Volume 6          Number 224      

It simply gets down to this. If Facebook is considered media rather than technology, then it’s stuck with being responsible for what is said on its programming. That would place a heavy burden on this company. Lest we feel sorry for them, Facebook has over two billion viewers, which leads to a lot of ka-chung.                                 

The following, reporting in Business on October 12, 2017, pretty much sums the whole thing up. “On Thursday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg repeated a Facebook talking point that’s beginning to wear thin. Asked if Facebook is a media company, she resisted the characterization. “At our heart we’re a tech company; we hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters, no one’s a journalist, we don’t cover the news,” she said.

“Facebook does not want to be viewed as a media company, which would bring a responsibility to the truth and potential accusations of bias. …Admitting Facebook is a media company would require Facebook to take responsibility for its role in the spread of fake news, propaganda, and illegal Russian meddling in the US election.”

Actually, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, never wanted it to be like media–which is for all intents and purposes recognized by the fact that it’s supported by advertising, just the way he is. He resisted including media channels, but eventually came to realize that he had to have advertising revenue because his users weren’t going to pay him for the honor of viewing Facebook. He has been so successful in doing this that Facebook took in about $10 billion worth of profits in the third quarter of 2017 and is probably on the way to generating $40-$50 billion a year. So Zuckerberg likes advertising revenue. After all, it has made him one of the richest people on the planet.

If it’s not a media company, how come 44 percent of Americans now report using Facebook as their primary source of news, according to Pew Research?

Fortunately for Mr. Zuckerberg, there is the 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230 (c), or as it is called, the Good Samaritan Act. It is credited to be the “most important law regarding the internet”. The provision reads, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of information provide by another information content provider.”

This effectively shields internet providers from any liability for what they put on their websites. That gets the internet platform companies off the hook—at least temporarily. Zuckerberg and the rest of the internet giants are as likely to walk away from this piece of legislation as the proverbial cow is to finally jump over the moon.

This leads us to the most profound call for accountability in the internet world. Even without knowing anything else, it sounds bad that another nation, Russia, used our internet to influence the 2016 presidential election. Then there is the fact that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the most prominent online platforms, all sold political ads to the Russians.

This allowed fictitious foreign nationals, pretending to be Americans, to say the most outrageous things about Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates and about the Democratic Party. They even allowed Russian groups to buy lists, to target their advertising. That could be a list of people who “have expressed dissatisfaction with our government” or who have “praised Hitler.” The internet companies sold them the lists: no questions asked. Those folks could then be targeted to receive advertising or messages that capitalized on their prejudices in the presidential election.

It is even worse when you read about how it’s not exactly against the law to do those kinds of things. There was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. First of all, it only mentioned broadcast, cable and satellite communications, not the internet, which wasn’t a factor in political advertising at that time. And it only prohibited either supporting or denouncing a candidate. This was easily circumvented by not explicitly urging viewers to vote for or against a candidate.

The ads were reported to have included such topics as LGBTQ matters, race relations, anti-Semitism, immigration and gun control. Then there are the fake Americans the Russians created, to post on Facebook and to tweet on Twitter. One showed a man who was obviously American, with a baseball cap turned backwards and a young daughter. It contained content damaging to the Clinton campaign.

While they may get away with these actions currently, there is no doubt that for Americans to work with Russians to carry out election interference is against the law. It got so bad that according to Facebook, as many as 126 million Americans may have been reached by Russia-backed content. There were 120 fake Russia-backed pages which created 80,000 posts. These were seen by 29 million Americans, and many more through user sharing, liking and following the posts, which were received only by the targeted Facebook audience.

The Trump White House would have Americans believe Russians didn’t have anything to do with helping him win the election. He wants us to believe some “cock and bull” story about the Ukraine being responsible. Of course, it was authoritatively documented by The Mueller Report and Mr. Mueller himself, in a nationally televised appearance before Congress, that it was the Russians all along.

Facebook is not alone in broadcasting this garbage. Twitter said it had found more than 200 accounts related to the Russia-linked Facebook accounts. Google has also found tens of millions of dollars worth of ads on its platform from Russian sources.

Facebook officials admitted that they had wound up shutting down several hundred accounts linked to the Kremlin, that were used to buy $100,000 in ads used to create divisive issues. Some of the Russian accounts were automated and fired off identical messages seconds apart. One group sent out the hash tag “#War againstDemocrats” more than 1,700 times on Election Day.

The complexity of policing the hundreds of millions, even billions of accounts, is daunting. Despite using algorithms to detect slanderous materials like “The Jews must be exterminated” or “Obama is a homosexual” that would automatically take down a site, it means that the companies often rely on complaints to eliminate fake news. One way the fakes can be detected is to look at the “friends” of someone claiming to be an American. If it turns out the “friends” are in Ukraine, St. Petersburg and Dubrovnik, chance are they’re a fraud.

Nevertheless, the big three of Facebook, Twitter and Google feel that they should self regulate the attempted funding of foreign political ads without any legislative rules. The companies naturally want to preempt legislative interference. As a preemptive measure, Facebook claims to have hired 35,000 people to manually review ads, particularly political ones, and to make public the funding behind these ads.

Meanwhile the Republicans have tried to play down the fact that the Russians favored the Trump campaign over Hillary. This assertion contradicted American intelligence agencies’ conclusion that “Putin tried to sway the election in favor of Mr. Trump, going beyond just posting disruptive content on social media. Russian operatives also hacked Democratic email accounts and released messages embarrassing to Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” according to The New York Times of January 6, 2017.

President Trump weighed in on this matter after a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Vietnam. Mr. Trump said that the continued focus on the issue was insulting to Mr. Putin. He further said it was time to move past the issue and concentrate on more pressing international problems. Of course, the President didn’t mention that he wasn’t exactly the most objective person to judge this matter, since he was the single greatest beneficiary of Russian meddling.

