So, it’s official: Russia meddled in the US election, and Big Social Media helped it. Exhaustive Washington hearings his week have dragged heads from the world’s largest social media companies–Facebook, Twitter and Google–in front of politicians to explain why their platforms have allowed American democracy to be compromised.
The evidence is damning. Facebook alone admitted that content submitted by Russian group the Internet Research Agency reached as many as 126 million users. That may comprise barely 5% of Facebook’s 2.07bn users. But the US has 235m registered voters. Social media has transformed democracy in other countries. It smacks of exceptionalism even to suggest it could not have done so last November.
Google and Twitter received a hefty grilling. The news that a “disgruntled employee” managed to shut down President Donald Trump’s feeds for a few minutes will have done little for its withering security reputation.
Minnesota senator Al Franken despaired that the companies would not commit to pulling ads bought with foreign currency. “Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed,” he said. “You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go like, ‘Hmmm, those data points spell out something pretty bad?’”
Franken might be pushing the boat to suggest a ban on foreign funding – though it’s a move of which his supposed adversaries in the Kremlin would be proud. But placing rules on political advertising has been discussed at length this week, and would go some small way to preserving democratic sovereignty at a fascinating and difficult time.
But is it too late? California congressman Adam Schiff admitted as much on Wednesday, when he told the panel that, “Congress isn’t going to prescribe an algorithm, so there are limits on what we can feasibly do.”
Legislation, he and others said, would be inevitable. But in the Trump era regulation is a dirty word. It will fall on social media companies to follow or flout the rules. Judging by their performance this week it is unlikely Silicon Valley’s social media ganglions have the capacity to change. Users are the product. Data is king. Limiting it means limiting profits.
Amid the hearing there has been a growing cry that tech’s big players are not acting in the public interest. Whether this is true or not, doesn’t really matter: if consumers develop an adversarial mindset towards technology, it will diminish usage and cut revenue. Perhaps curtailing damaging influences would be the best thing Facebook, Twitter, Google et al could do. Whether they even can or not, given their business models, is questionable.