The United States v. Facebook
Enabling Russia’s electoral interference should prompt new regulations
Perhaps more than any company, Facebook shapes public perceptions. Nearly half of all American adults get some news through the site, and about a fifth say it’s their primary source. Millions use Facebook to discuss politics, and its algorithm strengthens information bubbles, feeding users articles that fit their preconceptions and connecting like-minded individuals, who reinforce each other’s beliefs.
It’s also a surveillance system of staggering scope. With detailed profiles of over 2 billion active users, Facebook helps advertisers target potential customers, earning billions in annual revenue. Users give Facebook their information voluntarily — though it’s not clear how many really understand the deal — which makes it a free trade or a massive con, depending on how you frame it.
And as I wrote previously, the company’s ambitions go far beyond its already questionable forays into invasion of privacy.
Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Understand Privacy or Integrity
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At this point, some of you are thinking “well, if you don’t like it, don’t use Facebook.” But evidence is piling up that the social network played a key role in Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential race. If it shapes public perceptions, facilitates foreign intelligence operations, and influences the outcome of elections, then it’s affecting your life, even if you’re not on it.
Facebook’s hardly the first media innovation to do that. Every new mass communications technology — telegraph, newspapers, telephone, radio, television — led to powerful companies exerting monopolistic influence over public information. This not only ran counter to the public interest but, as with other trusts, created market distortions, hindering free enterprise.
While print, radio and TV news editorialize, Facebook facilitates information sharing, with consumption primarily filtered by individual preferences (as determined by an algorithm designed to keep users on the site). This makes it different, but no less influential. Arguably more.
To stop excessively powerful companies from distorting markets and public discourse, the government employed regulations and antitrust, breaking up the most entrenched monopolies. I won’t go so far as to call for the break up of Facebook, but 2016 should be a wake up call. The company exerts considerable influence over the flow of information, and does not act in the public interest. We should regulate it.
Before the 2016 election, Facebook sold over $100,000 worth of ads to a Kremlin-linked company called the Internet Research Agency. It’s a professional “troll farm” that sets up fake accounts and conducts influence campaigns on social media, message boards, and other websites on behalf of the Russian government.
Facebook enabled the trolls’ efforts to microtarget users who profiled as receptive to their messages on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and various hot button issues, such as immigration. The ads reached as many as 70 million Americans, and because they didn’t show up outside their targets’ feeds, few people who might have been concerned saw them.
Besides the ad buys, Russian operatives employing fake identities used Facebook to organize political rallies in the United States. For example, a Facebook group with 133,000 followers called “Secured Borders” — which was outed as a Russian front in March 2017 — used Facebook Events to invite people to a “Citizens Before Refugees” protest on August 27, 2016 with this announcement:
Due to the town of Twin Falls, Idaho, becoming a center of refugee resettlement, which led to the huge upsurge of violence towards American citizens, it is crucial to draw society’s attention to this problem.
Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs says there hasn’t been any increase of violence. But Breitbart and InfoWars repeatedly claimed there was, and pushed a made up story about migrants gang raping a child.
This shows the sophistication of Russia’s influence campaign, and its symbiosis with the most extreme pro-Trump media. There’s no indication they worked together. But Secured Borders’ decision to focus on this particular town in Idaho shows the trolls paid attention to Breitbart and InfoWars, and acted accordingly.
Social media played a crucial role in Russia’s efforts to influence the election. Creating and disseminating fake news — the actually false kind, not the “I don’t like what it says” kind — buying campaign ads that target individuals who profile as susceptible voters, and remotely organizing events all relied on Facebook and Twitter.
Another example: a Russian-run Facebook group with over 225,000 followers called “Heart of Texas” spread memes and advertised rallies promoting anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary, and pro-secessionist causes. That’s consistent with Russia’s efforts to promote separatist groups throughout the West.
For anyone still insisting there’s no evidence Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election, this should put that to rest.
Russia Didn’t Hack the DNC! (Or Did They…?)
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Even Americans who are happy with the 2016 results should be concerned. Perhaps you don’t care about the integrity of American elections for its own sake, but there’s no reason to assume Russia — or other foreign entities — will support your favored candidate in the future.
