Our Democracy Is At Stake
Facebook claims Russian actors spent a pittance during the election cycle. But we have no way to know how large the Russian operation — or any operation — truly was. That must change.
For decades now, tech companies have thrived in the role of Scrappy Startup Hell Bent on Changing the World. For these companies, the traditional rules of business were made to be broken, and “old school” thinking was simply damage to be routed around.
One such set of “traditional rules of business” have to do with transparency and accountability around political advertising. Our democracy is based on the idea that if someone is trying to influence our vote, we have a right to know who’s doing the influencing. Paid political speech is regulated speech, and for good reason. Imagine someone surreptitiously and continuously injecting false or misleading information into your daily media diet, with the goal of influencing your vote and inflaming your passions?
Until last year, such a scenario sounded far fetched. Today, it’s reality, and we only have ourselves to blame. For reasons that will look increasingly short sighted in history’s rear view mirror, advertisers on platforms like Facebook do not have to hew to the same set of political speech regulations as they do on television, radio, direct mail or print. And Facebook’s acknowledgment last week that Russian actors spent the amusingly round sum of $100,000 influencing voters across the US is likely just the tip of the iceberg.
Thanks to the platform’s viral mechanics, “only” $100,000 can go a very long way on Facebook, reaching up to 70 million people, according to one expert. And because of the “privacy considerations of clients,” it’s nearly impossible to know who spent what to influence whom on Facebook or any other digital platform. That’s a massive Achilles heel for democracy.
To understand what’s going on here, we need to step back a bit and recall the history of technology companies’ interaction with Washington. More than 20 years ago, before Google, Facebook and Amazon were even shingles on the world wide web, the tech industry successfully argued that its platforms were neutral “town squares,” places where anyone could exercise their right to free speech. The industry’s regulators successfully lobbied Washington to exclude tech from responsibility for anything said on their platforms. I agreed with that reasoning then, and I agree with it now, with one major exception: Paid political speech.
As media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “The audacity of a hostile foreign power trying to influence American voters rightly troubles us. But it should trouble us more that Facebook makes such manipulation so easy, and renders political ads exempt from the basic accountability and transparency that healthy democracy demands.”
Transparency and accountability should apply to far more than Russian meddling. It should apply to the hundreds of millions of dollars now spent by candidates across all digital platforms (Trump spent nearly $100 million on Facebook alone in the last election cycle.) The Federal Election Commission’s regulations around paid political speech on the Internet, last updated in 2006 (again, before highly targeted and deeply opaque platforms like Facebook existed), are maddeningly confusing. They state that political, public communication “does not include Internet ads, except for communications placed for a fee on another person’s web site.” Er, isn’t that pretty much the definition of an ad?
But more on that in another column (I tried to sort it out for today’s column, but it’s just too complicated. It’s worth the work, however). The lesson from last week’s Facebook revelations is that over the past year or so, we’ve all woken up to an overwhelming fact: The world has changed. Scrappy tech is now Big Incumbent Tech, and its impact on our society is inarguable. Regardless of its protests about being neutral platforms for the world’s cacophonous town squares, Big Tech must start following some “traditional” rules around disclosure, transparency, and accountability, especially when the principles of our democracy are at stake. Without transparency, those sunny promises of a better world start to look like troubling and cynical head fakes.
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