Facebook Is Finally Questioning Itself

Is social media good for democracy? Probably not.

But Facebook, the most popular social network in the world, is finally trying to figure that out.

In a blog post published Thursday titled “Hard Questions,” Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s Vice President for Public Policy and Communications, asked a series of inquiries his company should probably already have answers to.

Image: Screenshot/Facebook

Many of the questions posed are things Facebook’s users have been arguing about for years. In several instances, Facebook has also already adopted policies to address them.

Like “How can we use data for everyone’s benefit, without undermining people’s trust?” A good place to start would be preventing advertisers from selling political ads to specific racial groups, and perhaps not turning users into unsuspecting guinea pigs for academic studies.

It feels a little late for questions like “Who gets to define what’s false news—and what’s simply controversial political speech?” when Facebook has already decided that role will in part fall to third-party fact checkers.

And the philosophical question of “After a person dies, what should happen to their online identity?” is one that Facebook has had a policy on for years.

Other questions in the post, like “How should platforms approach keeping terrorists from spreading propaganda online?” feel more timely. It’s going to be difficult for Facebook to figure out how to draw the line between outright propaganda and political speech, which is something it’s struggled with in the past.

Though some of Schrange’s questions feel like too little, too late, his post still represents a rare instance in which Facebook has chosen to be transparent about the increasingly important role it plays in the world.

We don’t know if Facebook will make any substantive changes as a result of its pontificating. Regardless, we’ve been asking for years for powerful tech companies to take a hard look at the social and cultural impact their platforms play. So it’s refreshing to see Facebook take at least one step toward looking at themelves critically.

When you’re in charge of a platform that 1.8 billion people use each month, introspecting on the power you wield isn’t exactly a bad thing.

Schrage explains in the post that this is only the beginning of a “new effort to talk more openly about some complex subjects.”

If you have an opinion, Schrage invites you to share it via email to hardquestions@fb.com

Facebook, according to the post, also plans to release a longer report about how it’s fighting the spread of terrorism online late Thursday.