By Leora Katzman
Facebook, Google and Twitter have gathered this week on Capitol Hill to publicly acknowledge their role in Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential campaign. The tech giants are struggling to tread a delicate line as technology platforms simultaneously fighting foreign fake news and hate speech on their sites. Many lawmakers have pushed for tighter regulation of political advertising online, similar to rules for political advertising on television. The hearings’ most critical exchanges were aimed at Facebook, who acknowledged that more than 126 million users might have been exposed to inflammatory political ads stemming from a Kremlin-linked company, the Internet Research Agency. Additionally, Google admitted that agents from the Internet Research Agency uploaded more than 1,000 YouTube videos, and Twitter said the agency published more than 131,000 messages on its platform.
While Facebook, Google, and Twitter agreed that more transparency is necessary, the companies want to comply on their own terms and would not commit to supporting legislation that would regulate transparency for political ads. Democrats and Republicans argue as to the specifics of Russia’s interference; Democrats claim that Russia mounted an independent expenditure campaign on Mr. Trump’s behalf, and Republicans argue that the real intent of Russian propaganda was merely to create chaos in the U.S. election. However in a sign of shifting political winds for tech giants, Republicans and Democrats have united on Capitol Hill to criticize the companies for their slow response to the investigations. Furthermore, many lawmakers have voiced criticism that they were talking to general counsels for the companies instead of the CEOs themselves.
At the core of the tech giants’ problems is the structure of their business models which reward viral content, including misinformation, and their huge automated advertising business that is unable to easily spot ads purchased by foreign governments. The companies have a financial incentive to maximize advertising revenue regardless of whether the ad stems from a malicious source. Although the companies consider themselves technology platforms, the reality is that millions of Americans consider Facebook, Twitter, and Google their primary news sources. Thus, the companies will find it increasingly difficult to convince lawmakers that they are not in the media business. The distinction is critical when it comes to regulation, as tech platforms are generally not responsible for the content on their sites while media companies are. The big three social media platforms have long positioned themselves as spreading information and connecting people in a positive manner; however, the 2016 election was a rude awakening for these companies, as they must now grapple with foreign powers manipulating their technology for malevolent purposes. As a result of recent American reliance on these technology platforms for primary news coverage, the tech/media giants can anticipate increased scrutiny in the 2020 election cycle.