IT WAS HIGH TIME Congress stopped viewing Facebook as entertainment for teenagers and started seeing it for what it really represents: a radical shift in how American politics and media operate.
When technology changes in radical ways, our laws, regulations, and social norms need an update, too. But when a political system is as ossified as ours, it can barely make sense of, much less address, problems that are genuinely unprecedented.
That reality was on full display on Capitol Hill this past week, when a series of congressional panels questioned Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, and his counterparts at Twitter and Google, about Russian agents’ use of popular Internet platforms to influence last year’s election.
For Silicon Valley, the “gee whiz” factor remains a powerful political asset. Some younger members, such as New York Representative Elise Stefanik, tried to impress the visiting tech execs by bragging about their social-media savvy. At least one senior legislator, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, copped to a certain amount of ignorance, suggesting that tech brainiacs understand Internet stuff so much better than he does. In the stodgy setting of a legislative hearing, it was incongruous to hear US senators and representatives wrestling with the significance of clicks and troll bots and Facebook “likes.”
But wrestle they must, because the spread of information — or misinformation — on social media affects the real world. The least Congress can do is require tech firms to disclose who’s paying for online political ads.
What’s really needed, though, is for Internet platforms to take on greater responsibility for chasing down false and misleading material before it spreads. Leaving that burden to individual Internet users is a cop-out.
The recriminations over Russian election interference are only one of many potential flash points between government and the big tech firms. In June, European Union regulators imposed a $2.8 billion fine on Google, the world’s dominant search engine, for steering users to Google-affiliated shopping sites. The growing dominance of Google and Facebook in online advertising is attracting attention from antitrust regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.
Even so, new economic and technological realities have a way of creeping up on people, and lawmakers are usually slow to respond. Only after a haggard, sweaty Richard Nixon struggled through a presidential debate against a dashing John F. Kennedy in 1960 did politicians appreciate how television could swing an election.
In public policy, there’s an inevitable bias toward doing nothing: In the early days of radio, Congress dithered over how much power the federal government should assert control over the airwaves. Without the breakup of big, stifling monopolies — Standard Oil in 1911, AT&T in 1982 — the modern oil and telecom industries might never have emerged, but at the time lots of people questioned the need for federal action.
Likewise, even as Facebook and Google grew into multibillion-dollar corporations with complex business operations and massive global influence, lawmakers continue to treat them as scrappy startups that could be plunged into bankruptcy if Washington so much as glances in their direction.
Even though the press is protected by name in the Constitution, traditional news outlets are still operate under certain legal constraints. Newspapers and broadcast stations alike are liable for the content of news stories and advertisements that they circulate. Election laws require them to identify the people who pay for campaign ads.
Facebook’s defenders say social networks are more like a phone company, which bears no responsibility if customers use its transmission lines to evade taxes or plot a murder. But analogies fail if Facebook is something truly new — a venue that allows the mass transmission of information but declines to vouch for the veracity of anything it publishes.
Unfortunately, the problem won’t fix itself, despite what Facebook, Twitter, and Google might have you believe. Responding to a question from Arizona Senator Jeff Flake on Tuesday, the three lawyers maintained that ridding their platforms of deceptive content was in the companies’ self-interest. The subtext: There’s no need for outside pressure.
But that’s not really true. Social media firms’ immediate interest lies in keeping eyeballs on their sites and apps as long as possible, regardless of whether the information their users are seeing is verifiable or not. It also lies in maximizing revenues while minimizing expenditures on human employees, even if that means accepting misleading ads from shadowy foreign entities. Silicon Valley ingenuity hasn’t eliminated the tension between short-term financial gains and long-term well-being; if anything, it’s amplified the problem.
To some degree, Facebook is responding to outside pressure. In his testimony this week, Stretch said the company plans to hire 10,000 more people for safety and security operations. In an earnings call Wednesday, though, founder Mark Zuckerberg warned that increased spending on identifying “bad content and bad actors” could put a damper on future profits.
Not to worry; compared with last year, the company’s third-quarter profit was up 79 percent. Facebook can afford to do more — a lot more.Dante Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.