I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this issue recently, especially as it has been in the news media so often with the rapid pace of disclosures from tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and now Google. In brief, these online platforms for advertising (yes, that’s what they are for, whether it is what you use them for or not) were used during the 2016 election cycle by various Russian or Russian-linked actors to promote specific causes, political or otherwise, disinformation (‘fake news’), and general chaos in the overall Internet media landscape. The overwhelming chorus of blame and anger against the tech companies from what seems like all sides of the partisan divide is honestly quite shocking to me. Personally, I don’t blame these companies at all, or even the Russian actors who chose to legally advertise on the sites mentioned.
For years now (it can be called decades for some of these tech companies), Congress has deigned to regulate what happens on these online advertising platforms, choosing to outsource their regulatory function to the businesses themselves. As someone who operates a technology company and frequently has advertised on all of these platforms, I can confirm that it is basically the ‘Wild West’ out there when it comes to the content, tone, and prospective audience for advertising content. As long as an advertiser does not go astray of the platform’s ‘guidelines’ (which can be incredibly arbitrary), the advertising is generally approved. And to be perfectly clear, this is what we should want on these platforms, unless we are prepared to subject them to something closer to FCC regulations, which would impact not only advertising but also the content that users post online. These sites are supposedly platforms for speech and sharing, and that is what is largely happening on them. If we want to make it so that these sites have more accountability (something I would support in many cases), then Congress needs to pass a law.
A significant amount of the governmental and popular hand-wringing around the Russian ‘meddling’ in our Internet media sphere has to do with automated bot-nets, Russians posing as Americans online, and creation of groups that advocate for specific American policy positions or general ideologies. None of this is illegal, or against the policies of the sites mentioned earlier. Unless we are prepared as a society to strictly regulate speech on these platforms and in our society as a whole, we should not be pushing for tech companies or the government to shut down these kinds of activities. Everyone in American society has a fundamental Constitutionally-protected right to free speech and association, and that does not exclude association with foreign actors or sympathy with their causes. Again, unless we are willing as a society to revisit some of these basic American freedoms, we should be prepared to accept this kind of activity as what is going to happen in a free society.
Now, I am not saying that this intrusion into our election campaign and attempts to insert major amounts of disinformation into our media environment is a good thing or something we should be prepared to invite into our homes or social circles. What I am saying is that it is something we should be prepared to live with and deal with as the price of our free society and our broad-based freedoms of speech and association. We allow people and groups to freely advertise online, which is a good thing. That can be misused at times, which is bad, but we should not be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.
Nations like Finland, which has had to deal with Russian disinformation campaigns for years now, have learned to deal with the intrusions in a constructive and productive manner. The Finns use their excellent education system to build up critical thinking skills among their populace and take fighting against ‘fake news’ as a mission that is important for every one of their citizens, as well as the government at large. This kind of approach is needed to build resiliency and a spirit of skepticism against the ‘news’ that is shared on Facebook pages and Twitter feeds around the country. If we take the approach we are on right now, of attempting to shut down any sort of foreign advertising on these platforms, or censoring what seems to be ‘fishy’, we are undercutting our own American freedoms. We do not need to do that to prevent disinformation from sticking. We need to instead work on better checking out the sourcing of stories, confirming that something is true before sharing it, and combating the ease of tricking us by breaking our own self-imposed filter bubbles that keep us away from information we don’t agree with.
Attacking the messenger for the inaccuracy of their message is not going to prevent us from falling for the next messenger’s inaccurate message. The only thing that can change that is educating the American populace in understanding how to ferret out disinformation and discern the difference between ‘fake news’ and factual information. Simply shooting the messenger isn’t going to help, no matter how satisfying shooting that messenger may feel.