Trouble With the Law
Under the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, it is illegal for foreigners to make “an expenditure, independent expenditure, or disbursement for an electioneering communication.” Russians buying Facebook ads to influence American voters qualifies.
When legally compelled, Facebook cooperated. And, to be clear, the company has the right to keep information about its ad sales private unless required by a warrant.
But that highlights the problem.
You know how when you see a campaign ad on TV, it closes with “I’m Candidate X, and I approved this message”? Even in the post-Citizens United environment, independent Super PACs and advocacy organizations have to close their ads with a brief “Paid for by ______.” The Russian-bought Facebook ads didn’t clearly disclose they were paid for by the Internet Research Agency.
Super PACs pick innocuous names, and can keep their donors secret with accounting tricks. But at least Americans who want to look into them can do so.
And, as American organizations, their electioneering is legal.
In 2006, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that online ads are subject to disclaimer requirements. Facebook asked the FEC in 2011 to make an exception for “small items” because including disclaimers on them would be “impractical.” Essentially, following the law would take effort, so Facebook argued it shouldn’t have to. The FEC did not grant the exception.
Running political ads without including disclaimers arguably violates federal election law. However, even if prosecution succeeded, it would result in a fine Facebook can easily afford.
More dangerous for Facebook is the possibility it knowingly sold ads to the Internet Research Agency, or any other foreign national. That would be aiding and abetting multiple felonies, perhaps a separate count for every ad sold.
But that’s hard to prove. Facebook can argue it didn’t know who bought the ads, or that the buyers tricked them by concealing their true identity. That argument’s plausible, since much of the site’s ad sales are automated.
These arguments will help Facebook avoid legal liability, but they don’t address the core problem that its platform helps foreign interests spread propaganda to influence American politics.
Private Profit Over Public Interest
Facebook admits it sold additional ads to Russian operatives during the campaign, but claims it doesn’t know how many. I’m not sure if that’s true, or just something plausibly deniable they’re saying to avoid legal trouble. And I’m not sure which one’s worse.
The site generates so much advertising revenue because it can provide clients with detailed metrics about how their ad is performing: Who saw it and who clicked on it, categorized by age group, gender, location, and more. It’s possible Facebook knows more about Russian-bought ads than they’re letting on — or at least could find out more if they wanted to — but believe admitting this would expose the company to charges or jeopardize ad revenue.
If that’s true, it reveals how much Facebook prioritizes itself over the integrity of American democracy.
Thus Spoke Zuckerberg
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In 2014, Facebook declined requests to take down an ISIS fan page with over 6,000 members, replying “We reviewed the page you reported for containing hate speech or symbols and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.” In response to media criticism, Facebook removed the page, and has subsequently worked to keep others overtly praising ISIS or al Qaeda off its network.
However, there’s a lot of opportunity for less overt extremists to flourish. Especially if they’re willing to pay some money.
In September 2017, ProPublica reported it managed to place a Facebook ad targeting people using keywords such as “Jew hater,” “How to burn Jews,” and “German Schutzstaffel” (AKA the Nazi SS). When they tried entering “Hitler,” Facebook autocompleted it to “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
The fake ads — which linked to an innocuous ProPublica story — cost $10, ran for two days, reached 5,897 people, generated 101 clicks, and 13 likes or shares.
ProPublica told Facebook, which explained that an algorithm approved the ads, and subsequently removed the antisemitic categories.
Slate tried something similar a few days later, succeeding with search terms such as “Ku Klux Klan” and “Kill Muslimic radicals.” When they entered “Kill Mus,” Facebook’s autocomplete suggestions included the following:
- How kill jewish
- Killing Bitches
- Killing Hajis
- Pillage the women and rape the village
- Threesome Rape
Both ProPublica and Slate’s fake ads had relatively small Facebook audiences. They both added the search term “National Democratic Party of Germany,” a far-right ultranationalist political party, which increased the potential audience to hundreds of thousands. Once they did that, Facebook approved the ads — still including all the above keywords — in minutes.
All TV stations, broadcast and cable, are required to keep detailed logs of ads they sell to candidates and political organizations around elections, and to make that information available to the public. Facebook isn’t.
