It is certainly crazy to think that by the time you’re finished reading this post, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the likes will have made millions of decisions about the content that hundreds of millions of people will see. Every single time we log into these networks, advanced algorithms decide the content that’s on the top of our feeds and what doesn’t show up at all. This obviously has lasting repercussions, whether its enabling revolutions of unpopular regimes or influencing the presidential voting decisions of American citizens.
As a result, social media platforms have become the suspects caught in the crosshairs of controversy, legislation, and debate over their roles in the political process. With new details unfolding surrounding top Trump campaign officials Manafort and Papadopoulous turning themselves in over ties with Russians, the topic of Russian influence is currently unavoidable. But how exactly did our favorite giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter end up standing in front of Congress testifying the new protocols and measures they’ve devised to combat these problems? If you recall, the tone and message of these companies have drastically changed since the onset of controversy. Mark Zuckerberg went from saying fake news and the idea of Facebook controlling the election was a “crazy idea”, to instituting a major program of reform and a comprehensive crackdown of suspicious publishers. Facebook also created a task force dedicated to investigating the spread of misinformation.
The first instance of Facebook owning up to the connection between Russians their platform was 2016. Facebook actually approached the FBI, presenting evidence of accounts linked to a Russian government-backed hacking team. This was in June, and in November of the same year Zuckerberg made the first public statements about fake news by rejecting the notion that it had any impact at all.
He stated, “Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way. I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.” He followed this up by two days later releasing a status expanding on the topic, affirming that 99 percent of what people see on Facebook is authentic.
What’s interesting to note is that actual Facebook employees spoke out about their CEO’s rejection of fake news affecting the election, and formed an “unofficial task force” to combat the problem. One month later in December 2016, Facebook worked with third-party fact checking companies to attach fake news labels to stories on the newsfeed.
What’s interesting to note is how passionately the Trump campaign has specified that Facebook helped them win the election. Theresa Hong, a member of Trump’s digital operations team, affirmed this statement: “Without Facebook we wouldn’t have won. Facebook really and truly put us over the edge.” Jared Kushner echoed similar sentiments on his Forbes cover story, detailing that Trump talked to Kushner about how the campaign was underutilizing social media and how they could improve it. Kushner responded by taking over the Facebook initiative and having a friend at a technology company give him a tutorial on how Facebook micro-targeting works. Kushner’s micro-targeting efforts are largely believed to have given the campaign the edge in key swing states.
Then, in September of this year, news broke via Facebook blog post that Facebook received at least $100,000 from Russian troll farms with the intent to promote politically divisive content on Facebook. according to Facebook. “The ad buys were from June 2015 to May 2017 and associated with roughly 3,000 ads connected to 470 inauthentic Facebook accounts and pages,” according to USA Today.
What’s interesting here is that people would probably just assume the Russians worked by promoting content that aided and abetted the base of Donald Trump. However, the goals of Russia have become more clear— let me explain.
Let’s take the Facebook page “Blacktivist” for example. The page had over 400,000 followers, and shared information on police brutality. It would repost videos of the police beating black Americans in small cities around the country. The page was recommended to people who followed Black Lives Matter, and was designed to attract people who cared about civil rights and combatting police brutality. Unfortunately, the page was linked to Russia and Facebook has since taken it town. This is the key interesting finding from Russia’s meddling in American politics. Russia, while it preferred for Donald Trump to win the election due to his liking of Vladimir Putin and his soft stance on Russia, wants to fuel the fire on all sides of the political spectrum. In their strategic plans, emboldening people on both sides of the aisle through divisive social media will only help to stealthily plant deeper divisions in society and cut the U.S. off the powerful strings it commands. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, explicated this by explaining, “They think that that leads to polarization, (which) leads to arguments among ourselves and it takes us off the world stage.”
While Facebook, Twitter, and Google have realized the gravity of the manipulation and have pledged many new efforts to combat this, they stopped short of endorsing a bipartisan bill that would require them to disclose who is paying for the political ads that appear on their platforms. Instead, they focussed their testimonies on the existing actions they are taking to fight the misinformation. Basically, they want to convince Congress that they can handle the problem without the intervention of the federal government. Tomorrow, executives from the three companies will testify again in separate hearings before the House and Senate intelligence committees. Only time will tell whether the federal government believes their claims and lets them handle their affairs or whether big brother will start to take an active hand in the social media we consume.