The internet, or “Information Superhighway,” transformed the world by connecting people and information quickly. Unfortunately, that storied road is now littered with dangerous drivers, hazards, and highwaymen ready to pounce on unwitting travelers—and police are few and far between. The 2016 U.S. election, the Brexit vote, or French election, have all revealed the increasing hazards that exist online.
This fall, Facebook, Google and Twitter executives were hauled before a Congressional committee after being asked to investigate allegations of Russian meddling. Facebook admitted that 126 million of their users may have seen content produced and circulated anonymously by Russian operatives. Twitter admitted to working with 2,752 Russian accounts, and that 36,000 Russian bots tweeted 1.4 million times during the election. Google testified that 1,108 videos with 43 hours of content related to the Russian effort were uploaded on YouTube, and that Russians placed $4,700 worth of search and display ads on its network.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the kind of meddling the social media giants tolerated. And getting a grip on how to address these issues will be no small feat. The social media business model itself is flawed and unethical; the tech giants have usurped the role of traditional news media—without assuming any historic social responsibilities.
For years, Facebook and the others have lobbied effectively to keep costly regulations and laws at bay with a false narrative that maintains they are not media companies but are merely “platforms.” This is akin to the “Uber defense,” designed to bypass licensing, insurance or inspection requirements to enhance profits and to unfairly compete. But if Uber is not a taxi service and Facebook is not a media company, then I am a bot.
Newspapers and broadcasters are, after all, platforms too—platforms that both create and curate content from third parties. At the very minimum, they cannot print or beam defamatory statements, nor incite violence. If they do, they are subject to punishment, litigation or both.
But beyond that, journalistic institutions have always felt themselves bound to faithfully relay a version of reality to its customers. Not so the tech giants. “At our heart, we’re a tech company; we hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters, no one’s a journalist, we don’t cover the news,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
But the facts suggest otherwise. Social media companies offer users content around which they sell ads and commercials. They have become the country’s biggest news sources. In September, new data released by the Pew Research Center said 67 percent of Americans “get at least some of their news on social media.” They are also broadcasters. Google owns YouTube and Facebook transmits and commissions videos for its broadcast arm called Facebook Live.
These social media empires are based on a “Freemium” business model: users get free services if they sign an agreement giving these companies permission to collect and utilize all their personal, professional, health, financial, relationship, search, and shopping information. In his 2013 book called Who Owns the Future, Jaron Lanier suggested this should be illegal. He predicted a looming disaster if the public became dependent on these “free” social media companies, unaware that these empires are “private spy agencies crossed with ad agencies, which are licensed by us to spy on all of us all the time in order to accumulate billions of dollars by manipulating what’s put in front of us over supposedly open and public networks.”
An egregious example of the kind of behavior these companies’ business models encourage surfaced this summer when an internal Facebook sales pitch to advertisers was leaked to an Australian newspaper. Facebook stated it had pinpointed an audience of thousands of young teenagers who felt “insecure,” “defeated,” “nervous,” “failures,” “worthless,” and “needed a confidence boost.” These diagnoses were based on a psychoanalysis of private Facebook information: what users posted, what they liked, how they appeared in photos, who their friends and how depressed were they as well as their search and shopping histories, visits to mental illness sites or hotlines and so forth.
Profiling anyone, especially emotionally vulnerable minors, is morally questionable at best, and European governments are looking at curbs. Spain’s privacy regulator has imposed fines on Facebook for collecting private user data without “clearly informing the user about the use and purpose.” The European Union is formulating similar restrictions. But if anything, these curbs will fall far short of meaningfully limiting the political impact of social media technologies on our democracies.
As long as detailed user data is available to the highest bidder and no disclosure requirements are imposed on platforms hosting political advertising, our system will remain vulnerable to manipulation. Case in point: the technique known as “behavioral micro-targeting,” most famously championed by Cambridge Analytica, a data-harvesting firm employed by the Trump campaign in last year’s elections. Strategists for the Trump team used this technique, supercharged with reams of personal data from various social networks, to locate strategically important “undecided” voters across the country, and especially in three swing states—Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—where Democrats were only narrowly ahead. These “undecideds,” in certain zip codes, were then bombarded with Trump messages anonymously.
“Twitter is how [Trump] talked to the people, Facebook was going to be how he won,” Trump’s digital guru Brad Parscale said in a 60 Minutes interview last month.
The fact that Team Trump seized on this tool to win is not in and of itself the issue. After all, the strategy was open to the Clinton campaign as well, and they failed to capitalize on it. The issue is that the messaging to the undecideds was not identified as political in nature. Even explicitly political robo-calls need to identify themselves as such. These small-scale political messages were not identified as paid advertisements because Facebook, Google, and others successfully lobbied the Federal Elections Commission in 2011 to get an exemption. That decision now really needs to be scrutinized—and the exemption overturned.
The vast troves of information harvested by internet companies can also wreak havoc when they are stolen. Earlier this month, for example, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman alleged that hundreds of thousands of American social media users had their digital identities hijacked in order to corrupt the Federal Communication Commission’s public comment process about an important policy issue: the “net neutrality” debate. Obviously, lobbyists caught impersonating citizens should face the stiffest penalties. But as custodians of personal information, internet companies should also be held strictly liable for any broad data breaches.
Europeans have been upset about America’s social media companies for years, and are increasingly taking action. In September, Germany passed a law requiring social media to remove hate speech or images immediately or face fines of up to €50 million. Britain told Facebook and the others that they must censor terrorist information. Spain intends to make Google and other social media to pay royalties to traditional media for republication of their content. Courts in Australia and Canada have ruled that Google must scrub statements that are defamatory globally or face official repercussions.
Such broad measures stand little chance of success in the United States, where the First Amendment provides a broad umbrella for almost any manifestation of “speech.” But as evidence and outrage mounts, America should stop accepting Silicon Valley’s false narrative that it’s just an agnostic platform that serves the public good by enhancing freedom of expression. While all agree that freedom of expression remains sacrosanct, the proviso is that it ought not damage individuals, society, or democracy.
After a meteoric rise on an un-level playing field, America’s social media sector is a global problem that must be solved. It must be supervised. Rigorously.