21st Century Robber Barons
Our current era is often compared to the Gilded Age, but the comparison usually starts and stops with economic inequality. What’s missing from this story is the modern equivalent of the Robber Barons. The Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Vanderbilts. Today, they’re in tech.
There’s a weird duality in America that venerates or denounces the wealthy simply by virtue of their wealth, with little room in between. On the venerating side, there’s Trump arguing his wealth qualified him for the presidency — and makes him and his wealthy cabinet members immune to corruption because they already have a lot — a logic many Trump supporters seem to buy. And there’s the Republican party’s years-long insistence that “job creator” is a perfect synonym for “rich person,” despite the obvious reality that some rich people create jobs and others don’t.
On the other side there’s Bernie Sanders’ denunciations of “millionaires and billionaires,” as if the wealth itself, rather that what they do with it, makes them evil. Elements of the populist right join the left in attacks on corporations, globalists, neoliberals, etc., and declare everyone in government hopelessly corrupt, with their champion (Trump or Sanders) perhaps the only exceptions.
But corporations, like their owners, aren’t inherently good or evil; they’re associations created for the purpose of making money. The profit motive gets them to do amazing things — from oil, steel, and railroads to search engines, online shopping, and social media — but they’re also prone to excess. We shouldn’t expect them to be something they’re not. It’s our job to structure the economic environment such that they can benefit society (and their shareholders) without harming it.
It’s here that both socialists and libertarians are wrong. Clamp down on the profit motive too much, and we’d lose out on innovation. But leave it to its own devices and it can create distortions.
Libertarians assume the state is the only actor capable of taking away individual freedom, and therefore government should provide national defense, police, and courts, but otherwise get out of the way. However, private interests, if they accumulate enough power, can also take away individual freedom by charging exploitative prices, creating barriers to entry, and shaping public information. And the government is the only entity large enough to do something about it.
That’s the logic behind breaking up Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and the Bell telephone system controlled by AT&T. It’s the logic behind the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934, which limited consolidation of radio and television companies, and created the “equal-time rule” preventing broadcast stations from giving more airtime to favored political candidates. And it’s the logic behind net neutrality, which calls for internet service providers to transmit all online traffic at equal speeds, rather than favoring websites willing to pay more.
Facebook’s run afoul of the same logic. Most egregiously by facilitating Russia’s influence campaign, but that’s far from the only example. In May 2016, former Facebook employees who worked as “news curators” told Gizmodo they suppressed conservative stories and news about Facebook from the site’s trending topics, and also injected select stories that lacked the organic popularity to trend. That recalls Western Union monopolizing telegraph lines in the later 1800s and selectively censoring information sent to newspapers.
In fairness, Facebook has responded to these concerns. It denied allegations of influencing trending stories, and promised to constantly refine its process to avoid bias. It shut down Secured Borders, Heart of Texas, and other pages run by Russian trolls under false identities. It’s taken steps to combat fake news. And it complied with Mueller’s search warrant, turning over information about the Internet Research Agency’s ads, rather than fight the request in court.
But these moves came only in response to PR or legal problems. The algorithm shaping what users see remains opaque, and the advertising system remains open to nefarious interests.
Facebook is a corporation. And like the vast majority of corporations, it places private profits over the public interest.
That’s why it’s up to governments.
Maybe we should treat Facebook like a utility. America regulates broadcast radio and television on the grounds that the airwaves are a public good, and we allow private companies to use them. Similarly, the U.S. government created and protects the internet, and European governments created the World Wide Web.
Private companies have advanced the internet in amazing ways, and it would be a mistake to regulate them excessively. But 2016 demonstrates new regulations are in order. At the very least, we should:
- update regulations designed for radio, telephones, and television to account for internet communications
- revise federal election statutes to make it clear their disclosure requirements extend to internet-based electioneering
- require websites to follow the regulation that obligates TV stations to keep publicly available logs of ads they sell to candidates and political groups around election time
- consider ways to hold tech companies responsible for when their algorithms facilitate lawbreaking
- and raise the penalties for violations
Facebook thinks it’s a big deal. And there’s no doubt, what they’ve done is very impressive. But no one’s a bigger deal than the United States of America. And if Facebook's willing to sell us out for a few hundred thousand dollars, it’s past time we remind them why that’s a bad idea.