Social Media vs. The Government, A Clash Facilitated by Russia

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the position of JLIA, Penn State Law, School of International Affairs, or Pennsylvania State University.

 

American tech and media companies have reached a fork in the road as they face dilemmas of freedom of speech, profit, and electoral integrity in the recent discoveries of Russian-bought political ads. Facebook released that it had found that $100,000 spent on around 3,000 ads by Russian sources issuing propaganda relating to the 2016 U.S. Presidential race.[1] While the number may seem miniscule in terms of money spent campaigning (for all 2015/2016 races a total of $11,313,483.59 was spent on Facebook ads by all races[2]), some believe that this could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what will be discovered in the future.

These ads seemed to have reached a population of around 10 million people in the United States during their runtime.[3] While this is a small percentage of the voting population in the United States, it seems that there was a specific focus on the locations in which the ads were placed. Recent news has shown that these ads targeted areas such as Michigan and Wisconsin over other locations in which there could have potentially been more views.[4] These states are well known as being the two battleground states in which Hillary Clinton was upset by President Trump as he carried the vote in both by less than 1%.[5] This seems to show a Russian attempt to interfere by targeting close political races in order to undermine the election; something the Russian government has denied doing. Other potential factors for Russian ads could be to test what kind of effects false news will have with just a small amount of money being spent, or, to test whether or not this method of undermining an election is even possible.

Facebook has already begun to move on the defensive within its own corporation. The social media company has begun to change its guidelines to warn ad buyers that those who utilize false news and deceptive ads will be forfeiting their right to monetize from the ads.[6]  Other large tech corporations have also begun to follow suit in becoming proactive in disclosing and fighting these ads. Microsoft, who has been untouched by the issue, has announced that while it has not been accused of selling Russian-bought ads, it will begin to investigate whether or not the same issue had occurred within its Bing search engine and other products.[7] Google has also come under fire as it recently discovered around $4,700 in ad purchases through its YouTube and Gmail services which was tied to accounts that are believed to be connected to the Russian government.[8] It has become evident that the corporations that had once rejected the claims and refused to help the government in offering up information from ads are now becoming increasingly more ready to comply with federal requests.

The response by the US government has become increasingly harsh as more information has continued to come out regarding how much Russia truly invested in these ads. Currently, the ads issue is under investigation by multiple US Congressional committees and the Department of Justice.[9] In the past, these corporations avoided disclosing whom had purchased their ads through a disclaimer that it was not required to release the information due to the purchases being too small to monitor.[10]  Senator John McCain, along with two Democrat Senators, has been on the move to end this disclaimer in federal law and, together, they are working on a bill to make Facebook, Google and other corporations in the industry disclose these advertisers.[11] One of the largest conflicts still looming between the government and these corporations resides over the belief that while the corporations did not know it was happening, they knew this type of ad-purchasing was possible and did nothing to curb it. At the end of the day, this situation has opened the door for stronger interference from the US government as federal election legislation specifically prevents foreign investments from affecting US elections, making the Russian actions explicitly illegal.[12]

Some of the stiffest concerns regarding the implications of government interference in social media corporations relate to potential effects of stifling freedom of speech through monitoring and disclosure of advertisements. This conflict reflects another issue in the relationship between corporations and the federal government—social media corporations lobby to protect the speech of their users while the government holds that the government is the single entity with the power to arbitrate speech.[13] More recently, social media corporations have begun to sort out and prevent accounts from ISIS linked propaganda accounts.[14] Similar companies in the industry, such as website hosting corporations, have done similar things, such as preventing neo-nazi pages from being hosted through their services.[15] The mutual agreement among most experts is that while these corporations are not bound by the First Amendment, they should not utilize this situation to become censors of user material unless it is explicitly illegal.[16]

Overall, it seems that the Congress is taking hold over these large social media corporations and may soon have the ability to force the disclosure of advertisements. While advertising is in many ways a form of freedom of speech, the corporations profiting from the advertisements have the right to decide what does and does not appear on their sites. In this sense, there is a median in which these tech giants will be able to balance their rights to protect the speech of their users while also managing federal concerns regarding foreign interests and money-making. It seems clear, however, that to allow false news and harmful propaganda to gain traction on social media will not be tolerated in the future, and companies will become better watchdogs or face harsher penalties.

 

About the Author: Adam Banks is a student at the School of International Affairs.


 

[1] Scott Shane & Vindu Goel, “Fake Russian Facebook Accounts Bought $100,000 in Political Ads,” The New York Times, September 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/06/technology/facebook-russian-political-ads.html.

[2] Alexis C. Madrigal, “What, Exactly, Were Russians Trying to Do With Those Facebook Ads?,” TheAtlantic.com, September 25, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/09/the-branching-possibilities-of-the-facebook-russian-ad-buy/541002/ .

[3] Manu Raju et al., “Russian-linked Facebook Ads Targeted Michigan and Wisconsin,” CNN.com, October 4, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/03/politics/russian-facebook-ads-michigan-wisconsin/index.html.

[4] Manu Raju et al., supra note 3.

[5] Manu Raju et al., supra note 3.

[6] Alyza Sebenius, “Should Facebook Ads Be Regulated Like TV Commercials?,” TheAtlantic.com, September 14, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/09/facebook-ads-free-speech/539736/.

[7] “Google ‘Uncovers Russian Ad Campaign Linked to US Election,’” BBC.com, October 9, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41561882.

[8] Kenneth P. Vogel & Cecilia Kang, “Senators Demand Online Ad Disclosures as Tech Lobby Mobilizes,The New York Times, October 19, 2017,  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/19/us/politics/facebook-google-russia-meddling-disclosure.html.

[9]  BBC.com, supra note 7.

[10] Vogel & Kang, supra note 8.

[11] Vogel & Kang, supra note 8.

[12] Vogel & Kang, supra note 8.

[13] Sebenius, supra note 6.

[14] Sebenius, supra note 6.

[15] Sebenius, supra note 6.

[16] Sebenius, supra note 6.