But Congress is starting to act. A bi-partisan group of Senators introduced The Honest Ads Act, which requires making a broad swath of online activity subject to transparency requirements, and banning political spending by foreign nationals.

Slate of October 19, 2017 says, “The Honest Ads Act does this by expanding the definition of “electioneering communication” to include paid political advertisements online. It also requires major internet platforms to maintain a public database of all such communications purchased by a person or group if they spend more than $500.

“The company would include a digital copy, a description of the audience targeted, and the rate charged for each ad. Finally, the act requires online platforms to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign citizens and powers are not purchasing political advertisements, just as radio and television broadcasters are already required to do.”

Equally effective, if not more, would be for the President and Congress to hand the Russians some seriously heavier economic sanctions unless they cease their dirty tricks. After all, messing with our elections is just as much a crime as having a bunch of traitors in our government. Or it can, at worst, be considered an invasion of our sovereign space. The sanctions that were put in place after Russia invaded the Ukraine are still in place. This summer, Congress, in an amazingly display of bipartisanship, passed a bill that added more sanctions largely aimed at hurting the Russian economy, state banks and major corporations, including state oil companies.

President Trump had to sign the bill, reluctantly, because he knew Congress would have overridden his veto. But that is the extent of punishing Russia. It’s doubtful that the sanctions have been too effective. Seemingly, Russia is still up to its dirty tricks, judging by its unsuccessful interference with  Chancellor Merkel’s 2017 re-election bid in Germany. It’s unlikely that Mr. Trump’s good buddy’s government will be handed bigger sanctions, if he has anything to say about it.

It’s going to cost billions in policing and prevention efforts from the internet companies, our government’s intelligence community and other democratic governments because the Russians can be expected to keep inventing new tricks. After all, President Putin wasn’t the head of the KGB for nothing.

The rest of the free world has a stake in this effort as well, as the Russians seek to break down free elections, which are the essence of democracy. This is not a new game. The Russians have been messing with elections in 27 countries since 2004, according to USA Today of September 7, 2017.

Russia has a big head start in doing this kind of thing. Our effort might be compared to the successful Mercury Mission in the 1960s. It will take that kind of effort to beat the Russians, once again, at their game. It’s something that should be addressed internationally by the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The latest goings-on involve the upcoming presidential election. The Republicans are running ads all over Facebook, YouTube and Google. This is fiery stuff about immigrant invaders, corrupt media and Vice-President Biden, all played out where the sender is free to disregard facts. Naturally, they are going at it hot and heavy, trying to dissuade the public on the veracity of the Trump impeachment. Mr. Biden’s demand that Facebook take down the Trump campaign ad because it was untrue has fallen on deaf ears so far.

The campaign is now largely being fought on line, and the Democrats are losing because they haven’t gotten the message. The Trump campaign has put the digital operation at the center of its re-election operation effort, while the Democrats haven’t figured out that the political landscape is all about social media.

A study in Science recently found that, “An entire cohort of Americans lacks the smarts to distinguish made-up garbage from truth on Facebook. They are particularly vulnerable to the same set of lies repeated over and over again.” His is especially found to be true among senior citizens.

Verifying this outcome, it is important to note that the digital world is inherently friendlier to the Trump campaign, especially among older folk, over the age of 65, who tend to love Facebook. Younger people, in smaller numbers, tend to gravitate toward Instagram, Snapchat and private messaging apps. Not only that, the older people tends to gravitate toward the emotionally driven, negative Trump themes rather than the more fact-driven Democratic narratives.

On October 24, 2019, in another Congressional hearing, this time before the House Financial Services Committee, Mr. Zuckerberg fell back on his previously stated claim that it is not the business of Facebook to judge political advertising. He claims it is up to people to use their judgment to decide what is worthy information.

This is particularly galling to Democrats because the Trump presidential campaign has continued to run ads that accuse Vice President Biden of carrying out illegal acts in the Ukraine. These have been shown to be untrue, but that doesn’t seem to bother Facebook. Further, it discounts the notion that political ads with false claims can be targeted to those who will be most receptive to them. When this occurs, there is little chance that their accuracy will be debated.

When Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez asked the Facebook CEO if she were to submit an ad saying. “Republicans voted in favor of the Green Deal”, would Facebook run it? After dodging around, he finally admitted that this false ad would have run. His executives further claim that Facebook is a neutral platform that has nothing to do with the content it carries.

The reality is that even if they wanted to, it is unlikely that Facebook could adequately police all political advertising. The obvious thing to do is to take down all political advertising from the social media. That is something the social websites, Second Amendment advocates and the Republicans are going to fight vigorously against. After all, candidates have already spent over $63 million on Facebook political advertising geared to the 2020 election, and that is just getting started.

This is really just a drop in Mr. Zuckerberg’s bucket. What he really must fear is that once Congress gets its nose under his tent, they will become unrelenting. This could eventually morph into a breakup of his company along with other members of the digital big four: Apple, Google and Microsoft. This is what happened to the big boys in the early 20th century, and later on to AT&T. He is taking a softer approach to potential impinging legislation than is the NRA, but the aim is the same: to keep the Federal government off his back.

This blatant abuse is going to come to an end sooner or later. It looks like Mr. Zuckerberg and his colleagues will slowly bend to the needs of the public, through a reluctant Congress. Just as the government came to regulate railroads, automobiles, interstate commerce, healthcare, broadcasting and others, the internet industry will ultimately be governed.

Here in the United States, it won’t be easy, and it will be expensive, but it will happen, whether the proponents of unfettered content like it or not.

“There is a fine line between censorship and good taste and moral responsibility.”

           —Steven Spielberg

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