As Facebook's Zuckerberg Testifies In Congress, Lawmakers Will Face a CEO With Power Over Their Careers and Agenda

Does Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have more power than his congressional inquisitors?

As Zuckerberg heads into congressional hearings spurred by revelations that a GOP-connected political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, stole personal data from 87 million users in 2014 before working for 2016 Republican presidential candidates, Facebook has done something that will make members of Congress take notice: It has taken more steps to curb abusive campaign advertising and to protect user privacy than anything Congress has done in years.

On the political advertising front, Facebook announced last Friday that it was not going to post any ad from anyone who would not identify themselves, say where they're located, and it would also post links showing all of that political advertisers’ messaging. On the privacy front, Facebook also announced it would globally adopt forthcoming European Union rules, which return control over that online personal data to users from advertisers, including campaigns.

Both of these steps have been overlooked in the loud media narrative of how “No One Trusts Facebook” anymore, as a New York Times report put it Monday; one of many accounts where Facebook users lamented the lack of privacy surrounding their personal information. However, what Facebook is doing in the political world is going to be very significant—if it holds.

Facebook is a must-use platform for campaigns. Part of the upset over the Cambridge Analytica scandal was the extent to which tens of millions of voters were targeted by propaganda based on their Facebook profiles. (The same targeting occurred on other platforms, like Google’s YouTube.) The House Energy and Commerce Committee Monday published a copy of Zuckerberg’s prepared testimony, where he estimated "approximately 126-million people may have been served content from a Facebook Page associated with the IRA [Internet Research Agency, a Russian government front] at some point during that period [the 2016 election]. On [Facebook-owned] Instagram, where our data on reach is not as complete, we found about 120,000 pieces of content, and estimate an additional 20 million people were likely served it.”

Placed in context, those are remarkable figures. IRA's messaging reached more Americans in 2016 via Facebook than the total number of people who voted for president, which was 139 million. Thus, for Facebook to identify and verify who is behind political messages on its must-use platform is doing what Congress has not done for a long time: shine a light on partisan operatives.

If anything, many candidates and the political consulting industry have gone in the opposite direction. The Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, followed by the likes of super-operatives like Karl Rove and super-funders like the Koch brothers, have mainstreamed what’s called “dark money” in politics. That’s where the identities of those buying political ads stay hidden, in contrast to attacks that have only become more vitriolic. The Democrats are no saints on this front either. They have adopted their opponents tactics in the equivalent of a partisan arms race—where everyone copies everyone else and no one disarms. 

Meanwhile, as campaigns have gotten meaner and less truthful, the federal regulatory landscape has become increasingly toothless. This goes beyond the Supreme Court’s campaign finance rulings to vacant federal regulatory seats, which, together, have created a catalog of loopholes favoring big money and secretive donors. Stepping into this mix now is Facebook, a private company, whose corporate-created user and advertising rules don’t have to pass the same courtroom tests as federal legislation.

In short, Zuckerberg wants out of the dirty business of anonymous smears and propaganda. Under the heading of “strengthening our advertising policies,” his remarks said, “We know some members of Congress are exploring ways to increase transparency around political or issue advertising, and we’re happy to keep working with Congress on that. But we aren’t waiting for legislation to act.”

To Republicans like McConnell, those likely will be fighting words. In the 1990s, McConnell was known for opposing all campaign rules except one: disclosing one’s name next to the message sent. Of course, he has long abandoned that stand. What has resulted since are all kinds of front groups throw partisan mud, while efforts to identify who is behind the latest smears often hit brick walls.

But Zuckerberg said that dirty dynamic not going to happen on Facebook anymore, if he can help it.

“From now on, every advertiser who wants to run political or issue ads will need to be authorized. To get authorized, advertisers will need to confirm their identity and location,” he said. “Any advertiser who doesn’t pass will be prohibited from running political or issue ads. We will also label them and advertisers will have to show you who paid for them. We’re starting this in the U.S. and expanding to the rest of the world in the coming months.”

Then Zuckerberg said Facebook would go further: it would name those holding the biggest partisan megaphones.

“For even greater political ads transparency, we have also built a tool that lets anyone see all of the ads a page is running,” he said. “We’re testing this in Canada now and we’ll launch it globally this summer. We’re also creating a searchable archive of past political ads. We will also require people who manage large pages to be verified as well. This will make it much harder for people to run pages using fake accounts, or to grow virally and spread misinformation or divisive content that way.”

Facebook’s new policy also aims a particular loophole that’s become common—so-called issue ads. These are ads that don’t have key words in them, such as “vote for” or “vote against” a specific candidate, but instead take strong stands on issues, thus evading campaign finance reporting regulations. The intended recipients of these ads, however, usually knows exactly who they are telling people to vote for or against. Facebook's new policy will push the sponsors of this kind of messaging into the open.

Zuckerberg said that Facebook has started to do this in recent campaigns in Europe and the U.S. “We found and took down 30,000 fake accounts” in France’s 2017 presidential election, his testimony said. “In the U.S. Senate Alabama special election last year, we deployed new AI [artificial intelligence] tools that proactively detected and removed fake accounts from Macedonia trying to spread misinformation.” He added, “We have disabled thousands of accounts tied to organized, financially motivated fake news spammers.”

While Zuckerberg said “security—including around elections—isn’t a problem you ever fully solve,” it’s clear he wants to remove dirty politics from his domain—to the extent he can. You can be sure that many members of Congress sitting across from him this week in the Capitol will see a person with genuine power to affect their future or agenda. Zuckerberg can turn on or off the communication spigot and he doesn’t like dirty or foul play.

Indeed, upon reading about the new ad policies late last week, a well-known conservative law professor commented on a listserve that surely Facebook won’t be able to stop every partisan ruse—but said it should not have anything close to that power.

“If I’m not mistaken, viral messages/memes can be generated by posts that aren’t paid-for ads. Will Facebook monitor such posts? Should it?” he wrote. “Do we want a company with such power to engage in censorship of this kind (though private and thus not subject to the 1st Am[endment].)? Is there a place for application of antitrust laws?”

As Zuckerberg testifies in Congress this week, an irony emerges. His efforts to escape the business of politics may lead to more engagement with nasty partisans. Like it or not, he has created a platform with great power to influence the public during elections. That's a reality that every member of Congress seated across from him surely knows and may even fear.


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