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Shining electric light on Facebook at RightsCon 2018 in Toronto

"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman," Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

After the Russian meddling and Cambridge Analytica scandals, Facebook has struggled to assure users that it takes their privacy seriously. It now finds itself at the center of a different controversy in announcing that it will rank news organizations based on trust.

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On Thursday, I will be flying to Toronto for RightsCon, an annual conference on digital privacy and freedom. It has featured such keynote speakers as Edward Snowden and members of the European Parliament since it launched in 2011.

So I'm thrilled to part in a discussion there with the Freedom of the Press Foundation's digital security trainer David Huerta, Wikimedia's design researcher Caroline Sinders and Verde News editor Kelcie Grega on Facebook’s current approach to the so-called “fake news” crisis.

Most reasonable people agree that social media misinformation is a serious problem, but how Facebook addresses it could have enormous consequences for freedom of information online. The Pew Research Center and the Knight Lab found that more than 40 percent of U.S. citizens get their news on Facebook. With such massive influence, Facebook often wields existential control over newsrooms around the world, and this makes it crucial that the company uses that power responsibly.

With that in mind, consider the possible repercussions of Facebook’s recently announced ranking system, a measure justified as an antidote to the problem of social media polarization.

"It’s not useful if someone’s just kind of repeating the same thing and attempting to polarize or drive people to the extremes," CEO Mark Zuckerberg told media executives at a meeting on May 1.

Without the proper oversight and transparency, Facebook's decisions have the potential to marginalize independent media across the globe. Early reports indicate that Facebook intends to rely at least in part on user surveys to determine what news outlets are trustworthy. Critics have found this alarming.

“The concept of Facebook's 2 billion users as a ‘community’ that will make good decisions about the credibility of news sources is equal parts absurd and infuriating,” Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in January, long before Zuckerberg’s announcement.

ProPublica’s president Dick Tofel called attention to the potential for conflicts of interest.

“Translation: private company with billions at stake in political process creates secret, opaque process for ranking news orgs that cover it, and which depend on it for traffic,” Tofel tweeted. “And we are supposed to trust their approach is neutral and free of conflicts.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s senior attorney David Greene expressed concern in an interview that any user feedback system could be subject to manipulation by authoritarian regimes.

“Something that actually is a legitimate news source gets down-ranked, not because it’s not truthful but because people want to suppress it,” Greene said.

Autocratic governments often deploy what have been called “50-cent armies” to frustrate the internal controls of social media companies marginalize the opposition.

Facebook has encountered this kind of practice before, and Greene believes that the company is sensitive to this concern. The Silicon Valley giant has reportedly teamed up with organizations like the Santa Clara, California-based nonprofit The Trust Project to come up with objective criteria for ranking reliability. However, the metrics Facebook is using to suppress or elevate news has received little sunlight so far.

“Those who are ranked should be notified,” Greene said. “The fact of ranking should be transparent as well, especially those who are actually ranked. There should be some process where they can appeal that and have the ranking reconsidered and that done promptly.”

Respublika reporter

In 2016, I reported on a story about Respublika, an award-winning Kazakh newspaper that relied upon Facebook's platform to dodge censorship by dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Facebook deleted several of Respublika's posts by its exiled journalist Irina Petrushova pursuant to a legal demand from the Kazakh government. Responding to scrutiny from my article, Facebook did the right thing: The company fought Kazakh government’s continued attempts at suppressing dissident media.

Respublika’s story provides a cautionary tale of why any news ranking system by Facebook should be approached with caution. It also demonstrates how transparency can help avert these pitfalls.

I sent Facebook an email over the weekend requesting detailed information about its ranking system, its metrics for measuring trust, and any system for notifications and appeals that it may have.

Look out for updates to this story if and when Facebook responds to my inquiry by email or through its representatives at RightsCon.

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