When Facebook admitted last week that an operation connected to Russia bought some $100,000 worth of advertising on its network during the 2016 campaign, it raised some unsettling questions about the intersection of social media and politics. Those questions — both broad and narrow — will only get more urgent as the next U.S. election rolls around.
The narrow question is whether current laws have been broken. Some of the ads were linked to a so-called troll farm that spreads Russian propaganda. This suggests they were part of Russia’s larger efforts to meddle in the election, which included infiltrating political campaigns, deploying “botnets” to shape online conversation, leaking stolen documents, and attacking the voting systems in 39 states.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that these measures were intended to help Donald Trump’s candidacy. If the Facebook ads were aimed at key people and precincts — persuadable voters in swing states, say — that raises the possibility that his campaign helped coordinate the effort. And that, in turn, could be a crime: Campaigns can’t accept anything of value from foreigners, and non-citizens are generally barred from spending money to support a candidate in a U.S. election.
The $100,000 at issue might sound trivial. But given the reach and sophistication of Facebook’s tools, the ads could still have been seen by tens of millions of voters. As Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, put it: “That becomes a method of influence exponentially, I would argue, bigger than TV and radio.”
And that suggests a broader concern. Few would dispute that social media played a crucial role in the 2016 election. Trump’s campaign used Facebook to hone its message, drive turnout and suppress votes for his opponent. Social media was a crucial conduit for fake news favoring Trump, and for phony accounts attacking Hillary Clinton. When the Trump team says Facebook and Twitter were “the reason we won this thing,” they’re not exaggerating by much.
Yet social-media companies aren’t regulated like broadcasters when it comes to campaign advertising. In fact, they’re largely free from scrutiny of any kind. That should change.
As a first step, Facebook should come clean about what happened in the Russia case and what it intends to do about it. (Warner, who sits on the Senate intelligence committee, calls last week’s disclosure “the tip of the iceberg.”) It should publicly release the ads and explain how they were targeted. It should also open pertinent data to independent researchers, much as Twitter has done. That could yield insights about how its tools were used in the election and what affect they had on voters.
Congress, for its part, should rethink how election law ought to apply to social media, and incline toward maximal transparency. For better or worse, it’s a new era in American politics. It needs new rules.