Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg belatedly has given investigators some 3,000 advertisements from around 470 accounts associated with a Kremlin-linked “troll farm.” Congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller are trying to determine how deeply Russia interfered with last year’s presidential election. The ads may have been seen by 10 million people, Facebook says, and there may be more where they came from.
Election interference is just part of why this is important. At a broader level, it’s about political speech, the limits of internet privacy and tech firms’ desperate attempts to ward off government regulation. It’s a big deal now and could become a gigantic deal down the road.
There’s never been a company as disruptive to political discourse as Facebook. For all its association with cat videos and celebrity gossip, Facebook is changing the way Americans get their news about politics and politicians. Its powerful algorithms target users susceptible to specific messages, and unless someone complains, human beings rarely intervene to halt the targeting.
Facebook spearheaded the internet’s “democratization” of mass media while making sources of information less transparent. Facebook’s algorithms don’t care where messages come from or whether they’re true. Facebook doesn’t broadcast, it “narrowcasts.” Algorithms decided which users might be interested in messages that encouraged social division in America, the wheelhouse of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Did 3,000 Facebook ads turn the election? Probably not. The Russian agents only spent $100,000. But the messages reverberated inside the conservative media silo as part of a larger campaign to manipulate voters.
Investigators in Congress and the Justice Department who have seen the ads say they are remarkably sophisticated, showing a keen awareness of the fault lines in American society. They mirror the kind of disinformation campaigns that Soviet intelligence used to wage.
“Their aim was to sow chaos,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Washington Post. “In many cases it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout.”
On Sept. 6, Facebook admitted having discovered that the ads were bought by accounts linked to the Kremlin. Initially it refused to turn them over to investigators, doing so only after public outcry. Facebook, Google and other media platforms are wary of government regulation, but other forms of political advertising are subject to government transparency rules. Facebook should be no different.
Political speech should be open and vibrant. But Americans have a right to know who’s financing it. Anonymous internet ads, like anonymous “dark money” political committees, subvert transparency. They can subvert elections.
If Facebook, Google and other social media outlets don’t impose standards of transparency and accountability on themselves, Congress might need to do it for them.
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