Mar 7, 2019 - Technology

Privacy plan could worsen Facebook's echo chamber problem

Photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with arms out and a lock icon projected behind him on stage

Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg's vision for a new Facebook that focuses on private conversations could end up deepening the social network's misinformation problems.

Driving the news: Zuckerberg posted Wednesday outlining a new emphasis on privacy at Facebook, foreseeing a future that de-emphasizes the News Feed's "digital public square" in favor of private messaging's "digital living room."

The big picture: Zuckerberg believes that encrypted private chats and group communications may one day be a bigger feature on Facebook platforms (including WhatsApp and Instagram) than public-facing social media posts.

Here's the upside, per Zuckerberg: Public social media no longer invites users to "be themselves" without fear or reprisal (deserved or otherwise). Privacy protected by encryption, easier-to-understand settings and self-deleting messages could help reverse that.

The catch: Many of the worst aspects of Facebook's platforms thrive in private spaces that are either invisible or not readily visible to moderators. Emphasizing private group chats could multiply these problems.

  • Mobs in India enraged by WhatsApp messages killed dozens of people falsely believed to be kidnappers in 2018.
  • In the U.S., hyperpartisan fringe groups congregate in Facebook's private areas. "Facebook groups are where unsavory narratives ferment and are spread, often with directions about how to achieve maximum impact," noted Nina Jankowicz, global fellow at the Wilson Center, via email.
  • These can become echo chambers of false content and propaganda without much oversight from Facebook.

Facebook has worked to mitigate some of these problems — including limiting the number of people WhatsApp users can forward messages to, reducing the spread of false stories.

To be sure: No one blames the telephone for the content of phone calls. Private group chats are a difficult gray area between public, many-to-many communications online where most people expect moderation and direct person-to-person communications where they generally do not.

The bottom line: If Zuckerberg is correct about the future of private group communications, this won't be only Facebook's problem. Any communications platform that seeks privacy through encryption will be just as entangled in it.

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