Nothing focuses a CEO’s mind like a precipitous decline in the company’s stock, a boycott, a string of lawsuits, a federal investigation or two, and a PR debacle—all in one month.
All of which brings us to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg who is set to testify on Capitol Hill next Tuesday and Wednesday. He’ll face questioning about Facebook’s role in the 2016 election and its privacy practices from two Senate committees in one hearing and one House committee in another. (If you’re curious about the mechanics of how two large Senate committees, Commerce and Judiciary, with 44 Senators combined, will conduct a joint hearing, click here.)
Rather than a showdown, expect a set piece: Zuckerberg apologizes, announces new privacy policies, gets ritualistically chastised, then almost everyone agrees the company is on the road to rehabilitation after a few reforms. This time around, Zuckerberg has even tried to pre-empt, announcing Friday that all those placing political ads will be asked for a U.S. government-issued ID and a physical mailing address. The most generous interpretation: it’s a piecemeal gesture. And it’s one that could easily evaporate or morph into yet another toothless policy as soon as the spotlight moves on.
The recent revelations that Trump campaign consultant Cambridge Analytica trampled Facebook users’ privacy drew Zuckerberg to the Hill. But Cambridge Analytica is just the tip of the iceberg. Next week’s hearing, with its focus on the latest scandal, risks missing the berg’s underside.
A real effort to understand Facebook’s role in the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica’s misdeeds, and Russian manipulation is going to take a lot more than an appearance by Zuckerberg. But congressional efforts to thoroughly and publicly dig into the 2016 campaign have stalled. The Republican leadership of both Senate committees have ignored Democratic calls to investigate Cambridge Analytica or take testimony from the whistleblower who exposed its misdeeds. Meanwhile the record of Russian ads placed with Facebook in 2016 remain behind sealed doors with the Senate Intelligence Committee. The company has refused to release them to the public.
Moreover, every Republican member of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees voted last year to repeal FCC privacy rules for internet service providers. The odds of any significant legal reform coming from the latest revelations are minimal.
It’s worth remembering that Facebook has consciously engineered a starring role in American elections for the last decade. It has run this century’s largest, most consequential experiment on voting and voters, and it has done it in the wild.
When pundits declared the 2008 presidential election, the “Facebook Election,” only about 33 million Americans were on the social network. Even then, Facebook knew it was a player. It hosted online forums on the Obama-McCain election. It jointly marketed election coverage with ABC news. It sponsored candidate debates. Facebook’s co-founder Chris Hughes left the company in 2007 to become one of the Obama campaign’s “new media” strategists.
In 2010, Facebook opened its platform to a “61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization.” The company let researchers rework its news feed to conduct a voter turnout test. The researchers, which included the company’s head of data-science, concluded their efforts had increased voter turnout by 340,000 in the mid-term election.
In 2012, Facebook’s experiment was a bit different. That year, in the run-up to the election, it fiddled with the news feeds of 1.9 million users so that news stories shared by friends popped up ahead of more personal stories like baby pictures. What did the “tweak” do? A Facebook researcher reported that users who saw the experimental newsfeed had both a statistically significant increase in the attention they paid to government and in turnout.
In 2016, Facebook flexed its election muscles when it turned to voter registration. In September 2016, the company took part in a nationwide registration effort. It earned praise from government officials. “Facebook clearly moved the needle in a significant way,” California’s Secretary of State Alex Padilla, told the New York Times.
All these undertakings had democracy-friendly glosses to them. Facebook was just promoting “I Voted” stickers, right? And as the company carefully notes, it does not try to influence how people vote: that’s for the advertisers Facebook was courting with all the data it collected.
Political advertising dollars have enormous allure. For TV broadcasters, they can represent up to 12 percent of revenue. Facebook started chasing that revenue early on. At first, it had trouble persuading advertisers to shift into social media. Not now. Micro-targeting with the data it has collected is Facebook’s secret sauce.
Until the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook touted its political advertising success stories. For Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Penn.) 2016 reelection campaign, the company noted that a Facebook campaign “significantly shift[ed] voter intent and increase[d] favorability…contributing to his re-election.” The company credited the effort with producing a “19.4-point lift in voter intent among women aged 45–54.”
Since the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio, Facebook has hidden its political advertising success stories. But digital never disappears. Its boasting about its impact on the successful GOP campaign of Florida Gov. Rick Scott remains. So does the one about Gary Johnson’s 2016 presidential campaign: “When the Libertarian presidential nominee used Facebook’s political targeting tools to reach voters, not only did the Facebook campaign drive a double-digit lift in ad recall—it also generated 3.5X as many donations in just 3 months.”
There’s more. Like this one about Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s winning Virginia’s gubernatorial race in 2013 and this one about Obama’s re-election campaign. And there’s this one about Trump. And when not crowing about success in the U.S., Facebook claims triumph oversees. “Triggering a landslide,” it said about its role in the 2015 elections in Scotland.
All these advertising campaigns come at a price of course. Johnson, Scott, Toomey and McAuliffe paid Facebook. So did Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Yet, precisely what they paid for the ads is unclear. Prices were set by the company’s complex auction system. The process is still surrounded in mystery, stoking fears that, as Wired put it, “Facebook’s system prioritizes more provocative or outrageous political ads.”
In many respects bragging about effectiveness or quibbling about prices are de rigueur for any media company. One could easily expect CBS’s advertising sales team to produce reams of data proving that advertising on NCIS is the best way to reach the over-50 male demographic in Idaho.
But Facebook, famously, says it is not a media company. They’re right. It’s a hybrid that happens to be one of the American public’s top sources for news that is also a tech firm that extensively monitors its users and then sells its ability to connect advertisers with potential customers.
And it does all of this behind a veil of mystery. Consider what happened earlier this year, after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for identity theft as part of a scheme to use Facebook to manipulate the 2016 election.
Shortly after, a Facebook sales executive, Rob Goldman, provoked a firestorm with tweets about the company’s role in the election. “I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal,” he confidently asserted. How did he know? Simple: “I have seen all of the Russian ads.” But with the exception of Mueller’s team and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, no one else has. “Trust us. We know all,” Goldman was really saying.
So far, Facebook’s only accountability has been to its stockholders. Perhaps Zuckerberg’s testimony will start to change that – but don’t bet on it.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
*Image: Flickr User Alessio Jacona, CC BY-SA 2.0