Three of the most successful social media giants were brought further into the public eye late last month during hearings with the Senate Intelligence Committee. Twitter, Facebook, and Google were summoned to discuss the nature of Kremlin-sponsored activity on their platforms from 2015 to 2017.
Their testimonies suggest that the Kremlin-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) and Russian hacking sites were associated with thousands of dollars of fake ad sponsorship; such activities reached over 150 million people on Facebook and created 2,752 Twitter accounts over the two-year span. While the exact goal of the fabricated ads remains unknown, the nature of the content suggests that it intended to capitalize on existing political tensions in the U.S. voting population.
U.S. senators have argued that the social media-facilitated Russian activity conflicts with two areas of Federal Election Commission legislation, including a law barring foreign interference in American elections, and legislation requiring broadcast media to publicly disclose political and issue-based ads and to maintain databases of funders.
To extend the latter piece of legislation and capture social media networks within its scope, senators have put forth the Honest Ads Act. After years of enjoying relatively little regulation on the internet, social media companies have been reluctant to concede their freedom, arguing that they seek to be important forums for open debate, and to provide a “wide variety of perspectives” to Americans.
It is difficult to measure the impact these fake advertisements had on the 2016 U.S. election. The Honest Ads Act raises questions about how accountable social media companies should be to individual states and their domestic laws when posts on their platforms have real-world implications. With an unprecedented ability to reach the masses, social media outlets perpetuate the rapid spread of information across the globe, allowing messages and ideas to spread before their veracity can be confirmed.
One need only look back to the manhunt that evolved following the Boston Marathon bombings, when Reddit users wrongly came to the conclusion that missing university student Sunil Tripathi was one of the suspects. In the context of these recent Russia allegations, fake Facebook accounts intentionally booked two protests from opposite political leanings for the same exact location and time. The Senate Intelligence Committee argued that “foreign adversaries will read this playbook” and perpetuate social media-based attacks of a similar nature in the future.
In some countries, such as Germany, Facebook is already complying with restrictive domestic speech laws. But free speech and market deregulation advocates push back against any government ability to police what can be posted or bought online. In addition to the difficulty of analyzing and monitoring the sheer volume of Tweets and Facebook posts published every day, the vast majority of the companies’ revenue streams come from advertising. The piecemeal effort by Twitter to ban Kremlin-linked Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik from advertising on its site represents a surface-level attempt to appease the U.S. Government before being pegged with heavier regulations.
However, with Senator Richard Burr’s assertion that such sites are on the front lines of defense for U.S. security, it is unlikely that the Silicon Valley giants will ever be able to return to business-as-usual low regulation in America.