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Facebook Must Face Up to Its Role in Public Discourse

In her perceptive review of Tim Wu’s new book, The Attention Merchants, journalist-turned-academic Emily Bell provides a tidy synopsis of Wu’s observation that pernicious innovations in advertising typically are met with resistance. She writes: “First came the unscrupulous false advertising, then the corrective of investigative journalism; first the tidal bore of broadcast television, then the corrective of the remote control; first the era of spam, then the development of filters and blockers.”

Spoiler alert: Resistance is mostly futile. Efforts to rein in the proverbial snake oil salesmen of the advertising industry typically fail. The attention merchants, in Wu’s phrasing, are just too good at figuring out better ways to compel us to view what they’ve been paid to show us.

Yes, we’re talking about Facebook again. Wu refers to the young company as an “attention plantation,” a sad and apt description. There is so much of great interest on Facebook, but an algorithm, combined with one’s own predilections, drive what you’ll see. Facebook needs no editors to repurpose the hard work of others; its users do that for them. In the absence of editors, Facebook also won’t encourage you to consider alternative viewpoints. In this dire analysis, the traditional media withers and political discourse becomes ever more insular, and at a frightfully accelerating pace.

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What happens next? Facebook (FB), the company, is nothing if not responsive. I knocked Mark Zuckerberg yesterday for copping out on the issue of fake news on his company’s platform. Yet already, Facebook is trying to prevent blatantly fake news purveyors from selling ads, a step in the right direction. Facebook has other persistent problems, like failing to accurately measure the effectiveness of its ads. It will solve these relatively easily as they are a matter of engineering and commerce, Facebook’s specialties.

Will Facebook step up and acknowledge its role in informing the public? Inside its walls, will it discuss Wu’s book and ask itself how it can do more than tweak its ad products to make more money—and, when pushed, screen out egregiously bad actors?

A lot of money—and maybe the political health of the U.S.—are at stake.