November 2, 2017 By Zak Mehan
This week we are dedicating the Americas Download to the hearings in Washington, DC. General Counsels (GCs) from Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared at three hearings on Capitol Hill between yesterday and today. The Senate Intelligence Committee (SIC) got particularly thorny for the companies, while the House Intelligence Committee paused for a brief tutorial on the difference between bots and trolls (but did offer some glimpses of the Facebook ads and Twitter accounts).
Technology companies – Facebook, in particular – have come under fire for their role in the 2016 presidential election. Before the hearings we knew that 126 million people had seen Russian election posts on Facebook (the total was revealed to be around 150 million during the SIC hearing), cohorts of bots boosted divisive content on Twitter and Google’s ads and YouTube were used to spread misinformation.
Senator Susan Collins offered us a microcosmic view of the pervasiveness during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, quoting Kremlin-backed accounts targeting Maine Governor Paul LePage over the last two years.
We’ve also heard strong words from companies about solutions to the issues that became apparent during the elections, but more on that later.
A number of themes continued across the hearings, which will have lessons for companies on social media and potential impact on future regulations.
Spending = Impact?
Who Are You?
Pledge of Allegiance
Picking Your Team
The big question looming after these hearings is whether the ultimate threat to these companies is simply reputational or regulatory. The companies – especially Facebook – have each implemented some fixes and attempted to self-regulate to prevent a further crackdown. Facebook and Twitter are both trumpeting initiatives offering greater transparency for users; Facebook launching (among other things) a “View Ads” feature to show all of the ads a page has posted and Twitter allowing users to see why they were targeted for certain ads. SIC Chairman Burr suggested companies live up to FEC rules, mandating that ads mentioning specific candidates disclose funding, for example.
That the chairman didn’t mention new or specific regulations may be telling. The FCC is on a media deregulation binge and the Republican Party – in control of the executive and legislative branches – tends against regulation (not to mention pushed the conversations about Russian social media impact largely into the theoretical during these hearings).
What’s more is the trickiness that regulation entails. The companies have escaped FEC guidelines because they are not media companies. Twitter’s GC took pains to express that Twitter is a vehicle for content rather than a content creator. For Twitter, which has a more niche user base and limited content hosting capabilities, this may fly. But with almost half of American citizens getting their news from Facebook and more efforts to host long-form news content on Facebook and Google, some deeper regulation seems likes only a matter of time.
When Politicians Block Critics On Social Media NPR
Facebook Stumbles With Early Effort to Stamp Out Fake News Bloomberg
Instagram is testing a stop-motion camera for Stories The Verge
Twitter says it’s banning Russian ads that Russia says it solicited Digiday
In case you forgot, it was Halloween yesterday. Let’s take a second to eat a little leftover candy and decompress with some over the top costumes.