Facebook is not listening to the fake news furore
Mark Zuckerberg’s absence from Capitol Hill to face questioning about the firm’s role in the spread of bogus election ads spoke volumes about his priorities
By John Naughton
One of the most instructive sights of the week was that of representatives of Twitter, Google and Facebook getting a grilling from a US Senate judiciary subcommittee on Capitol Hill. The topic at hand? “Extremist content and Russian disinformation online”, which, translated, reads: how did Russian use of social media affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election? The committee chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham, set it up nicely in his opening statement by quoting what Trump had said on Fox News on 20 October: “I doubt I’d be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you.”
For three tech companies that, like all of Silicon Valley, loathe and despise politics, this was a nightmarish week. I mean to say, there they were, at the mercy of the low-IQ technophobes of Capitol Hill, live on C-Span (the congressional TV channel), something they had lobbied furiously to avoid. Their appearances were presaged by a flurry of press releases and revelations. The Russian exploitation of their advertising machines that they had once pooh-poohed was, it turned out, much more extensive than they had imagined. Facebook, for example, had belatedly discovered that 126 million people in the US may have seen posts produced by Russian-government-backed agents on its site. Very devious coves, those Ruskies.
A few things emerged from the hearing. The first is that legislators seem to be getting worried about the power of the big tech companies, especially Facebook. “How does Facebook,” asked Senator Al Franken, “which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia?” Good question, which produced no answer from Colin Stretch, the company’s general counsel.
Second, the legislators focused too much on the Russian ads and ignored what may be a bigger problem, namely the 80,000 “organic” posts that appeared in the news feeds of a third of American Facebook users. These were ingenious posts that appeared to come from US users and carried messages that, though not overtly political, were designed to press emotional buttons in a way that could have had a political impact.
To a detached observer, though, it looked like classical political theatre. The politicians huffed and puffed and kept an eye on their Twitter feeds. There was much cant about “finding solutions”. And the company representatives mimed contrition but yielded little ground.
All of which was predictable. My guess is that nothing much will happen. On the political side, the Republicans who control Congress have no intention of doing anything to regulate the tech companies. Three Democratic senators have put forward a bill that would require the companies to provide more information about the political ads that they accept and run. It’s called the Honest Ads Act, which would make it the first oxymoron to make it on to the statute book. But its chances of progressing are infinitesimally small, if only because the midterm elections loom.
On the corporate side, nothing much will happen either. Of course the companies are promising to recruit lots of people to help them stamp out abuses of their advertising engines. They are also investing heavily (they say) in AI that will be smart enough to outwit those fiendish Russians. (Good luck with that.) The one thing they will not do, however, is anything that might undermine their business models, which are, at least in the cases of Google and Facebook, licences to print money.
Just to emphasise that point, Facebook has just released its results for the third quarter of 2017. They show that its number of “daily active users” grew by 50 million to 1.37 billion. Its revenues are up by 47% from what they were a year ago. And its share price now stands at $182 compared with $127 last November. It will take more than a spot of public humiliation at the hands of a few senators to persuade them to switch off a money-making machine like that.
Summing up: the companies have no incentive to change their ways. And there’s no real political will in the US to make them. All of which perhaps explains why Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t on Capitol Hill but in China to meet the great Thought Leader Xi Jinping. Now there’s a politician worth sucking up to.