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Other View: Facebook won't police itself, so must be held accountable

The hour of reckoning may be arriving for Facebook, a company that has managed to become among the most arrogant and dangerous social media firms today.

Why dangerous? The evidence has mounted that, despite its promises to reform, the social network has failed to rein in those who would use it as a powerful weapon to both unsew democracy and to incite violence here and abroad. There is not only the question of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, there is the issue of anti-Rohingya campaigns in Myanmar and the connection to anti-refugee attacks in Germany and attacks on minorities in India and Sri Lanka.

Why arrogant? Because time after time, Facebook has promised to reform itself and assured us greater technological advancement will solve the problem, even as it deepens. We know now that Facebook's own engineers discovered in 2016 that Russians were using the site for posting material that would disrupt the American democratic process. The company's top leaders reacted not to protect the country but to protect themselves and their profits.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and chief executive, said in late 2016 that it was a "crazy idea" to think Facebook could be used to manipulate the presidential election. This year, he went before Congress — many of its members pathetically baffled — and robotically lectured them about the company's crucial importance to international communication.

And all of this was done as Facebook adjusted its algorithms to suppress professional independent journalism on the site in the U.S. and beyond.

"I'll be holding your hands with your dying business like in a hospice," the company's executive over news partnerships, Campbell Brown, reportedly told publishers in August. Facebook later said the comment was taken out of context.

Last week, calls were raised for congressional inquiry into longstanding concerns over what has been called Facebook and Twitter's conservative problem: an increasingly apparent bias against certain political speech that shouldn't be tolerated from companies that our law has granted such wide and unregulated power over American discourse.

Sen. Ted Cruz had already said he wants to look further into how social-media giants both limit and distribute speech on their platforms, something worth supporting.

But Facebook's problems run much deeper than simply targeting conservative speech or conservative employees. There is a depth of cynicism and self-protection at Facebook that would damage anyone with any worldview in the name of protecting and promoting Facebook, as a New York Times investigation revealed last week.

According to the investigation, Facebook engaged the anti-Defamation League after protesters dared show up at the congressional testimony of a Facebook executive this summer. The protestors were painted as anti-Semitic. Facebook also hired a right-wing public affairs firm named Definers that attempted to cast Facebook criticism as the shadowy work of liberal billionaire George Soros, one of the hoariest cliches in the conspiracy theorist's playbook. Soros has since called for an independent investigation into Facebook's lobbying and PR. (Zuckerberg dismissed Definers after the Times investigation ran and denied knowing the firm worked for Facebook.)

There is little question, at this stage, that Facebook has lost any credible claim that it can police itself. Like all internet platforms, it enjoys unsual protection from laws governing traditional publishers. But that could now be up for scrutiny.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, used Twitter to announce that Facebook can no longer be trusted to regulate itself: "I am confident that, despite @Facebook's best efforts to buy Congress's silence, the will of the American people will prevail," wrote Cicilline, who likely will have significant antitrust oversight in the next Congress.

He's right that Facebook and other internet giants are spending lavishly on lobbyists, and employees are giving generous campaign contributions.

Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate minority leader, has been gorging on Facebook dollars for some time and pressuring senators in his caucus against taking action against the company.

Facebook has plenty of money to continue to throw at Congress, but given the anger from both left and right, it is hard to believe the moment hasn't come for hard considerations about this company, the leader in social media.

That can include reviewing the liberty social-media platforms enjoy from libel law. It can include reining in the way they access and use users' data to monetize people's lives. It can include holding companies responsible for how foreign powers use platforms to stir unrest abroad and control their populations at home.

The hour has come for Facebook to be held responsible. We know now, in a hundred different ways, that it is incapable of responsibility itself.

— Dallas Morning News

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