Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
On Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg smirked and sidestepped his way through a congressional hearing as senators struggled to figure out what exactly a Facebook is. Nevertheless, they valiantly attempted to expose social media’s true evils.
Orrin Hatch posed the biting question, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Zuckerberg smartly countered by informing the senator that Facebook runs ads. John Neely Kennedy also went on the attack, suggesting a number of ways Facebook could improve its privacy policies; Zuckerberg let him know that his site already implemented all of those suggestions.
The senators’ mistake was treating Facebook as an abstract evil, which resulted in confused, largely unfocused questions. They would have had more luck treating social media policy as a series of solutions to discrete, specific perils instead of raging against some nondescript threat. If lawmakers want to write substantive social media regulations, they need to be willing to operate on Zuckerberg’s unsexy, nerdy technical level. That’s the only way they’ll stand a chance to fix to stop bad practices in the future.
Maryland could soon be the first state in the country to take that approach. The state is poised to pass a bill that would require social media sites to track political ads, keep copies and record whom advertisers target. State election officials would have access to the data, which they could use to detect and presumably prevent interference. The bill marks one of the first serious legislative attempts to address Facebook’s role in the 2016 election, which has been widely criticized after waves of revelations about the platform’s unethical behavior.
It would’ve been easy for Maryland’s legislature to cobble together a well-intentioned yet ultimately useless bill. Narrow goals to regulate political ads on social media could’ve easily degenerated into confused technophobia. And implying social media is the sole reason Trump got elected, or that trolls are the only avenue for foreign interference, would have been naive at best. Nonspecific, poorly conceived policy is the best-case scenario for social media companies, who thrive on lawmakers’ ignorance.
But somewhat miraculously, the regulations Maryland is poised to enact manage to protect and inform consumers while avoiding the blindly technophobic rhetoric surrounding social media’s role in politics.
Of course, the bill isn’t perfect. Facebook’s role in crafting the legislation should give us all pause, doubly so given the company has now announced its own similar national policy. While this could just be Facebook’s leadership trying to generate some positive press, it could also indicate that Facebook plans to have a hand in crafting their own regulation. Social media companies can’t be trusted with that kind of regulatory power.
For now, a dubious step in the right direction is the best we have. Even if it proves only somewhat effective, Maryland’s political advertisement bill sketches out the proper way for legislators to think about and discuss social media policy. By parsing it into clear, coherent important components, legislators make sure they have something they can actually fight against.
Nate Rogers is a freshman physics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.