Executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter faced anger from lawmakers last week over their platforms’ roles in Russian interference into the 2016 election. But for Silicon Valley, the biggest challenge lies ahead as tech companies look for ways to work with a U.S. Congress intent on closing legal loopholes before 2018 midterm elections.
Congressional scrutiny showed U.S. law has fallen behind the rapid growth of social media. Without rules governing paid political advertising on social media, foreign agents were free to post false or inflammatory material in an attempt manipulate public opinion. But lawmakers remain optimistic about the opportunity to learn from the past.
“If there is a place that has ever understood change, it’s Silicon Valley. It is based on disruption. It’s based on people taking risks,” Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, told VOA.
Eshoo, whose congressional district covers part of Silicon Valley, has been a longtime advocate for greater transparency in the more traditional fields of TV and print political advertising.
“When citizens know who has paid for something, it has an effect on their thinking,” Eshoo said. “It doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t still be Americans that would like that divisive ad. But at least they’ll know where it comes from, and you can have a much clearer debate about who is saying what and what they are attempting to do.”
The HONEST Ads Act, a legislative proposal recently introduced in both houses of Congress, follows along those lines.
If passed, the bill would regulate online political ads under the same rules as broadcast advertisements, requiring companies to keep a public database storing those ads and providing information about their funding.
“Americans deserve to know who’s paying for the online ads,” Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a co-sponsor of the bill, said last month. “Even if the Russian interference hadn’t occurred, we should still be updating our laws. Our laws should be as sophisticated as those who are trying to manipulate us.”
“Creating a database like that is going to be hard and complicated and messy. It’s a good idea that’s going to have a tough execution,” Dave Karpf, a professor of political communication at George Washington University, told VOA.
Karpf said that while there are no perfect solutions, it’s important to recognize the tech companies for what they’ve become.
“Facebook and Google are media companies — they’re just different media companies then we’re used to seeing,” he said. “They’re not broadcasters, but they are information platforms. And they’re quasi-monopolies — even a benevolent monopoly is a bad thing for public discourse and public knowledge.”
But none of the social media heads would fully commit to support of the bill as it now stands during their congressional testimony, appearing instead to favor a self-policing approach.
Battling fake news
Addressing paid political advertisements on social media platforms is just one part of the puzzle. The 2016 election revealed a vast ecosystem of fake news that will be almost impossible to police.
“What’s an even greater problem is that the Russians and others are setting up sites to deliberately disseminate misinformation — false news, fake news, what have you — they are not identifying themselves as Russian-sponsored,” said Mark Jacobson, a professor at Georgetown University and co-author of an October 2017 report on Russian cybermeddling.
“This is the larger problem for Facebook and other social media companies — how to handle the deliberate disinformation — and I’m not so sure the solution is legislative,” Jacobson said.
Eshoo downplayed talk that these challenges signal a downturn for tech innovators, saying it’s time lawmakers, companies and citizens took on a shared responsibility.
“We need to do a much better job with this,” she said. “We’re going to need them to cooperate with us. I don’t think that there has to be a slugfest on this.” She said the social media companies need to tell Congress how, in terms of their engineering and their algorithms, they can best accomplish what lawmakers set forth.