Social-media companies bear a part of the responsibility for the growing polarization and bitter partisanship in American life that the Russians, and not only the Russians, sought to exploit.
Who is afraid of special counsel Robert Mueller? President Donald Trump is afraid. So are those who worked on his campaign. But they are not alone.
Over the weekend, Rob Goldman made it clear that some of America’s biggest social-media companies are scared of Mueller, too. Goldman is Facebook’s vice president for advertising, and according to his Twitter bio, a “student, seeker, raconteur, burner.” On Friday, he took to Twitter to proclaim his company’s innocence. He was, he wrote, “very excited to see the Mueller indictment today,” since Facebook had “shared Russian ads with Congress, Mueller and the American people.” But “still, there are key facts about the Russian actions that are still not well understood.”
He went on: “Most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to affect the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.” Instead, he said, the main goal was to “divide America by using our institutions, like free speech and social media, against us. It has stoked fear and hatred among Americans. It is working incredibly well.”
In a short string of tweets, in other words, Facebook’s vice president for advertising twisted and obfuscated the issues almost beyond recognition. For one, the indictment states clearly that the Russians were not merely buying ads: It alleges that they used fake American identities, fraudulently obtained PayPal accounts and fraudulent Social Security numbers to set up Facebook pages for groups such as “Blacktivist,” “Secured Borders” and “Army of Jesus.” They did indeed use those pages to spread fear and hatred, reaching tens and possibly hundreds of millions of people.
They began this project in 2014, well before the election. And when the election began, they were under clear instructions, according to the indictment, to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except [Bernie] Sanders and Trump-we support them).” By the time the election began in earnest, the attempt to “divide America” was an attempt to elect Trump. They pushed anti-Clinton messages on websites aimed at the far-right fringe and tried to suppress voter turnout on websites aimed at minorities. I’m not sure where Goldman’s idea that “swaying the election was not the main goal” comes from, but it is diametrically opposed to the content of Mueller’s indictment. No wonder Trump tweeted this on Saturday: “The Fake News Media never fails. Hard to ignore the fact from the Vice President of Facebook Ads, Rob Goldman!”
But Goldman is right to be afraid. The social-media companies, including Facebook as well as Twitter, YouTube and Reddit, really do bear a part of the responsibility for the growing polarization and bitter partisanship in American life that the Russians, and not only the Russians, sought to exploit. They have now become conduits for Russian propaganda, and not only Russian propaganda, by accident. The Facebook algorithm, by its very nature, is pushing Americans, and everybody else, into ever more partisan echo chambers — and people who read highly partisan material are much more likely to believe false stories.
At the same time, Facebook has declared itself free of responsibility: The company continues to argue that it is not legally liable for material that appears on its platform because it is not a “publisher,” even though it behaves in every other way like a publisher, including by collecting advertising revenue that used to go to publishers. The result is that anyone who seeks to spread false information on Facebook or any other social-media site is, in practice, no longer bound by laws on libel or false advertising that were explicitly designed to stop them.
This is not the only problem: There is plenty of evidence now that the very nature of the platforms encourages ever more extreme, ever more offensive material. Studies of YouTube have shown how automated video production, governed by algorithms, not humans, leads inexorably to more violent and more disturbing videos. One recent survey suggests that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts — some 48 million — may not be human at all. Many think that is a gross underestimate.
Don’t let them off the hook: Until they take responsibility for what appears on their platforms — or until they are held legally liable — the social media companies will continue to fuel the division that Goldman piously denounces. They are not accidental victims of Russia’s information war. They are its tools.