The three Silicon Valley giants are getting quizzed about Russia-connected ads and other content that have appeared on their platforms. But don’t expect it to stop with these hearings. Members of both political parties have already overreacted by introducing legislation that would impose new regulations on online ads.
Congress has tried—and failed—to restrict political speech in the past. Now, some lawmakers are using concern about Russia’s election-related shenanigans to bully social media and technology companies.
This is bad news for all Americans.
Traditional media’s control and purposeful distortion of information is precisely what created the opportunity for social media to drive the democratization of information. Government meddling won’t make anything better at Facebook, Twitter, or Google. We need more transparency, not more regulation.
Users of these platforms have been vocal participants in the debate over the content linked to Russia and its appearance on social media sites. The market, not government, has already prompted these companies to revise their practices.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google are voluntarily taking steps to curtail foreign interference in U.S. elections. That’s precisely how it should be.
Facebook will now require more information from advertisers who want to run election-related ads and display that information as pop-ups within the ads. It’s also hiring thousands of workers to review the ads and compiling all of the election ads from the last four years and displaying them on a single page. That’s about as transparent—and as user-friendly—as disclosure gets.
Facebook has identified more than 3,000 Russia-linked ads that cost about $100,000. That’s a miniscule number of ads and a fraction of Facebook’s revenues, which totaled $28 billion last year.
More alarming is Facebook’s revelation that 126 million people might have seen the Russia-connected content. That’s certainly a big number, but it represents .004% of the content those people saw on the platform over a two-year period, according to Facebook’s estimates. Others saw none of it because they weren’t logged in at the time or didn’t scroll past it.
Twitter has announced its own amped-up transparency measures. It also severed ties with two Russia-funded media outlets, RT and Sputnik, which had spent approximately $1.9 million in advertising on Twitter since 2011. Twitter said it would donate that money.
Increasingly, Americans get their news from social media. A 2016 Pew Research Center report pegged the number at 62%. As consumers, they must be mindful of not only the content but also the source of that news. And Silicon Valley can certainly help them be more informed and discriminating consumers by being more transparent about who’s behind the content it displays.
While the Russia-connected content has triggered cries of collusion and a reckoning at the social media giants, there’s still no evidence it swayed the last presidential election.
Spending on the 2016 presidential race totaled $2.4 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Mark Penn, former pollster for the Clintons, put it bluntly in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “You Can’t Buy the Presidency for $100,000.”
Last year, when Facebook found itself embroiled in a controversy of alleged bias against conservatives, I and several other conservative leaders met with executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to voice our concerns. As conservatives, we opposed a government solution. Instead, we relied on market pressure for Facebook to change.
That’s the best outcome for today’s Russia controversy as well. Congress, for all its good intentions, shouldn’t get carried away and impose government restrictions on political speech.
This piece originally appeared in Fortune