allow people to take their data to other social networks and allow other measures that would encourage competing social networks to flourish.
Q: What kind of regulation, if any, do you think would help companies like Facebook keep user data safer and protect them from outside influence?
A: I don't think the answers are with Facebook itself policing content—increasing their gatekeeping role is placing further power in the hands of a profit-making company. Facebook's monopoly power needs to be reduced and policymakers should consider how to de-incentivize a highly invasive and problematic business model. It is deeply important that we reconsider how to regulate such industries independently of government and of the company itself and seek our answers from experts not those who created the problems. At the moment Congress seems ill-equipped to tackle the key issues.