Facebook Fiasco

AP Photo/Noah Berger

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks in San Jose, California

Facebook’s disclosure that it sold up to $150,000 in ads to Russia-based social media trolls during the 2016 election has revived a potentially explosive debate over whether the government should regulate political ads on the internet.

Lawmakers mulling new regulations are sure to get an earful from both free speech advocates and foes of secret spending. Just this week, House and Senate Democrats urged the Federal Election Commission to “promulgate new guidance” on how ad platforms can better prevent illegal foreign spending. But most everybody agrees on one thing: Facebook has been shirking its public responsibilities, even as its power and revenues mushroom.

Facebook has partially mitigated the damage by announcing that it would release 3,000 ads to government investigators. “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in remarks announcing the move. But it may take a while for Facebook to repair its image, which has been battered by a string of revelations involving its role disseminating “fake” news, and its use (now discontinued) of algorithms that allowed advertisers to target such categories as “Jew haters.”

And questions remain about whether the ads, which reportedly focused principally on divisive political and social issues but also mentioned Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by name, violated campaign-finance laws that ban foreign contributions and expenditures in American elections. Facebook has yet to release the ads publicly. Moreover, Facebook has also declined to say who saw the ads, whether certain regions of the country were targeted, and which of the suspected Russian social media trolls and “bots” ran the 470 fake accounts behind them.

Lawmakers have been losing patience with Facebook’s tight-lipped handling of the issue, and have signaled that company officials will be called to testify on Capitol Hill. The FEC, having deadlocked three years ago on Facebook’s request that it be exempted from political ad disclaimer rules, has also reopened public comment on whether the commission should change its regulations for digital political ads.

Facebook had been under mounting public pressure to release the ads. Common Cause filed complaints with both the Justice Department and the FEC, pointing to the Facebook ads as evidence that foreign nationals made illegal campaign expenditures. The Campaign Legal Center called on Zuckerberg in a letter to release the ads. And the internet rights group Demand Progress collected 40,000 signatures on a petition calling on Facebook to do the same.

“There are complicated questions about where we draw the lines with online communication,” Kurt Walters, campaign director for Demand Progress told The American Prospect. “The ads themselves would be invaluable to figuring out how to create rules that both protect the integrity of our democracy, while not violating any important values of free speech online or similar concerns.”

Still, some argue that lawmakers contemplating legislative fixes should proceed with caution. On the surface, it might look like a no-brainer that online political ads should come with the same disclosures and disclaimers as television ads. Political TV ads must contain a tag line stating who paid for them, while broadcasters and cable operators must publicly report the source and cost of political ads to the Federal Communications Commission.

No such rules apply to the internet, which explains how Russians managed to secretly place some 3,000 potentially illegal ads on Facebook.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to transfer broadcast and cable TV rules to the internet, as former FEC commissioner Ann Ravel discovered when she proposed that the agency consider revisiting its internet disclosure rules in 2014. Ravel warned that lack of disclosure was an invitation to foreign meddling, and proposed a public forum on the topic.

The backlash was swift. Ravel endured defamatory attacks and death threats, underscoring the passions that surround internet privacy and free speech. Her proposal also pointed out the challenge regulators face in containing hate speech and disinformation without treading on free expression in the internet age.

“Everyone is aware that there are very thorny policy questions when you talk about the internet,” says Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy for Issue One, which backs campaign-finance changes. “And none of us have any interest in squelching speech, chilling speech or restricting speech.” 

Nevertheless, there are some additional, common-sense steps that Facebook and other social media companies can take to restore public trust in the lucrative platforms that now wield such influence in public life. These companies should to require that their advertisers certify to them that their ads are paid for by domestic, not foreign, sources. Social media platforms should also keep track of who paid for and archive their candidate-related ads, in the event that questions arise. Facebook has taken an overdue step toward transparency, but the debate over political internet ads is just beginning.

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