After the harrowing display at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and social media’s apparent role in promoting it, Massachusetts’ junior senator looks pretty prescient right about now.
On Tuesday, Sen. Ed Markey sent a scathing letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In it, the lawmaker slammed the platform’s group recommendation system — which pushes Facebook users toward online social circles for discussion and networking on the site — as promoting “breeding grounds for hate” and “venues for coordination of violence.”
It wasn’t the first time that the senator had taken the social media mogul to task on this very subject. In October 2020, Mr. Zuckerberg appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. During the hearing, Sen. Markey zeroed in on Facebook’s group recommendation tools, which Facebook’s own internal research found was responsible for the supermajority of all extremist group joins on the platform. Facebook has been well aware of this phenomenon for years. The Wall Street Journal reported last year on Facebook’s internal study on the polarization of its users, wherein one of the slides in a 2018 presentation to senior executives put it bluntly: “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.”
At the October hearing, Mr. Zuckerberg appeared to take seriously Sen. Markey’s concerns, claiming that Facebook had at that point “taken the step of stopping recommendations in all groups for political content or social issue groups as a precaution for this.” Months later, after the storming of the U.S. Capitol, Facebook reiterated the claim that it was “not recommending civic groups for people to join.”
Unfortunately, this was not true. An investigation by The Markup revealed that in fact Facebook continued to recommend groups after Mr. Zuckerberg’s assurances to Congress, and was still recommending political groups through this month, even after the Capitol riot. The Markup’s investigation revealed that the top 100 groups recommended on Facebook included 12 political groups, some of which included messages that promoted violence, targeted officials and supported the sort of insurrectionary behavior witnessed Jan. 6.
“Users organize and coordinate violent and anti-democratic efforts on these pages, but Facebook does not just allow these dangerous pages to exist on its platform, it recommends them to users,” Sen. Markey’s letter reads. “Your company’s group recommendation system aims to maximize users’ time spent on the platform but seems to disregard the dangerous behavior that many of these pages foster.”
The calamity at the Capitol, at least partially planned within Facebook groups recommended to users by the platform, proves Sen. Markey was right to be concerned in October and is right to be newly worried now. Either Mr. Zuckerberg explicitly lied to Congress about efforts to curb Facebook’s darker tendencies or the platform’s algorithmic efficiency at siloing and roiling its users has eclipsed its own operators’ grasp — or perhaps a grave combination thereof. Regardless, Facebook’s seeming inability to enact even the most minimal promised reforms is a chilling reality that demands action.
Solutions for reining in the more pernicious practices of tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, Parler and others is a complex but necessary policy discussion. Wherever that path leads, it must begin with greater transparency on the part of these tech behemoths that enrich themselves in a no-holds-barred digital attention economy with little concern for real-world chaos and the psyche of the American body politic. A good start would be holding Mr. Zuckerberg accountable for misleading Congress so blatantly in October even as his company’s practices fomented the kind of calamity we witnessed at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
We applaud Sen. Markey’s renewed push for this accountability, and we hope other leaders will put their shoulder to that wheel.