Silicon Valley’s Big Week in Politics: Facebook, Google, DACA, More
Silicon Valley’s public role in politics has intensified this year, and this week brought a particularly rapid flurry of news developments that continued the trend.
The biggest headlines came from Facebook, which disclosed that entities linked to Russia bought thousands of political messaging ads on its social media network during the 2016 presidential campaign, making the company a key witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of potential collusion by Americans in Russia’s efforts to hack the election.
The possible role of the Facebook service in spreading fraudulent messages that manipulated voters is just one of the cases that have raised questions about the responsibilities of technology companies to patrol, or even censor, the content they host. (The issue also came up this week in a bill before Congress: see below.)
The increasing involvement of tech companies in political issues—voluntarily or not—is partly due to the pivotal influence they now have on communication and culture, as well as commerce. The other big factors are policy actions and pronouncements by President Donald Trump, who continues to clash with Silicon Valley giants over issues of immigration, race, and diversity. Those conflicts have spurred a growth of activism among high-level tech pioneers, who are deploying both money and technological savvy to influence voters in the run-up to the mid-term elections next year.
Facebook acknowledges Russia-backed ads
In a blogpost on Wednesday, the company’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, said that an in-house review of possible Russian election interference within the social media network uncovered about 3,000 ads bought for $100,000 from Facebook by hundreds of fake accounts that “were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.”
About three-quarters of the ads, bought between June of 2015 and May of 2017, focused on divisive issues such as gun ownership rights, immigration, and racial matters. The ads seemed to be intended to amplify contentious messages, Stamos wrote. About a quarter of the ads were targeted to specific geographic segments of the population.
Facebook officials discussed the findings with staff investigators for the Senate and House intelligence committees, which are investigating Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, the New York Times reported. Facebook officials have also cooperated with Mueller’s investigative team, according to Reuters.
By confirming the Russian origins of thousands of election-related ads, Facebook bolstered the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies, which issued a report in January outlining a multifaceted campaign by entities linked to the Russian government to influence the election, favoring Donald Trump over his Democratic Party opponent, Hillary Clinton. The methods described included hacking e-mails of Clinton and her Democratic allies, as well as using paid Internet trolls to manipulate voter opinion via social media.
Facebook had originally discounted the idea that the election could have been influenced by fraudulent messages via its network, the New York Times reported just after Trump won in November. But the company has since stepped up efforts to weed out inauthentic sites and false content.
A white paper released by Facebook in April illustrated the company’s struggle to find a line between operating a neutral forum for free expression and becoming a guarantor of “authentic civic engagement.”
“In brief, we have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people,” the Facebook paper stated.
Nonetheless, Facebook is now in the firing line for critics who believe the company could do more.
Two-way squeeze on tech companies: Control content, or avoid censorship?
After Facebook revealed its findings about ads linked to Russia, election watchdogs called for the company to disclose more information about targeted political ads that are only visible to Facebook users who receive them, BuzzFeed reported Thursday. In another story on Thursday, Politico quoted outside fact-checking groups hired by Facebook to flag “fake news.” The fact-checkers said Facebook doesn’t share information that could help them become more effective.
In another conflict over the responsibilities of Internet companies to police user-generated content, members of Congress in both houses are proposing to make websites civilly liable unless they weed out messages that facilitate sex trafficking, Axios reported.
While tech giants are facing pressure to curate user content, other political factions are railing against Google for alleged censorship, Ars Technica writer Timothy Lee wrote in a lengthy dissection of Google’s loss of political power after Barack Obama left the White House and Donald Trump moved in. Google became a target of alt-right groups for actions including the firing of software engineer James Damore [for violating the company code of conduct by circulating his opinions about the suitability of women for high-level tech jobs], and Google’s cancellation of domain name service for a neo-Nazi site. Lee’s story also covers other tech company concerns such as antitrust regulation, which he says could gain support under the populist themes promoted by both Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders.
As the political stances of tech companies moved to the center of attention, a group of Stanford University political scientists published their survey gauging the civic values of high-level tech entrepreneurs, the New York Times reported. The professors found a blend of traditionally Democratic positions—-such as support for taxation of the rich, government services for the poor, and open immigration—-along with traditionally Republican views against regulation of businesses and influential labor unions.
Tech uproar over Trump’s DACA decision
Tech’s widespread, welcoming attitude toward immigration was in evidence this week when major tech companies lined up to denounce Trump’s decision to end the Obama-created Dreamers program [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA] which had halted the deportation of undocumented young people who were brought into the United States as children. Facebook, Apple, and Google were among the companies protesting, according to GeekWire.
Microsoft and Amazon joined the list of companies supporting a lawsuit filed by 15 state attorneys general to challenge Trump’s DACA decision, the Washington Post reported. The suit was spearheaded by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, leading the same coalition of states that successfully challenged the Trump travel ban aimed at severely restricting immigration to the United States by people from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Tech companies opposed that ban, and they are also calling on Congress to revive the DACA program.
Recode featured a major example of individual political activism by a big Silicon Valley player this week with a long profile of LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, a billionaire supporter of Clinton’s in the 2016 campaign who is donating to organizations gearing up to achieve Democratic Party gains in upcoming regional and nationwide elections. Hoffman is also supporting groups that use technology to encourage voter turnout and make the electorate resistant to fake news.
Photo credit: Depositphotos. Copyright Andy Emel.