On October 31, the Senate Judiciary Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee began a two-day inquiry into possible effects of Russian sponsored advertising via social media during the 2016 Presidential Campaign. Representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter were questioned to determine whether it was possible Russian paid adverts present on these sites impacted the election. Another major concern is how these platforms may have been misused in order to do so, and what steps the companies are taking to ensure their sites are not used in this manner again.
According to Facebook, as many as 126 million Americans were potentially exposed to posts originating from Russia which contained “politically divisive” content and was posted under a false identity. Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, testified that there were approximately 80,000 posts generated from a fake account belonging to one Russian company between 2015 and 2017. Additionally, as many as “3,000 U.S. political ads” were actually purchased from Russia during the campaign. Google and Twitter have also confirmed that their platforms hosted Russian sponsored political messages. The Russian Government, however, has repeatedly denied its intention to interfere in the election. The concern over private interference by Russian media companies like Sputnik and RT is largely the focus of these hearings. Twitter actually banned these two companies from advertising on their platform after finding both had used Twitter ads in an attempt “to interfere with the election on behalf of the Russian government.”
Turning to the ads themselves, Facebook and Instagram provided the ads to Congress and, subsequently, some of the ads were released by the House during the discussions for public review. On the whole, the ads appear to be issue-focused, while clearly leaning toward a particular candidate’s views and at times mentioning a candidate directly. The “representative sample” is small, and Congress has indicated it plans to release all 3,000 of the ads to the public following the investigation.
So, why is Congress concerned about news feeds flooded with Russian propaganda? One reason is that according to a study done by Pew Research Center roughly sixty-seven percent (67%) of Americans get some of their news from social media sites. Specifically, Twitter saw significant growth from 2015 to 2016, increasing by nine percent (9%), then from 2016 to 2017, increasing by fifteen percent (15%). While Facebook news users have remained relatively static since 2015, roughly forty-five percent (45%) of users get some news from Facebook.
While these percentages seem high, in the grand scheme of things the actual numbers appear to have minimal influence in the larger Facebook News Feed and Twittersphere. The ads in question made up only 0.74% of the election-related Tweets from September 1, 2016 to November 1, 2016, which received only 0.33% of the overall impressions regarding election tweets. Meanwhile, Facebook testified that, although there were 126 million exposed, the fake ads and posts only amounted to four-thousandths of one percent of all content in the News Feed.
Aside from general discomfort about Russian meddling in the democratic process, the real question becomes what are social media companies going to do about the fake ads? More importantly, why should they do anything? What’s the incentive for Facebook and other speech platforms to change their marketing and reviewing strategy in the face of a culture that does not seem to care? On the whole, however, it would appear that if Facebook and Twitter are unwilling to act, Congress is willing to step in. At the hearing, Senator Diane Feinstein (D. CA) did not mince words in her warning. “You will have to be the ones to do something about it,” she said. “Or we will.” But is it Congress’ role to police private companies, or is it the role of individual citizens to double check their news sources? At the end of the day we must ask ourselves, is Facebook responsible for being the filter, or is it incumbent upon third-party posters, purchasers, and content viewers?
Whitney is a Second-Year Law Student at Wake Forest University School of Law where she is a staff member on the Journal of Business and Intellectual Property Law. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia where she earned her B.A. in History and Government. Before returning to law school, Whitney enjoyed a career in New York working as an Account Executive in the advertising industry and plans to pursue Real Estate and Intellectual Property Law after graduation.