A battle is building.
In this case it’s Goliath vs. Goliath.
The United States government is demanding that Facebook and Google reveal the identities of all people and organizations that bought political ads during the 2016 election in an effort to tease out just who acted on behalf of the Kremlin in Russia’s attempt to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump.
Facebook and Google are doubling-down on lobbyists, getting ready to protect themselves and the inevitable result of finding out the truth: Facebook and Google not only provided avenues for illegal politcal influence, but they profited from those campaigns too.
Now there is nothing wrong with political advertising on social media. It is, however, illegal for any foreign actor (person, company, group) to influence an American election.
For many years Facebook and Google have been exempt from the type of rigorous reporting and accountability of other types of media because the sums that were spent pale in comparison to major TV and outdoor budgets.
But it’s not just a matter of money. They are arguing that the type of controls needed to monitor ads would too onerous for the rest of their clients who legally advertise. In short, for controls to be effective in rooting out illegal political advertising, it would compromise the experience for everyone.
You can interpret this in two ways depending on the moral stance that you take.
If you believe that the tech giants have our best interests at heart, you could say that clamping down the entire system because of a drop in the bucket (in monetary terms) would be the equivalent of having every customer patted down when they exist a department store because one person stole something.
Facebook and Google do have filters that identify illegal content, and to their credit they take down and block a lot of the bad stuff that comes their way.
But if you believe that the tech giants are essentially monopolies driven by their financial bottom line, you could say that Facebook and Google rely on open platforms where people facilitate their own transactions. Any extra control would not only mean development costs, but it would also mean fewer transactions and therefore less money.
That begs the question: what’s more important, the revenue and earnings of two companies or the fate of an entire nation?
The undeniable trend of social media is moving towards Live content. Live content by definition cannot be controlled because if it was, it wouldn’t be Live.
That trend is what frightens me personally, since that direction means less and less control. If the tech companies don’t step up and do something now, it will only get harder and harder with each passing day.
Look, I’m not one of the people standing on my WordPress and shouting for Zuckerburg to go to jail for his role in facilitating election hacking. A lot of the political ads in question didn’t mention any candidates. They were just different types of content designed to rile up certain segments of the population who are opposed to progressive stances. It would admittedly be hard to track that type of content down and block it or correctly label it as political advertising.
But social media has meshed everything together. It has mutualized communication for each and every one of us. Now that anyone can voice their opinion to an audience, the line that separated old school political advertising from people “talking politics” has been stripped away.
Actors can engage in active, public manipulation through false and inflammatory content paid to reach a certain number of people. As we’ve seen in the election aftermath, social media has enabled a spread offense: it’s even more difficult to catch many smaller actors than one big one.
That makes it all the more crucial to have a sort of control – not only against the illegal dissemination of foreign influence – but also on the spread of fake news. American citizens writing false information about other people should be treated as intentional libel and prosecuted accordingly. People publishing that information should be held accountable, and in the technical sense, the publisher is Facebook.
We don’t always know how to act when it comes to technology. It’s breaking down traditional, physical borders. It’s altering how we see ourselves and other people. It’s connecting people who live around the globe and dividing people who live next to each other. And it’s accelerating way past the speed of regulation.
Legislation is often about correcting a misdirection of society. Since we cannot predict the future, we cannot make laws to keep things from going awry. The tech giants have been passing under the radar of much of our existing legislation. It’s time to expand those laws and to force the tech giants to comply, provide the identities of all people trying to influence elections with paid media campaigns, and hold those people accountable to the law.