Are giant tech companies like Facebook and Google platforms or publishers?
The big story this week was Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates on, among other ominous-sounding counts, ‘conspiracy against the United States,’ along with the increasingly riveting saga of George Papadopoulos, who got caught in a lie to the FBI about “a series of meetings he took and planned” with people linked to the Russian government. These were significant developments, representing the first salvos in what’s basically a complicated, expansive white collar investigation – for more analysis along these lines, take a look here, here, here, and especially here.
Lost in the “shock and awe” of Mueller’s moves, however, was an arguably bigger story: Facebook’s confession that “inflammatory posts” first disseminated by “Russian agents intending to sow discord” during the 2016 presidential election reached 126 million users – about half of all Americans of voting age. Twitter and Google also confessed to much larger Russian propaganda efforts than previously disclosed:
- Twitter identified “more than 36,000 automated accounts that posted 1.4 million election-related tweets linked to Russia” receiving around 288 million views;
- Google found 18 YouTube channels “likely associated” with Russia that uploaded 1,100 videos, and “confirmed earlier reports that the Internet Research Agency” – the Russian government’s online propaganda team – “had purchased search and display ads from it.”
In public hearings on Capitol Hill this week, executive lawyers from all three companies stressed the small impact of Russian propaganda, arguing that it represented a fractional amount of the political content that users were exposed to between 2015 and 2017. Lawmakers, however weren’t convinced, and took the opportunity to publicly hammer the companies’ efforts against what Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) called “cyber-warfare”:
“I don’t think you get it. What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber-warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.”
And Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee:
“This isn’t about who won or lost. This is about national security. This is about corporate responsibility. And this is about the deliberate and multi-faceted manipulation of the American people by agents of a hostile foreign power.”
Senators also expressed frustration “that the companies sent their top lawyers, not top executives” – as noted at The New York Times’s The Daily podcast, the last time the US had comparable election interference, when some large media companies called the state of Florida for Al Gore before all the ballots had been tallied, those media companies sent their executives to testify to Congress.
At the heart of the issue here lies an uncomfortable existential question: are companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google simply platforms for publishers – places to dump content, basically – or are they publishers themselves? Because of the depth and breadth of these companies’ penetration into Americans’ public and private lives, the stakes are massive, and the answer will transform American politics.
“I think you do enormous good, but your power scares me.”
- Senator John Kennedy (R-LA)
- Senator John Kennedy (R-LA)
As platforms, these companies have just a small responsibility to monitor content – the much larger responsibility in the platform model is safeguarding free speech, ensuring that every voice, as long as it’s authentic, and not explicitly threatening, has the opportunity to engage. As publishers, the responsibilities change – telling the truth becomes the top priority, which would dramatically shift the free-flow-of-information thing that’s been the stated modus operandi of these tech giants for years, and would explicitly transform them into what they’ve already been for a while anyway: information gatekeepers. This mission shift would leave them vulnerable to lots of legal action, though, which is likely why it’s the lawyers, and not the execs, testifying on Capitol Hill.
There is, however, already evidence that Facebook, at least, is coming to view itself in this light: back in January, the company established The Facebook Journalism Project, an attempt to “establish stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry,” and it’s since made efforts to combat the spread of fake news on its network, first by contracting with fact checkers from Politifact, the Associated Press, factcheck.org, and other organizations, and more recently, by adding info about the publishers of posted articles, to allow readers to learn more about who they’re getting their news from. Such moves are aligned to the vision of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg laid out back in January, in his long “Building Global Community” manifesto, but whether they’re enough to solve the problem remains to be seen.
On Capitol Hill, there were no easy answers, and after two full days’ worth of hearings, some senators seemed ready to shift the responsibility from Facebook, Google, and co., to the ordinary Americans who interact with them: “We’ve got to become better about understanding when this isn’t true,” said Senator Angus King (I-ME). “We all, when we pass through the grocery line and we see the tabloids with a headline about a movie star having a two-heading baby, we sort of dismiss that. We’ve learned to say, y’know, that’s probably not true. We’ve got to start applying that kind of consumer thoughtfulness to what we see on the Internet.”
In what New York mayor Bill de Blasio described as “an act of terror,” an Uzbek man “deliberately drove a rented truck onto a busy bicycle path near the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, killing eight people and injuring at least 12 others.” The incident was the deadliest terror attack in New York City since 9/11, and it reignited the contentious debate around immigration, with President Trump calling for an end to the lottery program that brought the attacker to the US from Uzbekistan in 2010.
In closed-door testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Carter Page, a former advisor to the Trump campaign, said he’d “mentioned to Jeff Sessions [that] he was traveling to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.”
- Page’s testimony, as Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb observe at CNN, “will fuel further scrutiny about what the attorney general knew about connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.”
- This new report is a pile-on for Sessions, who’d already been coming under pressure for previously undisclosed interactions with George Papadopoulos.
Open enrollment for Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces officially began on Wednesday, but thanks to Trump’s recent moves to dismantle the law, nobody’s sure what will happen.
The long-under-wraps House Republican tax plan was finally unveiled on Thursday, to pans and boos from all sides. Here are some of the notable features:
- The proposal would cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to just 20%;
- The seven current tax brackets would be consolidated into just four: 12%, 25%, 35%, and 39.6%;
- The alternative minimum tax would be eliminated, as would the popular mortgage interest deduction and the estate tax;
- “High profit subsidiaries” of American companies based abroad would pay a 10% tax, in a move designed to encourage American companies to keep their revenue at home.
The bill, if enacted, is projected to increase the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. Senate Republicans are currently working on their own tax plan. Republicans of both bodies aim to have a finished bill on President Trump’s desk by Christmas.
As pretty much every president before him has done, Donald Trump is staffing vacant administration positions with his folks: on Wednesday, Trump nominated his picks for attorneys general in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Connecticut, Maryland, and California. No surprise: all Republicans (and all white men, too, with one exception).
- Trump also nominated Jerome Powell as the next chair of the Federal Reserve. Powell, who’s already serving on the Fed board and is seen as a centrist, is an ally of outgoing chair Janet Yellen, who congratulated him and said she was committed to ensuring a smooth transition.
In an exclusive, Reuters reports that “the United States is quietly pursuing direct diplomacy with North Korea.”
- The talks are being conducted “using the so-called ‘New York channel’: Joseph Yun, a US negotiator, is in contact with “diplomats at Pyongyang’s United Nations mission.”
- The report was published the same day that members of the Senate Banking Committee reached an agreement on expanded sanctions against North Korea.
- That bill would target “banks and other financial institutions that continue to do business with Pyongyang and anyone else who evades existing sanctions” and would also allow states to “divest from or prohibit investments in companies that maintain ties to North Korea.”
header image: "mark zuckerberg," alessio jacona / flickr