The social media giant Facebook has finally acknowledged that it became a tool in Russian influence operations in the U.S. presidential election.
On Monday, congressional investigators were given access to the some 3,000 Facebook ads bought by Russian troll farms and front companies, according to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
As such, Facebook will fall into the purview of the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, who will also be given access to the information.
Facebook says the ads ran in the U.S. between 2015 and 2017 and that the accounts are associated with the Russian Internet Research Agency—recently renamed the “Federal News Agency”—an organization funded by oligarch restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin, who holds a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The U.S. military describes this group as “a state-funded organization that blogs and tweets on behalf of the Kremlin.”
While no one should want the freedoms of the internet and its social media websites restricted by government regulation, greater transparency is clearly needed.
Campaign commercials in traditional media—print, radio, and television—are required to disclose their origin and endorsements by political candidates. The same transparency should be required of advertisements on social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and search engines like Google, Yahoo, etc.
Such transparency is becoming more urgent as more and more Americans get their news from social media.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, 62 percent of Americans now get their news from social media, and 18 percent of them do so often. Interestingly, most people trust news items because they have been shared by their friends, not because of the source.
It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue or whether it will crest as social media’s vulnerability to fake news becomes increasingly apparent. Regardless, it is critical that social media platforms be held accountable for transparency in their management of news and advertising.
In the early years of social media, blogs, and legitimate news sites, it was a mystery how these platforms would monetize. It turned out that advertising—especially targeted advertising—was the answer.
Advertising is now the lifeblood of publically traded social media websites. Facebook’s advertising revenue last year reached $28 million, a 57 percent increase from the previous year.
At the same time, there is a millennial idealism at the root of social media enterprises that recoils from admitting their potential for real abuse, as well as profit-making. It is perhaps not so strange, then, that Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to the charges of Russian interference was denial.
Americans are only now waking up to the threat posed by Russia’s disinformation strategy. Europeans have felt the heat for years.
Given Putin’s success in sowing confusion and discord over the last presidential election, we can expect more of the same unless we arm ourselves with a counterstrategy and push for greater transparency on social media.