David Zurawik

Facebook's dirty dance with Russians demands regulation

For decades, I have argued against any media regulation that might infringe on free expression and First Amendment guarantees.

But what we are learning about Facebook's dirty dance with the Russians during the 2016 election has me doing a 180-degree turn when it comes to the internet and social media platforms from which tens of millions of Americans now get their news and political analysis.


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the other tech wunderkinds and wizards of Silicon Valley were given all the regulation-free rope in the world as they promised a new kind of media environment that was neutral, open, global and free. But Zuckerberg, at least, hung himself with it when he accepted ads from Russia in 2015 and '16 and published them at key moments of urban strife and presidential politics without telling Facebook users where the ads were from.

It is time – long past time – for platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google to be regulated in the same way that legacy media like network TV and radio are. Whether Facebook was outrageously lax or flat-out dishonest during the 2016 election doesn't matter. What does is that executives there allowed their platform to be used to publish disinformation, sow discord in American cities like Baltimore, disrupt our electoral process and harm our democracy.


Can you imagine the outrage if a network or even the scabbiest basic cable channel accepted and aired an ad from Russia that commented on some contested issue of American life and was paid for in Russian currency — as we now know some of the Facebook ads were? And worse, what if the channel showed the ad during a hotly contested election without any disclosure of its source, as Facebook also did?

Or, what if The Baltimore Sun or The Washington Post had published such Russian-made ads 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, worse, what if the publishers of those newspapers had said it was "crazy" to think ads and fake news on Facebook affected the election in any significant way, as Zuckerberg did in November — even as intelligence officials were on cable TV saying that is exactly what they believed had happened?

As late as July 20, a Facebook spokesperson told CNN, "We have seen no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election."

Talk about, "See no evil."

But now, with congressional committees and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller demanding answers in connection with their investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Zuckerberg and his team are talking a different talk and promising to walk the line as responsible gatekeepers.

"I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," Zuckerberg said in a Facebook Live broadcast Sept. 21.

On Monday, Facebook handed Congress 3,000 Russian-bought ads that were published during the 2016 election.


On Wednesday, Facebook further responded to the growing congressional pressure and drumbeat of mounting criticism with a full-page ad in The New York Times headlined: "Protecting Our Community from Election Interference."

"We take the trust of the Facebook community seriously. We will fight any attempt to interfere with elections or civic engagement on Facebook," the ad said.

The ad then laid out eight points of "immediate action" that Zuckerberg says the company is taking.

They include "making advertising more apparent" by "building new tools" that will allow a user to see all political ads Facebook is running whether or not they target a user directly. The ad in The Times also says Facebook is "adding more than 1,000 people to our global ad review teams."

Zuckerberg is now promising the kind of disclaimer notices on political ads that the Federal Election Commission demands. But in 2011, Facebook went to the commission and sought a waiver of that requirement after one was granted to Twitter. According to CNN, a split vote by the six members of the commission was taken by Facebook as license to operate without such disclaimers during the 2016 campaign.

And so far, despite all his talk of transparency, Zuckerberg has refused to make the 3,000 Russian-bought ads available so that all of us can see what his platform helped pump into the media ecosystem during the election.


I say Zuckerberg has absolutely forfeited any right to be trusted to police his own platform. And I am not alone in saying that.

John Heilemann, co-author of the books "Game Change" and "Double Down," chronicling the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, is right there as well.

"The reality is that Twitter, Facebook, Google — these companies are the most powerful companies in the world," he said on the Sept, 29 edition of "Real Time with Bill Maher" on HBO.

"And they have basically for a long time said, 'We are neutral. We are a platform. We can't police anything. No regulations apply to us,' " he added, referring to Zuckerberg and executives of other social media sites. Heilemann was explaining what he called "the real story" of the last weeks of the 2016 election when a "profusion" of false stories about Hillary Clinton flooded Facebook.

"From November until just the last couple of weeks, they covered it up," he said. "And we are now going to move into a new era where people are going to look at these companies and say, 'If you guys are going to have this kind of power, and half the country is going to get its news from Facebook, you guys are going to start being treated like media companies and journalists.' And that is the right thing."

Jay McGregor, a London-based tech writer, provided the most succinct context to Zuckerberg's current p.r. campaign.


"There's a pattern to a Facebook scandal," he wrote at "Public uproar, Facebook's denial, political uproar, Facebook's silence, continued not-going-away uproar, Facebook's mea culpa coupled with minimal changes. Rinse and repeat."

Amen. From selling the most private information of Facerbook users, to publishing fake news and now ads from a known Russian troll farm, Internet Research Agency, here we go again. (Troll farms are media operations that try to create conflict or confusion online.)

We must not let Zuckerberg or any of the other social media giants skate. He made American democracy vulnerable to an enemy during one of the most important elections of our lives, and then he arrogantly dismissed allegations that he did so as "crazy."

I know it is hard for some young Americans to think there is anything bigger than Zuckerberg or Facebook, but there are larger issues here.

This is about American citizens knowing where information is coming from and having access to the kind of independently verified information they need to navigate the sea of lies and spin from advertisers, politicians, corporations and many media outlets in which we now swim. A democracy cannot function on behalf of its citizens without a strong current of such information.

And that's where gatekeepers come in. You remember gatekeepers, the mainstream-media figures who were jeered as they were driven from their legacy perches when new technology and business models blew up the old-media order in the new millennium.


Well, take a good look at Zuckerberg, because he's what the new gatekeeper looks like. How do you feel about trusting him with your kids' chances of growing up in a strong democracy?

For all the hegemonic sins of old-media gatekeepers, most of them only rose to the top at places like CBS or NBC after they were socialized to a notion of media management that included some sense of their platforms operating in the "public interest" of the United States.

And that's because, since the late 19th century when the Supreme Court started weighing in on control of the telegraph industry, we have regulated every new communication technology to some extent. Serving in the "public interest" was codified in the Communications Act of 1934 that regulated radio and set the blueprint for television.

So, why did we let internet platforms have a free pass this long? Why have we allowed Zuckerberg to get away with refusing to take hardly any responsibility for his platform until recently, when the evidence of Russia's involvement was impossible to ignore? Why does it look like he will continue to get away with it?

Facebook is scheduled to be questioned on the Russian-bought ads by members of Congress on Nov. 1.

But, according to CNBC, Zuckerberg is not expected to be there. Instead, he is expected "to be on a conference call with investors and Wall Street analysts that same afternoon to discuss the company's third-quarter results."


How can a public accounting on social responsibility in a controversial American election compete with a conference call on third-quarter profits anyway?