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PBS 'Frontline' special 'The Facebook Dilemma' outpaces the scary stories on other networks

PBS 'Frontline' special 'The Facebook Dilemma' outpaces the scary stories on other networks
Executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath, from left, producer James Jacoby, Roger McNamee and Washington Post journalist Dana Priest in the panel Tuesday for "The Facebook Dilemma" during the 2018 Television Critics Assn. Summer Press Tour. (Chris Pizzello / /Invision/AP)

AMC may think it’s cornered the horror market with an upcoming documentary series produced by Eli Roth, but in terms of providing timely, real-life scares, PBS’ “Frontline” looks tough to beat with its latest two-part investigation, “The Facebook Dilemma.”

With a well-earned reputation for unflinching, in-depth examinations of social issues and current events, “Frontline” on Tuesday offered a compelling presentation at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour on the documentary that looks at the issues around technology, the 2016 election and how we receive news on the social media platform — even as information on the matter continues to change by the day.

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“Until our release date, we’re going to continue to incorporate new revelations,” said producer James Jacoby. “What this film is going to do is bring you through an evolution of history … we’re kind of keeping a chunk of the film open for what’s happening right now, and also for Facebook’s participation.”

The social media giant has cast a long shadow in the news of late, from the continued scrutiny on its use by foreign agents to promote stories masquerading as news in an effort to sway opinion to a recent record nose-dive of the company’s shares on the stock market.

Even at the television-centric TCA, Facebook this year joined its tech brethren Snap and YouTube in presenting a panel that promoted its streaming programming on Facebook Live.

That presence fit in to one of the “Frontline” documentary’s core examinations of the company, which has long insisted it is not a media company — a designation that opens a legal loophole that prevents Facebook from being liable for content posted on its platform.

“And [social media networks] were platforms,” Jacoby said, “But the thing was, it became that at a certain point — and a number of people in the film say this — when they scaled up so quickly and so many people were posting things that the issue of moderating that content or being in some way responsible for it became this somewhat intractable problem.”

Or, as one of the voices in the documentary put it in a trailer shown Tuesday, “The problem is too big, because Facebook is too big.”

Such stories — like PBS’ earlier presentation on the similarly probing “POV” documentary on campaign finance in Montana, “Dark Money” — count on a sort of whistle-blower figure. In this instance, it is Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist, early Facebook investor and former mentor to Mark Zuckerberg.

After clarifying that his position was one connected with Silicon Valley and not with “Frontline,” McNamee described Facebook as less manipulated by “bad actors” in 2016 as it was “willfully blind” in its pursuit of a valuable global network. His criticism grew more pointed as the panel went on.

“Our democracy is now in the hands of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter,” he said. “They will have a disproportionate say in whether there are free elections in 2018 and in the future because we had what was the largest intelligence operation against this country ever successfully perpetrated, and there have been no consequences.”

There was also discussion over Facebook’s standing as a technology or media company that came with an acknowledgment that the company now views itself as a hybrid. Journalist Dana Priest became involved with the documentary after covering national security for the Washington Post, and said with regard to privacy on social networks, “most people still don’t get it.”

“[Facebook] is an organization that is more powerful than any intelligence agency in the world, and it has none — none — of the regulations these agencies have that we demanded from mistakes they’ve made,” she said.

When asked why Facebook hasn’t done more than release an apologetic commercial in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica news and other developments, Priest was succinct. “They don’t have to,” she said. “We're still on their platform. No one’s demanding that they change.”

“The Facebook Dilemma” is due in the fall.

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