Wednesday, Dec 13, 2017
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EDITORIAL

Can we stop election meddling?

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Nearly a year after a U.S. election marred by Russian interference on social media, Facebook is implementing a slew of new policies aimed at making its ads more transparent.

Facebook said in September it had found 470 accounts tied to Russian agents. Those profiles purchased approximately 3,000 advertisements ahead of last year’s Election Day that went on to be viewed by around 10 million American users before and after Donald Trump’s victory. 

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The revelations have prompted congressional calls for legislation regulating the social media giants. Facebook and Twitter, desperate to avoid federal regulation, have promised significant modifications of their advertising policies in the wake of this investigation.

The changes will be effective at allowing users to see who’s behind legal advertisements — political and otherwise — on the platforms. But one of the reasons the Russian ads were never detected in the first place is that they weren’t technically political ads promoting any specific candidate — they pushed social issues to create division and hostility among voters. Facebook admits that they can’t make this kind of content go away entirely.

“Even when we have taken all steps to control abuse, there will be political and social content that will appear on our platform that people will find objectionable, and that we will find objectionable,” Facebook wrote in a blog post. “We permit these messages because we share the values of free speech.”

They have a point. Legislators in Washington are proposing treating Facebook and Twitter like any other communications channel regulated by the FCC, but it seems the Russian ads could easily circumvent those standards. Even if Congress tracked every single dollar spent on Facebook’s political ads — and they can’t, thanks to automated ad purchasing systems — there would still be ways to work around it. 

For example, anyone could form a fake news website, then pay to boost their “news” articles to a larger audience. So do we now let Facebook or Twitter or the government define who is and isn’t media, and restrict those who don’t meet the standards from exercising their speech on the platforms?  It is hard to imagine how federal regulation could meaningfully combat this problem without scrapping the First Amendment.

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