Representatives from Google, Facebook, and other companies testified before members of Congress yesterday, saying they were unhappy that hackers and actors backed by the Kremlin had used their Web-based platforms and tools to stir up hateful divisions among Americans and influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the New York Times reports.
One showed a copy of an ad run by an account named “Army of Jesus” that had Jesus arm wrestling with the devil and the headline, “Satan: If I win, Clinton wins!” Other accounts, such as Blacktivists and Back the Badge, were designed to cement divisions between Americans who support law enforcement and those who believe blacks are generally treated differently from whites by some police officers.
As for me, I’m kind of on both sides with that, and such ads, though I saw them running, didn’t really get through to me. But I don’t use social media like most Americans, and it’s possible that users of these platforms who had a predisposition toward one side or another could have been bolstered or empowered by seeing accounts with hundreds of thousands of (mostly robotic or Russia-backed) followers.
For its part, Facebook has promised to step up efforts to curb the abuse. “I’ve expressed how upset I am that the Russians used our tools to sow mistrust,” the Times quoted Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, as saying. He plans to double the number of content reviewers, to 20,000, and will try to add a greater degree of transparency into the platform’s advertising system. “What they did is wrong, and we’re not going to stand for it.”
Ethically and morally “wrong” as it may be to stir hate, the First Amendment, especially after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, all but enables this massive dissemination of divisive speech. It is very difficult, our understanding of the First Amendment being guided by the Court’s interpretation, to outlaw ads like the Jesus ad mentioned above.
So it’s not quite as simple as saying, “A foreign government used advertising to elect a US president.” There’s a fine line between content-based censorship and the outlawing of hate speech, and no one’s quite sure it has been crossed here.
In other words, although Facebook and Google can act as independent companies to ban certain content, the government can pass no law requiring them to ban speech based on content, even if it’s posted and paid for by a foreign government, even if it expresses an opinion about a presidential candidate, even if it expresses a viewpoint that many people disagree with or makes a bad joke. Unless we get into libelous content—a distant boundary when it comes to candidates for president—the government has no teeth.
Which is probably why these companies sent representatives, instead of the CEOs, to testify before Congress. “I’m disappointed that you’re here, and not your CEOs,” the Times quoted Senator Angus King, of Maine, as saying.
But it’s difficult to believe, given the evidence now presented, that vast numbers of Americans weren’t manipulated by the foreign injection of propaganda during the 2016 presidential election. A rise in hate crimes has been noted, and most of these ads, paid for by Russia, were done with the intent of making Americans hate other Americans. Companies are able to sell ads on the internet because ads work, since, let’s face it: Americans are pushovers.
Once again, I reiterate our policy on advertising. Voxitatis doesn’t, and never will, run display ads alongside our content. None of what you see on our screen has been paid for, by Russia, another foreign government, a teachers’ union, or anyone but me. I don’t get rich, of course, as Facebook’s shareholders do, but as I already have a decent-paying job, I am able to do this.