Except for inside the alternate universe that exists in the Oval Office, there can no longer be any doubt.
Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and hijacked aspects of Facebook and Twitter to do it. And if the Silicon Valley social media giants don’t step up, it’s going to happen again in 2018 and 2020.
We got an instructive – and scary – reminder over the past few days: Even as special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians and three organizations Friday, Russian bots were at it again – this time trying to deepen America’s divide over guns after the Parkland, Fla., school massacre.
Automated accounts linked to Russia have waged a sustained campaign to stoke discord and distrust in America since the 2016 election, sometimes promoting tweets by President Donald Trump. Other times, they fanned the flames of made-up stories, like the one about a pedophile ring beneath a Washington pizza parlor.
Some social media executives seem to be getting the message. This week, Twitter weeded out thousands of fake accounts. Of course, some conservatives complained Wednesday that they were being victimized, but do they really want to make a stink about losing phony followers?
In a statement, Twitter said its “tools are apolitical” and that it enforces them “without political bias.” In fact, athletes and celebrities lost more than a million followers last month after companies that hawk fake accounts were exposed. Why would anyone want a fake follower? To make it appear they are popular.
As for Facebook, executives pledged to Congress last October that they would double the company’s safety and security staff to 20,000 by the end of 2018. That’s a good measure, too.
What isn’t helpful is Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of advertising, tweeting after the indictments were announced: “I have seen all the Russian ads and I can say definitively that swaying the election was NOT the main goal.”
After our denier-in-chief retweeted Goldman’s comments trying to yet again cast doubt on Russian meddling, so Goldman apologized and Facebook disavowed his comments.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who once said the idea that fake news influenced the election is “pretty crazy,” now talks about the responsibility to do more.
It’s increasingly clear that the business models and bottom lines of social media behemoths are at stake. If their platforms continue to be used to spew vile and fake material, they will lose users and advertisers. Already, Facebook has seen a decline in U.S. and Canadian users from 185 million to 184 million – the first decline ever. That doesn’t seem like much, but it does indicate that people are tiring of some of what they’re seeing.
Advertisers are noticing. Unilever, the consumer products conglomerate and one of the world’s biggest advertisers, is threatening to pull $9 billion in ads from social media networks. That’s real money, even for a company like Facebook, which reported nearly $16 billion in profits last year.
If companies don’t do more, the federal government could impose regulations. That’s not good for free speech, either. We can’t trust the Trump administration to get that right, especially after it clobbered consumers and start-ups by repealing net neutrality last December.
It would be better for everyone if Facebook, Twitter and others used the vast brainpower and incredible wealth at their disposal to act as responsible corporate citizens. They thrive in our sometimes unruly democracy. They need to help keep it safe.