Thank you for posting: Smoking’s lessons for regulating social media

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Day by day, the evidence is mounting that Facebook is bad for society. Last week Channel 4 News in London tracked down Black Americans in Wisconsin who were targeted by President Trump’s 2016 campaign with negative advertising about Hillary Clinton—“deterrence” operations to suppress their vote.

A few weeks ago, meanwhile, I was included in a discussion organized by the Computer History Museum, called Decoding the Election. A fellow panelist, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager Robby Mook, described how Facebook worked closely with the Trump campaign. Mook refused to have Facebook staff embedded inside Clinton’s campaign because it did not seem ethical, while Trump’s team welcomed the opportunity to have an insider turn the knobs on the social network’s targeted advertising. 

Taken together, these two pieces of information are damning for the future of American democracy; Trump’s team openly marked 3.5 million Black Americans for deterrence in their data set, while Facebook’s own staff aided voter suppression efforts. As Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of Anti-Social Media, has said for years: “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”

While research and reports from academics, civil society, and the media have long made these claims, regulation has not yet come to pass. But at the end of September, Facebook’s former director of monetization, Tim Kendall, gave testimony before Congress that suggested a new way to look at the site’s deleterious effects on democracy. He outlined Facebook’s twin objectives: making itself profitable and trying to control a growing mess of misinformation and conspiracy. Kendall compared social media to the tobacco industry. Both have focused on increasing the capacity for addiction. “Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco’s bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs,” he said. 

The comparison is more