So­cial me­dia: Sil­i­con Val­ley’s role in Rus­sian med­dling

The Week Middle East - - News -

Frus­trated law­mak­ers “took tech com­pany of­fi­cials to task” last week, said Craig Tim­berg in The Wash­ing­ton Post. In three days of barbed Capi­tol Hill hear­ings, lawyers from Google, Face­book, and Twit­ter were scolded in “strik­ingly di­rect terms” for the com­pa­nies’ fail­ure to iden­tify or defuse Rus­sia’s cam­paign to ma­nip­u­late Amer­i­can vot­ers. Face­book ad­mit­ted that as many as 150 mil­lion Amer­i­cans may have seen posts cre­ated by Rus­sian op­er­a­tives dur­ing the elec­tion, while Google’s YouTube dis­closed that more than 1,100 videos re­lated to the Rus­sian ef­fort had been up­loaded. Law­mak­ers im­plic­itly threat­ened to “rein in” the tech com­pa­nies’ op­er­a­tions if more isn’t done to com­bat mis­in­for­ma­tion. “I don’t think you get it,” said Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (D-Calif.), com­par­ing Rus­sia’s med­dling with “cy­ber war­fare.” It is “shock­ing” to learn the ex­tent of the Rus­sian ma­nip­u­la­tion ef­fort, es­pe­cially af­ter the tech com­pa­nies re­peat­edly un­der­played the prob­lem, said Steve Coll in The New Yorker. Yet this fits a pat­tern of tech com­pa­nies, par­tic­u­larly Face­book, “evad­ing ac­count­abil­ity.” While Face­book’s gen­eral coun­sel was be­ing grilled, CEO Mark Zucker­berg and COO Sh­eryl Sand­berg were “on a con­fer­ence call about Face­book’s quar­terly prof­its of nearly $5 bil­lion.”

The rev­e­la­tions last week should “give pause to any­one who cares about democ­racy,” said the Fi­nan­cial Times in an ed­i­to­rial. Face­book and other so­cial me­dia firms can no longer claim they are “neu­tral plat­forms, with no role as ar­biters of truth or so­cial ac­cept­abil­ity.” They are able to reach au­di­ences of “pre­vi­ously unimag­in­able size,” so they have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to po­lice con­tent – which they already do by “strik­ing out posts that pro­mote ter­ror­ism and crimes such as child pornog­ra­phy.” But so far, they “have ap­peared in­ca­pable or un­will­ing to self-po­lice” beyond that, said Renée DiResta and Tris­tan Har­ris in Politico.com. That’s why we need an in­de­pen­dent reg­u­la­tor to en­sure that peo­ple aren’t be­ing fed fake news or tar­geted with di­vi­sive con­tent. Users “have a right to know when they have been ma­nip­u­lated.”

“We should fight the bad ideas and the mes­sen­gers, not the medium,” said Tyler Cowen on Bloomberg.com. Face­book and Twit­ter are plat­forms, and they aren’t re­spon­si­ble for the con­tent that users post. All sorts of ter­ri­ble con­ver­sa­tions take place over the tele­phone, rang­ing from hate­ful speech to crim­i­nal plots. Would you hold the phone com­pany re­spon­si­ble for what hap­pens over its wires? So­cial me­dia com­pa­nies are just “a mir­ror, re­flect­ing us,” said Emily Parker in The New York Times. And they’ve revealed us to be “painfully di­vided, gullible to mis­in­for­ma­tion, daz­zled by sen­sa­tion­al­ism, and will­ing to spread lies.” That’s a hard re­flec­tion to ac­cept. “So we blame the mir­ror.”

Lawyers for Twit­ter, Face­book, and Google

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