Facebook is the modern telegraph
As the social media company grapples with its role in the 2016 election, they should look to the past
Did Facebook help tip the election?
That’s the question lawmakers, bureaucrats, intelligence agencies, a former presidential candidate and one special counsel are trying to answer as the scope of Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election becomes more apparent each day.
While there are a myriad of debated explanations for why Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in November, it seems appropriate after the steady drip of stories over the last two weeks to take a step back and look at the election through a Russia-centric lens; specifically how they used social media to influence the election.
At its heart, this story is about a sustained strategy of disinformation from the Kremlin to spread disparaging Clinton news, and as a study of fake news proliferation on social media published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives concludes, elect Donald Trump. Beyond what has already been reported, Facebook now finds itself on the frontier of another controversial communication revolution as observers question if the site that birthed “Farmville” served as a conduit for international cyber crimes.
As Facebook turns internally in response to the growing chorus of calls for more transparency, they should look towards a past communication revolution to help guide their future.
Here’s what we know so far about Russian election interference, but first, some clarification.
Any mention of Russian hacking elicits a wave of confusion on what is actually mean by “hacking.” Like during the campaign any mention of “Clinton” and “email”was automatically conflated to fall under the dark cloud of suspicion hanging around the former Secretary of State’s private email server, any mention of Russia hacking is assumed to deal only with foreign agents directly changing voter tabulations. While there were reports voting machines in swing states like Michigan and Ohio were targets of cyber attacks, there’s no evidence that any vote counts were changed.
What actually happened is more nuanced and menacing. Using an updated strategy lifted from their Cold War propaganda playbook, Kremlin agents used targeted advertising on Facebook to spread misleading news stories about Clinton in a move to rally Trump’s base and suppress the turnout of Democratic-leaning voters, according to intelligence reports.
Thanks to stories from The Daily Beast and ProPublica, we are starting to have a better understanding of what a modern propaganda campaign looks like. A quadruple byline from The Daily Beast revealed that dozens of pro-Russian groups had tried to organize grassroots Trump rallies through Facebook. Groups with names like “Being Patriotic” would organize events like “Miners for Trump” or promote “Down with Hillary” pages, all the while being financed by Russia-backed troll farmers like the Internet Research Agency.
The Aug. 20, 2016, events were collectively called “Florida Goes Trump!” and they were billed as a “patriotic state-wide flash mob,” unfolding simultaneously in 17 different cities and towns in the battleground state. — from The Daily Beast
Months later in response, Facebook deleted hundreds of accounts they claim were used as Kremlin propaganda outlets designed to sow discontent in the electorate. Caving to growing pressure from politicians in Washington, Mark Zuckerberg admitted his platform had sold over 3,000 ads designed to influence the election to almost 500 accounts run by propagandists, reaching over 100 million people. The company has turned over the information to Congressional investigators amid cries that Zuckerberg himself should testify on Capitol Hill.
What is even more concerning is how much we don’t know about the reach of their campaign. While researchers and fact checking sites like Snopes readily flag misleading stories that mention Trump or Clinton, there are now early reports that foreign backed accounts shared stories that didn’t mention either candidate by name to sow political discord. As legendary reporter Carl Bernstein noted on CNN this past weekend, “the Russians bought ads to keep front and center — in Wisconsin and other states — the issue of Black Lives Matter.” This indicates a deeper level of complexity in their campaign than previously understood.
Undoubtably, we’re in for more shocking revelations in the coming weeks as the company discloses more information. Just this past week, Twitter reveled that Russian-backed bots spent over $250,000 on ads, and helped game the trending algorithms to spread fake news around the web. Facebook, and other social media sites, now find themselves on uncharted territory at the intersection of politics, media and tech. How they decide to respond will help shape the future of political communication forever.
A Morse legacy
Facebook is a private company that intentionally, and sometimes accidentally, pushes the boundaries of modern ethic, moral and legal standards with its immense reach. The company isn’t beholden to the First Amendment, it’s accountable only to their highly subjective “terms and conditions” when deciding whether or not to penalize an account. Beyond arguments about freedom of speech online, Facebook now finds itself on the frontlines of a new and unprecedented information war that threatens the foundations of our democracy.
This wouldn’t be the first time a communication company has steered a cultural revolution. An essay by scholar James W. Carey examined a much overlooked and unnecessarily maligned technology that changed politics, theology, business, culture and production forever: the telegraph.
Carey writes that the telegraph was the first method of communication that broke the physical bonds of transportation. Signals between individuals no longer needed a horse, railroad or boat to reach their destinations. Instead, invisible waves were sent from location A and through some seemingly divine power, a message could be received hundreds of miles away in location B.
This revolution was not limited to escaping physical limitations of communication. The telegraph “ushered in the modern phase of history and determined, even to this day, the major lines of development in American communications,” Carey argues at the onset of his essay. Like Facebook would almost 200 years later, the telegraph invented a new language that was quickly adopted by the populace. The prose known as “cablese” came about because companies charged by the word to send a message through telegraph. This led to the creation of a “scientific” language that stripped dispatches to the bare-bones fact that could be understood the same in California as it could in Florida. Thanks to authors like Ernest Hemingway, this concise language became “the underlying structure for one of the most influential literary style of the twentieth century.”
Just as the telegraph revolutionized language, it changed the nature of business from a more personal, geographically-based relationships to impersonal transactions between buyers and sellers. Along with advances in transportation and social relationships, the telegraph ushered in the age of market forces dictating commerce with historic speed and volume never seen before.
“The volume and speed of transactions demanded a new form of organization of essentially impersonal relationships — that is, relations not among known persons but among buyers and sellers whose only relation was mediated through an organization and a structure of management,” from James Carey
This is akin to how Facebook piggybacked on the digital technology revolution to expand from a few college campuses to a global enterprise worth billions of dollars, instantly connected an auto worker in Germany to a high schooler in Maine. Facebook is the ultimate realization of communication free from physical limits that the telegraph started nearly 200 years ago. A black woman in Minnesota can instantly share a video all over the world of police brutality happening in real time. Information now flows freely across borders, for better or worse. Companies, and Russian agents, can spread their content, ideas and philosophies to consumers with pinpoint accuracy thousands of miles away. It is this type of power that platform gives away to anyone that was taken advantage of by foreign agitators.
But now the company must grapple with a bigger question: are they too big to do good?
There is no way Mark Zuckerberg expected his Harvard dorm room experiment would one day find itself in the center of an international conspiracy, but that is where we are at now and we all must reckon with the consequences. During the first 14 years of Facebook, the company has tried to craft a “better” world through constant innovation and boundary pushing on multiple fronts. It now seems that in the next 14 years, if the company can survive that long in its current form, Facebook will become a product of a flawed world, rather than a crafter of a better one.