Even as a handful of internet companies are consolidating their control over online advertising and commerce, they confront a moment of crisis and vulnerability. Facebook, Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Google are facing changing advertiser and consumer attitudes, government hostility and challenges to their credibility.
While bot fraud, ad blocking viewability and brand safety issues have been around for some time, the Russian government’s manipulation of advertising and organic content on Facebook, Twitter and Google is a fresh crisis with long-term implications for these companies. How they deal with it will be critical in determining whether they avoid regulation and can restore public confidence.
Last week, in prepared testimony, Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch said the following:
Our best estimate is that approximately 126 million people may have been served content from a Page associated with the [Russian company] IRA at some point during the two-year period. This equals about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.
Though the volume of these posts was a tiny fraction of the overall content on Facebook, any amount is too much. Those accounts and Pages violated Facebook’s policies — which is why we removed them, as we do with all fake or malicious activity we find. We also deleted roughly 170 Instagram accounts that posted about 120,000 pieces of content.
Our review of this activity is ongoing. Many of the ads and posts we’ve seen so far are deeply disturbing—seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other. They would be controversial even if they came from authentic accounts in the United States. But coming from foreign actors using fake accounts they are simply unacceptable.
Initially, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the notion that Russian-engineered news or divisive ads on Facebook played any role in the outcome of the 2016 election. The other tech companies took similar positions, saying Russian ad buys and influence were marginal. And while we’ll never know exactly the impact the fake ads and content across these platforms had on the election, it’s pretty safe to say “no impact” is inaccurate.
These internet companies have historically promoted the narrative that they’re instruments of societal progress and positive change, with almost utopian language. Viewed in the rearview mirror, that’s either cynical or incredibly naive. If anything, use of these platforms to promote terrorist activity and as foreign propaganda tools, as well as other socially dubious and destructive impacts, has discredited that narrative. Technology is always double-edged.
There’s some irony in Facebook’s testimony before Congress. Strongly implied in Facebook’s general counsel’s statement is the idea that Russian ads and associated organic content were largely ineffective in their disruptive objectives. However, that message stands in direct contrast to Facebook’s promotion of the power of its ad tools and efficacy of its targeting, which helped propel it to record revenues in the third quarter.
Both Google and Twitter downplayed the impact of the fake content and ads on their sites as well. Rather than deflecting, they should fully own that they were used with very negative results.
The question now is what to do and how to prevent a repeat of 2016 (new measures could also help with fraud more generally). The IAB has taken the position that there is a role for government regulation, combined with self-regulation. However, the companies themselves have sought to pre-empt any government regulation with promises of increased vigilance and the use of AI and other mechanisms to prevent this from happening again.
There’s less than a year until the midterm Congressional elections. If Google, Facebook and Twitter hope to avoid regulation and restore trust, they will need to do more than promise to do better. In addition to specific measures, they will need to take greater responsibility for their broad influence on society, which means acknowledging that they aren’t simply instruments of social progress anymore.