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Can Facebook regulate itself?

Facebook has admitted to problems with ad metrics for the 10th time since September. Above, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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When Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian companies and people on Friday for criminal interference in U.S. elections. The indictment singled out Facebook as a particularly powerful way to manipulate U.S. citizens with fake pages, posts and highly targeted ad campaigns. Facebook says it’s hiring more people to address security and that it will do things like send postcards to verify that potential ad buyers live in the United States. But to those who study the effects of technology on society there’s much more to do. Marketplace’s Molly Wood spoke to Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the University of North Carolina, about Facebook. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Wood: All right so first of all Facebook is clearly on the defensive here its business model is at the heart of this conversation. In your opinion how much of this does fall on the company’s shoulders?

Tufekci: A good deal. It’s not the only player, obviously the way our politics have broken, the way the country’s polarized, the way that there’s demand for this stuff – it’s all part of it and we should not forget about it. But certainly, there’s a reason that Facebook was uniquely targeted by purveyors of misinformation and misinformation because this business model really makes it easy for this stuff to go viral.

Wood: Well let’s talk about some of those proposed solutions. The ad verification the postcards that will attempt to verify advertisers. Do you see that as effective self-regulation?

Tufekci: Well yes and no. But the core problem, for me, is that we have a business model that relies on taking as much information about us. Facebook doesn’t just click every click you make on the site. It also buys enormous amounts of information about people, it profiles you and then it sells your attention to advertisers. And to make itself attractive to advertisers, it has algorithms that try to keep you on the site as long as possible. I don’t think people realize how much we are profiled and surveilled, just to make us click on a few ads and just to sell us a few things. I mean it’s really a bad bargain. The upside for me is that these companies are really young. Facebook is just 14-years-old when cars were young they had no emission controls they had no airbags. We fixed all that, we can fix this one too.

Wood: So ultimately you know this all is going to come down to one question which is can Facebook regulate itself? Or is the government going to have to step in?

Tufekci:  I would say that we will need all of it. I can imagine all sorts of ways in which the industry itself regulates too, other industries do it, it doesn’t just have to be government regulation. And if they get to be a state in which there some meaningful competition and consumer pressure might work too. All of them could help bring us to a saner place.

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