Recently, Facebook decided it wanted to get into the ‘election integrity’ game, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to “make sure Facebook is a force for good in democracy.” So the company decided to hand over $100,000-worth of Russia-linked ads to government officials investigating the role Russia may have played in trying to influence the 2016 election.
The company plans to take part in public hearings on the subject on Nov. 1, and joins Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google in testifying. But Facebook has a dirty little secret: back in April, reports the Wall Street Journal, the company cut references to Russia out of a public report detailing manipulation of its platform
The drafting of the report sparked internal debate over how much information to disclose about Russian mischief on Facebook and its efforts to affect U.S. public opinion during the 2016 presidential contest, according to these people. Some at Facebook pushed to not include a mention of Russia in the report because the company’s understanding of Russian activity was too speculative, according to one of the people.
Ultimately, the 13-page report, published on April 27 and titled “Information Operations and Facebook,” was shortened by several pages by Facebook’s legal and policy teams from an earlier draft, and didn’t mention Russia at all, the people said.
Rather, it concluded that “malicious actors” engaged in influence campaigns during the U.S. presidential election but said it couldn’t determine who was responsible.
That certainly is a different tactic for an organization now playing a role in calls for greater transparency of political ad buys, a move that makes conservatives nervous because it sounds an awful lot like the battle over Citizens United and could potentially restrict speech in politics. But Zuckerberg, as part of his 9-step plan to increase election integrity (although likely not in the same way that Vice President Pence’s Election Integrity Commission is working to ensure honest elections), outlines his desire in bullet point #3:
3. Going forward — and perhaps the most important step we’re taking — we’re going to make political advertising more transparent. When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they’re required by law to disclose who paid for them. But you still don’t know if you’re seeing the same messages as everyone else. So we’re going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency. Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook. We will roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.
Using the excuse that Russia may have influenced the 2016 election via ads has already brought out the regulators. Top Democrat on the Senate committee investigating Russia’s interference, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, is finalizing legislation that would make political advertising on social media more transparent. Despite reports indicating political ads don’t actually get the kind of attention those who insist Russia was an outsized influencer think they do, Warner and Zuckerberg continue in their quest.
So how does this attempt to revisit regulating political speech through increased transparency square with the lack of transparency on the part of Facebook in admitting their platform was vulnerable? Well, Zuck has to do something. Because to the extent hacking occurred in the 2016 election, it was a hacking of long dormant Facebook accounts that then either bought ads or were apparently used to promote misinformation.
It’s better for Facebook to point the finger at those who bought those ads rather than at the vulnerabilities inherent in the Facebook platform.
Anyway, we already know where Zuck stands on progressive policy initiatives thanks to Podesta’s leaked emails. Why should he break ranks when it comes to Citizens United and free speech in political ad buys?