Facebook Can't Do Congress' Job

Corporate goodwill is no substitute for legislation to prevent Russia and other foreign actors from meddling in our politics.

October 18, 2017

Cross-posted from U.S. News and World Report 

In the last few months we have learned an extraordinary amount about Russian efforts to use social media to influence the 2016 election (though there is surely more to come). Much of what we have learned so far has come from the social media companies themselves, who under pressure from Congress and the public have conducted internal investigations into Russian meddling. The recent revelations from Google that Russian operatives spent tens of thousands of dollars on political ads across many of its products – including YouTube and Google search – adds to information supplied from internal investigations at Facebook and Twitter.

These voluntary disclosures from Silicon Valley's major corporations are a step in the right direction – but they won't be enough on their own. To truly protect the sanctity of our elections, Congress must step up and bring regulation of political ads into the 21st century.

The recent saga over Russian Facebook ads is a good example of why we can't rely on corporate goodwill alone. After an internal investigation, the social media behemoth discovered hundreds of fake accounts linked to Russia. Those accounts paid for more than 3,000 ads that were seen by 10 million people. The ads were part of a sweeping Russian operation aimed at influencing the election – many designed to sow division and tribalism in the already-fraught pre-election environment. Facebook announced the discovery in September, and it has shared the ads with Congress and Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the presidential election. But Facebook refuses to make the ads public, and it's unclear why it took the company until 10 months after the election to discover the Russian operation.

And no part of Facebook's response has urged Congress to take action and legislate a long-term solution. This should come as no surprise. For years, Facebook has sought to avoid government regulation of its political advertising business. In 2011, lawyers for the company wrote to the Federal Election Commission to seek an exception from regulations that require disclaimers to appear in political ads showing who paid for them, arguing that "inclusion of a disclaimer in the ads would be inconvenient and impracticable." They sought the same hands-off treatment for Facebook ads that the FEC affords to skywriting and bumper stickers.

Those older campaign staples may be vanishing, but political ads on Facebook are already pervasive, and likely to gain even greater importance. Political campaigns spent more than $1.4 billion on online advertising in 2016, an almost 800 percent increase compared to 2012. Campaigns spent less than half that amount on radio advertising. Television ads are still on top – but online ads are catching up.

Unlike television or radio ads, however, which reach whoever is watching or listening at any given moment, political operatives can tailor Facebook ads to the newsfeeds of specific users that are most receptive to a given message. That's part of the reason the public doesn't know what was in the Russian ads Facebook found – unless you were targeted for a given message, you won't see it.

And of course, this is not just a Russia problem. Any hostile foreign power can copy Moscow's playbook to try to tamper with American politics, whether it's China, Iran, North Korea or the Islamic State group.

So while the voluntary efforts of social media companies are laudable, they don't come close to solving the problem. For that, we need rules and a cop to enforce them. After all, Facebook could change its mind next year and get rid of the transparency policy it just announced. Or it could fail to enforce the policy against its customers. And of course, Facebook's policy does nothing to address foreign influence coming through other platforms, like Twitter, YouTube or Google.

Congress needs to face this problem head on. To that end, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., each of whom are on committees looking into Russian meddling, are already working on a bill that would require social media platforms to create a public database of political ads along with information about who paid for them. That promises to be a much more powerful reform than one company's internal policy change.

Requiring the big platforms to keep and make available repositories of political ads will ensure that the media and general public can review even those ads meant to secretly target a small number of people. Congress should also make political advertisements on the internet subject to the same kind of rules that apply to ads on TV or the radio. That means that spending on "sham issue ads," which mention a candidate shortly before an election without the magic words "vote for" or "against," must be disclosed.

Finally, we must change campaign finance disclosure rules to eliminate "dark money" spent by entities that don't disclose their donors – both so the public knows who is behind the ads they see, and the platforms and other broadcasters can ensure that Russia or other foreign nationals are not breaching the longstanding rule that prohibits them from political spending in the United States.

The recent interest from Facebook, Twitter and other technology industry leaders in working with congressional investigators to understand what happened this past election is heartening. Good citizenship from tech leaders will be a major asset as the country builds needed defenses against foreign meddling in our elections.

But the best way to protect ourselves is to adopt common sense rules that apply to everyone. Protecting the integrity of the democratic process from foreign interference is one of the government's core responsibilities. Nobody else can do that job for it.

(Photo: Getty)