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Social media gets socked.

November 1, 2017

A lot is being made of the number of ads planted by Russian agencies to influence the public  mood surrounding American politics, both before and after the 2016 election, and perhaps rightly so.

Watching C-Span’s coverage of the hearings that put the chief counsels of Google, Facebook and Twitter on the hot seat in front of a bi-partisan congressional committee began fairly innocuously.

Various committee members asked for data as to how many advertising accounts the three social media platforms had identified as Russian plants, and what had been done to police them before and after the election.

However the questioning took a decidedly adversarial turn, with Al Franken (D-MN) castigating the companies, specifically Facebook, for not rejecting ads “paid for by rubles” (perhaps forgetting that it is relatively easy to convert currency to American dollars or even internet currencies like Bitcoin)  although neither he nor the company lawyers could come up with a specific number of accounts whose charges were paid for in that way.

Also brought up by Ted Cruz, (R-TX)  was the possibility of introducing political bias by the companies into the equation. He specifically mentioned the propensity of search engines to serve up results that favored one side or the other, particularly the liberal side, given that Silicon Valley is notably liberal in its political leanings.

That’s something social media has brought down on its own head, since the companies have up to now tended to reflect the political viewpoints of their founders.

In the wake of yet another attack by an ISIS sympathizer, the role of social media as well as that of the internet at large underlies all the discussions surrounding these platforms.

At the center of all of this is the question of whether the value of social media to our society is becoming outweighed by its propensity to create or at least facilitate harm. The three attorneys were obviously acutely aware of that conflict.

Social media has managed to enjoy a singularly American freedom from government oversight. Almost every other nation, particularly the repressive ones, have imposed everything from censorship authority to outright banning of the platforms.

It was the respective chief counsel’s job to indicate an appropriate ability to self-police themselves, hoping to forestall the government from doing it for them.

It’s not clear that they succeeded.

The trick of course is to do that without becoming political operatives themselves, at least to any greater degree than they already have.

Should the companies be subject to overt government monitoring, and would that even have made a difference?  Certainly the objectivity and fairness of government oversight waxes and wanes according to the dictates of the party in power.

The notable examples of ideological government bias such as the use of the IRS to obstruct conservative groups seeking to receive approval as tax-exempt charities, or the infamous alleged “unmasking” of adversaries for political purposes by the Obama administration doesn’t leave the government with clean hands.

To what extent are these platforms and the people who use them protected by the First Amendment?

That question was not answered yesterday, but at some point it must be better defined.

From → op-ed

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