Congress called executives from major social media companies up to Capitol Hill last week in the latest in the ongoing clash over Russian attempts to influence American elections. The Russian propaganda campaign was widespread and malicious — and likely had less to do with the results on Election Day than the weather.
Various Russian-sponsored organs have engaged in propaganda efforts in the United States, from the officially-sponsored RT, or Russia Today, English-language TV network with a large online presence, to fake Twitter personalities and Facebook pages.
The social media industry should be very worried about this for a variety of reasons -- but Capitol Hill is wasting its time on these show-trials.
The quality of the Russian propaganda meant to influence American elections is laughable. One is a paint-by-numbers Bernie Sanders meme; another depicts a demon Hillary Clinton arm-wrestling Jesus. There’s not a single voter in Wisconsin that was sitting on the fence, unsure about who to vote for, until they saw this Hillary Clinton meme cross their Facebook timeline. There’s not a single voter in Pennsylvania that was pro-Trump but unsure about turning out on Election Day that saw this and suddenly understood the gravity of the situation.
Social science research backs this up. Campaigns and political action committees spend hundreds of millions of dollars on elections, in both the form of officially-sanctioned advertising and dark-money attacks that aren’t traced back to candidates. Some of these campaigns have been seen as despicable, underhanded, and outright lies by election integrity activists, as with the Swift Boat Veterans campaign in 2004. It would be astounding if a few Russian Facebook memes purchased with a couple hundred thousand dollars had more effect than the decades of experience and hundreds of millions of dollars that American political action committees spend on elections.
Even the best campaign operatives have difficulty breaking through with the voting public. “There’s very little evidence that ads make much of a difference in a presidential campaign,” political scientist Diana Mutz told NPR in 2012. A 2010 study from political scientists Michael Franz and Travis Riddick found that political advertising has “almost no effect” on voters. The state of the economy and even the weather can have larger effects on election results than billions of dollars of political advertising. That a small cadre of Russians spending hundreds of thousands of dollars could have swung an election over the billions of dollars of seasoned American political veterans has no basis in reality.
This isn’t to say that Facebook does not have a problem on its hands. Americans have become increasingly stratified and polarized, and Facebook has played its role in those trends, even if it has not directly affected elections. People increasingly live in bubbles, refusing to fraternize with those who hold different political or social or cultural opinions. The new online media and social networks have made those bubbles stronger, and Facebook has built a platform that monetarily incentivizes them to serve advertising to those people in those bubbles. Both conservatives and progressives have a higher tendency to click on Facebook ads that reinforce their existing views, rather than challenge them; Facebook is all too happy to serve up those bubble-reinforcing ads.
The hearings on Capitol Hill put Facebook in a bind. The company has an enormous self-interest in depicting how powerful its ads are. If Facebook says that its advertising actually affects a very small segment of the population, it’s announcing to its biggest revenue source that it’s not worthwhile to advertise with them. If Facebook overinflates the importance of ads on its platform, it invites Congressional scrutiny and the idea that they should be regulated like a public utility. Facebook’s strategy of depicting its platform as extremely powerful while at the same time arguing that its self-regulation works is likely the only message that works, but it’s unlikely it will carry much weight with legislators in Congress who want to describe the election as having been manipulated by foreign sources.
Political bubbles are a much larger problem than only Facebook’s and have existed since before Facebook existed. Social media has exacerbated a trend that existed long before Facebook came along. The show trials in Congress are a dangerous step forward for policymakers who want to regulate emerging technology companies that don’t need it. But for the sake of the American polity, Facebook’s internal regulation needs more transparency -- and it wouldn’t hurt if they tweak their algorithm to weaken Americans’ political bubbles.
Kevin Glass (@KevinWGlass) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a policy advisor for the nonprofit Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based think tank aimed at promoting limited government.
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