On November 1st, representatives from Google, Twitter, and Facebook will testify before congressional intelligence committees on how their services may have been taken advantage of by Russia, in efforts to influence the 2016 election. General counsels from the three tech giants are expected to face questions over political advertisements aiming to exacerbate political tensions, which have been linked to Russia. The questioning may also address the role of their platforms in the spread of misinformation, and on what steps these companies will take to police themselves on such issues.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 3 senators has introduced a bill requiring tech companies to reveal who is purchasing political ads on their platforms. The “Honest Ads Act,” proposed by Senators McCain, Warner, and Klobuchar, seeks to finally place online political ads under the same scrutiny faced by TV and radio ads.
“Unfortunately, US laws requiring transparency in political campaigns have not kept pace with rapid advances in technology, allowing our adversaries to take advantage of these loopholes to deceive millions of American voters with impunity,” according to McCain.
In the past, social media companies resisted moves toward such regulation. The bill is also unlikely to be embraced by Republican leadership, which has fought against anything it perceives as a restriction on campaign finance. But both should consider the big picture. Failing to address interference on this scale risks undermining the foundation of American democracy. Once trust in this system is lost, it will be difficult to win back. Other legislators should back efforts to combat the problem.
The hearings in November could determine the course of debate over the Honest Ads Act.
Reports from CNN have shown that sophisticated targeting was used to reach certain groups of voters in Wisconsin and Michigan, the first evidence that tampering was aimed at battleground states. In the closest contest of the election, Trump won Michigan by just 10,700 votes, out of a total of 4.8 million. Special counsel Robert Mueller is now investigating whether Trump associates helped the Russians to target these ads, many of which sought to foster racial tensions and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Facebook has, to some degree, acknowledged the problem. In September, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote that “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for.” He went on to name nine measures the company would take to disclose who is paying for political ads, and to make them more accountable. Their chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said the country deserves “not just an apology but determination” to solve the problem, from the social media giant. Facebook also gave Mueller and congressional investigators the content of 3,000 political ads, which were paid for by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a shady Russian organization. The company has shut down 470 accounts associated with the IRA. In France, however, it took down 50,000 leading to questions over the whether the problem has been addressed.
Sandberg has also been vague on the question of when Facebook knew about the interference.
For its part, Twitter has been more guarded and less active in addressing the problem. There is evidence that, in addition to Russian-linked accounts, automated “bot” accounts may have been used to promote stories about DNC emails obtained by Russian hackers.
Twitter refused for 11 months to shut down one account, ignoring repeated warnings that it was fake. The account posed as the Tennessee Republican Party, and posted inflammatory content and deliberate fake news. The account once suggested that unarmed, black victims of police shootings deserved to be shot, and posted a photo of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship parade, and claimed it was a crowd waiting to hear Donald Trump speak. By the time it was shut down, the account had amassed 136,000 followers. The account was later linked to the IRA.
The actual Tennessee Republican Party reported the account as fake on three separate occasions before it was taken down. Twitter finally shut the account down this past August.
Twitter also changed its policies in 2016, to make it harder to investigate such interference, so that deleted Tweets no longer remain in their archive. Thomas Rid, a Johns Hopkins University cybersecurity expert said the changes “made it easier to destroy a lot of forensic evidence that would have been useful for an investigation.”
“The fact that we are in a democracy and we don’t know the answers to these questions is unacceptable. Were the KGB to hire a contractor to build the perfect disinformation platform, they could not have done a better job than Twitter.”
Google, who earlier had claimed to have found no evidence of Russian manipulation, was contradicted by a Washington Post report earlier this month which found that internal investigations had found evidence of Russian disinformation campaigns.
Congressional investigation is an overdue step to address the problem. More information is necessary, which will likely demonstrate the need for legislation such as the Honest Ads Act. As the internet and social media becomes increasingly important to information flow, they must face the same level of scrutiny as TV and radio. Such steps are necessary to maintain the integrity of the democratic system itself.