LIZ POSNER | 2 NOVEMBER, 2017
WASHINGTON: The House and Senate intelligence committees probed legal representatives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter this week over their role in Russia's hacking of the 2016 election.
While the three corporate reps played along, claiming ignorance of the extent of the Russian involvement and outrage over it happening at all, their behavior at the testimonies revealed a deep and underlying rot within their companies — one that we all could have seen coming since we first discovered these companies were spying on us.
The Google, Facebook, and Twitter congressional hearings this week confirmed that the Russian infiltration of the American election wasn't just a problem of oversight on behalf of those companies. They also revealed that these companies have, to some extent, abandoned their fundamental missions.
Of the three who testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday, Facebook is under the most heat at the moment. In September, Facebook admitted that Russian accounts had spent $100,000 on 3,000 ads during the election, and claimed the ads reached just 10 million people.
On Monday, Facebook revealed that the Russian ads reached a far, far greater number of Facebook users than it had previously predicted: 126 million American users. Then it topped that number yet again on Wednesday when it announced 146 million Facebook users saw the ads. It’s highly likely that they held as much sway over the voters they reached as any other political propaganda during the election. CNN reporter Dylan Byers captured the Facebook backtracking well.
- didn’t happen
- happened, but was small
- ok, semi-big
- ok, it reached 126 million, but no evidence it influenced them https://t.co/U84JdHjvF5
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) October 30, 2017
While Google's technology is much farther-reaching than Facebook's, the company claims it hasn’t facilitated the same kind of political damage that Facebook probably has through its Russian ads, though Russian agents also bought ads on Google platforms like YouTube. “We did observe that links to these videos were frequently posted to other social media platforms,” said Richard Salgado, Google’s representative at the hearing, deferring blame to Facebook and Twitter. “Google’s products also don’t lend themselves to the kind of targeting or viral dissemination these actors seem to prefer.”
Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are bringing their agendas into the hearings, though it’s easy to see which side is using truth and fact to make their case. Republicans urged the tech companies to confirm that Russia only sought to sow discord among Americans through its political ads, whereas Democrats reminded its audience that the ads were intended to bolster Trump’s election, a fact confirmed by multiple intelligence agencies.
“During the election, they were trying to create discord between Americans, most of it directed against Clinton,” Lindsey Graham said to Facebook’s representative Colin Stretch. “After the election, you saw Russian-tied groups and organizations trying to undermine President Trump’s legitimacy. Is that what you saw on Facebook?”
Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, echoed a similar line. “Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States,” he said in blatant dismissal of the facts. “Their goal is to divide us and discredit our democracy.” The ads themselves, it was revealed in the hearings, are highly emotional in nature and clearly skewed toward targeting right-wing voters (some of them, for example, depict Hillary Clinton as a friend to Satan and an enemy of the American military).
For what it’s worth, the tech titans have been relatively cooperative with the process. Twitter announced last week that it would ban all ads from RT and Sputnik, two news sites with ties to the Russian government. And all three built sympathetic lines into their testimonies on Capitol Hill. “The foreign interference we saw was reprehensible,” Facebook’s Stretch told senators. But their promises are weak-willed. As Tim Wu, a professor of law at Columbia University, told the New York Times, “I like that they are contrite, but these issues are existential and they aren’t taking any structural changes. These are Band-Aids.”
Therein lies the key issue: only structural changes—to the way these companies make vast sums of ad revenue, in particular—will stop political interference like what we saw boil over in the 2016 election. It would take a complete structural overhaul to stop this kind of infiltration. Advertisers both large- and small-scale have been flocking to both Google and Facebook ads for years.
The advertising process is automated and difficult to monitor. And boosting the visibility of viral content is built into the very heart of companies' business models: on Facebook, you’re more likely to see ads that your friends “liked.” Google rewards websites that adhere to its vast and ever-changing SEO rules and arbitrarily punishes independent voices like AlterNet at a whim, and on Google Ads, a competitive marketplace for advertisers, companies need only bid a few dollars higher than their competitors in order to push their ads up to the top of a search result page.
Google and Facebook were supposed to help people make connections and access information, but as they scaled, they employed technology and attracted advertisers that undercut this very mission. The backbone of Facebook’s technology is a machine learning-fueled algorithm, which feeds users content they’re more likely to respond to based on its popularity and its similarity to posts they’ve engaged with before.
It’s a creation of genius that advertisers love: the longer you spend on Facebook, scanning through photos and articles and posts that fit well into the bubble the algorithm thinks you live in, the more targeted the ads are likely to feed you. It’s made the company billions of dollars, so why would they stop now just because of a few million possibly influenced American voters and one measly presidential election?
As Michael Carpenter, a former policy adviser for Joe Biden, wrote in the Hill, these companies have consistently downplayed the impact Russian bots had on the 2016 election, and disappointingly, yet not surprisingly, they continued in this vein this week on Capitol Hill. It’s a dangerous underestimation of how far Russia will go, and for how long, to infiltrate and weaken American democracy.
These companies claim to democratize the internet—that’s the whole basis behind boosting certain popular posts or rewarding well-done SEO. It’s supposed to create an internet for the everyman. They claim to want to forge friendships and make it easier to find answers to questions, but the Russia interferences show that their business model is, in many ways, doing just the opposite.
Scaling up has endangered the missions of these companies, as automated ads and the massive scale at which Facebook and Google have grown made their best-laid plans unmanageable. Now, instead of being transparent about their problems, they’re issuing lie after lie in the hopes of skirting punitive legislation, and refusing to do anything concrete about their Russia problem until our government forces them to.
It's somewhat ironic that Russia took advantage of a classic capitalist problem: when a company with the best of intentions is successful and scales up, in the process of trying to crush all competition, it sacrifices its soul and exacerbates the societal problems it sought to solve in the first place. Lindsey Graham summed up the situation accurately this week when he said, “It’s Russia today; it could be Iran and North Korea tomorrow.
What we need to do is sit down and find ways to bring some of the controls we have on over-the-air broadcast to social media to protect the consumer.” But it’s been a long time since Facebook, Google, and Twitter cared about their consumers, or about their missions to better the world.
As long as ad revenue allows these companies to increase their reach at such fast scales, it will be up to government legislation to rein in their influence, which will require a deep restructuring of the way these companies make their money. And if this week’s hearing showed anything, they’re not likely to hand over that power quietly.
(Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on Forbes.com, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. This article has been made possible by the supporters and readers of AlterNet)