Stories

Facebook isn’t changing its business because of Russia

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sent a clear message to Washington yesterday in an interview with Axios' Mike Allen: Facebook will help investigators looking into Russian election meddling on the platform, but it isn't changing the core values and business plan that have powered the company's growth.

Why it matters: The government and users now need to decide if that is enough.

The details:

  • Sandberg held firm to the company's longstanding hard line on free speech, saying the company would not remove the Russian-linked ads if they were posted by "legitimate people" and not fake accounts. "The thing about free expression is that when you you allow free expression, you allow free expression."
  • Facebook, she said, would have run an ad purchased by Rep. Marsha Blackburn that was blocked on Twitter because of anti-abortion language the platform called inflammatory. "When you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for other people."
  • Asked about whether the Trump campaign's ad targeting overlapped with the targeting used by Russian pages, Sandberg dodged the question multiple times. Instead she offered a defense of the sprawling targeted ad operation that has made Facebook billions.

How it works: Facebook's business model is to grow as big as possible and sell ads against a mass audience that consumes its content. That's especially effective when combined with corporate support for broadly allowing all voices and perspectives on the platform. And it's lucrative: Facebook currently boasts over 2 billion monthly active users and brings in $34 billion dollars in revenue annually, most of which comes from advertising.

The problem: That model has drawn backlash from government officials and users alike, because it allows people to spread fake news and hoaxes on the platform intentionally. It also allows groups of all viewpoints to buy ads on the platform, something its rivals Twitter and Snapchat have resisted.

The bottom line: This approach puts many of the company's critics in direct conflict with the vision Sandberg laid out. Facebook has said it will take actions to better monitor the platforms' automated ads business by manually reviewing ads that are targeted using political and social behavioral attributes. But those types of ads only make up a tiny fraction of Facebook's entire business, and the company has given no indication that it would make more sweeping changes.

What's next: Users will either accept this mentality or grow frustrated with the platform's limited changes. Sandberg is betting they respond to Facebook and the viewpoints it shows them. She bragged that the platform connects people to their "weak ties," or people they aren't close to. "Twenty-three percent of your friends on Facebook have a stated ideology that's different than yours," Sandberg said.

In the coming weeks, Congress must also decide if Facebook's vision of inclusivity is a threat to democracy. Lawmakers who met with Sandberg said Thursday following the event that Facebook had to meet a balance between supporting free speech and removing unacceptable content — but their concerns might not lead to any regulation stronger than new digital political ad disclosure rules.

Sandberg held firm to the company's longstanding hard line on free speech, saying the company would not remove the Russian-linked ads if they were posted by "legitimate people" and not fake accounts. "The thing about free expression is that when you you allow free expression, you allow free expression."