Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Amid Russian ads, bots, trolls: Regulate Facebook, other platforms or risk losing democracy

You have to wonder how close we are going to skate to the edge of losing our democracy before we decide to regulate social media platforms like Facebook.

You also have to wonder why there are so few calls for accountability as instance after instance of Russian interference in American life continues to be documented — the latest coming just last week in connection with the shooting deaths of 17 students in Florida.

We have given the Mark Zuckerbergs of this nation a free hand longer than any other media operators in the world, and they have shown little or no sense of social responsibility when it comes to what they publish.

It seems to be only about private gain for them. They sold and re-sold our private data without telling us, and now they are bartering away our democracy behind the scenes even as they talk of reform before congressional committees and in front of cameras.

After decades of fierce opposition to any form of additional government regulation of media, I hit a wall last September when it was confirmed that Facebook accounts with names like Blacktivist and Black Matters US were created by operatives from the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that sought to sow discord in American life and sway voters away from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. And some of the ads on those pages, like one for a proposed rally in Baltimore to mark the anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray, were paid for in rubles.

Rubles! And no one at Facebook had a problem with that. Let me repeat. No one.

Did I mention that the identities of the people creating such accounts were invented by Russian operatives using the stolen Social Security card numbers and other data of Americans?

And now come reports from Wired, The New York Times and others that, despite all the reforms Zuckerberg and his lieutenants have been promising, the Russians were back at it stoking conflict in American life within an hour of the deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last week.

Bots linked to Russia were tweeting that Nikolas Cruz, the alleged gunman, visited white supremacist online sites and Arabic online sites in recent weeks. Take your pick, depending on which side of the argument you are on.

Some of the bots also pushed the idea of Cruz being a “mentally deranged” lone shooter, a favorite of those on the right who say school shootings are about mental health not guns.

You have to wonder how Facebook and the other platforms continue to get away with such a see-no-evil approach to gatekeeping even as Special Prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III last week indicted 13 Russian nationals for meddling in the 2016 presidential election and trying to pollute the national civic conversation with disinformation and lies via social media.

As I wrote in October, can you imagine the outrage if a TV network or even the scabbiest basic cable channel accepted and aired an ad from Russia that sought to inflame the conversation on some contested issue of American life and was paid for in Russian currency?

Or, what if The Baltimore Sun or The Washington Post had published such Russian-made ads or commentary and not disclosed the source in the wake of the uprising after the death of Freddie Gray or down the homestretch of the presidential election?

Or what if either had run an op-edit essay on a divisive issue written by someone who later was discovered to be linked to a Russian propaganda outfit?

Even worse, what if the publishers of those newspapers said it was “crazy” to think ads and or opinion pieces in their pages affected the election in any significant way, as Zuckerberg did in November 2016 — even as intelligence officials were on cable TV saying that is exactly what had happened?

In July, Facebook was still saying, “We have seen no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election.”

But Russian actors had clearly created pages and bought ads to cause civil strife and suppress black voting in the election.

CNN and The Sun reported in September that the Blacktivist Facebook page and a Twitter account @FreddieGrayAnn, which appeared to be working in tandem to exploit racial tensions in Baltimore, were Russian-linked. Why hadn’t Facebook reported that to the American people, and why did it not confirm those reports when they were published?

One of the sidelights of this story is that social justice activists in Baltimore were far more diligent in checking into those accounts than anyone at Facebook.

The Rev. Heber Brown III, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore, messaged back and forth to Blacktivist and @FreddieGrayAnn asking if they were based in Baltimore.

The message back from Blacktivist was that it was not but its members were "looking for friendship, because we are fighting for the same reasons."

When Brown challenged the Twitter account working with Blacktivist, the Russian operatives backed away, saying, “I got you. This must be really wrong. I feel ashamed.”

Facebook seems to feel no shame. Instead of checking into such sites, its is still spending its energy ducking, dodging and trying to direct attention away from its role in the 2016 election.

A series of tweets from Rob Goldman, vice president for ads at Facebook, responding to Mueller’s indictments on Friday, drew fierce backlash on social media.

It started with this one: “I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.”

President Trump liked that one enough to include it in a tweet and add: “The Fake News Media never fails. Hard to ignore this fact from the Vice President of Facebook Ads, Rob Goldman!”

While Goldman’s claim might be technically true, it was another example of the confusion Facebook executives have repeatedly created to try and mask their lack of due diligence.

One of the things Mueller’s indictments showed was how open Facebook was to being used for propaganda, disinformation and lies that might lead to more friction in American life. While $100,000 was spent by the Russians on ads, more than $1 million a month was spent on messages of discord on pages created using fake identities. The million a month included added expenses like paying an actor to portray Hillary Clinton in a cage at one of the phony rallies.

Some of the non-ad messaging was clearly intended to hurt Clinton at the polls in other ways, particularly messages aimed at African-American voters in Baltimore urging them to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein or stay away from the polls altogether.

The messages aimed at black voter suppression are especially despicable given the history of such efforts in places like Baltimore, and Facebook seems absolutely indifferent to it. To me, that’s one of the most infuriating aspects of Facebook’s attitude.

One other tweet from Goldman that demands comment.

“There are easy ways to fight this,” Goldman tweeted. “Disinformation is ineffective against a well educated citizenry. Finland, Sweden and Holland have all taught digital literacy and critical thinking about disinformation to great effect.”

While I have written in these pages that media literacy education is the long-term answer, what do you do in the meantime? It takes years to educate enough citizens and consumers to even start to catch up with the technology. And who pays for it? Where does the City of Baltimore get the money to teach media literacy in middle school where I believe it has to start?

And what a convenient way for Facebook to absolve itself of any responsibility, just as it continues to absolve itself of the duty of gatekeeping under the false claim that it is simply a technology platform not a content-providing publisher like The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, CBS or CNN.

Twitter and YouTube make the same false claim, and it is time for us to tell them it is bull in no uncertain terms.

For the record, one of Goldman’s tweets also said that Facebook “is taking aggressive steps to prevent this sort of meddling in the future.”

I am sorry, but I don’t think we can afford to take their word for it with 2018 elections around the corner.

There are a million problems with government regulation of media, and I know them all. But the Congress of 1934 did a pretty good job with the Communications Act that still governs broadcasting in America today. And who or what else is big enough to regulate such massive entities?

If only we had enough men and women of conscience and commitment to public service in Washington today to save our democracy from the greed and dissembling of the tech giants of Silicon Valley.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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