Although a handful of Internet companies are consolidating their control over advertising and e-commerce, they face a time of crisis and vulnerability. Facebook, Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Google are facing the changing attitudes of advertisers and consumers, the hostility of the government and the challenges to their credibility.
While fraud, ad visibility and brand security issues have been around for some time, the manipulation of advertising and organic content by the Russian government on Facebook, Twitter and Google is a new crisis with long-term implications. How they do it will be critical to determining if they avoid regulation and can restore public confidence.
Last week, in a prepared testimony, Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch, stated the following:
Our best estimate is that about 126 million people may have received IRA-related page content [Russian company] at some point during the period of time. two years. This equates to about four thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of News Feed content, or about 1 in 23,000 pieces of content.
Although the volume of these messages is only a fraction of the overall content of Facebook, any amount is too high. These accounts and pages violated Facebook's policies – that's why we deleted them, as we do with all the fake or malicious activities we find. We've also removed about 170 Instagram accounts that have released approximately 120,000 content items.
Our review of this activity is underway. Many of the advertisements and messages we have seen so far are deeply troubling – seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other. They would be controversial even if they came from authentic accounts in the United States. But coming from foreign players using fake accounts, they are simply unacceptable.
Initially, Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, rejected the idea that news of the Russian industry or divisive ads on Facebook played a role in the outcome of the 2016 elections Other technology companies have adopted similar positions, believing that advertising purchases and influence in Russia are marginal. And even though we will never know exactly the impact that the fake ads and the content of these platforms have had on the election, it is safe to say that "no impact" is inaccurate.
Almost 70% of Americans get at least some of their news on social media sites. And the influence of social and digital media as sources of information continues to grow.
These Internet companies have historically promoted the narrative that they are instruments of societal progress and positive change, with an almost utopian language. Seen in the rearview mirror, it's cynical or incredibly naive. On the contrary, the use of these platforms to promote terrorist activity and as foreign propaganda tools, as well as other socially dubious and destructive impacts, has discredited this narrative. Technology is always double-edged.
There is some irony in Facebook's testimony before Congress. The assertion of the general advocate of Facebook is strongly suggested by the idea that Russian commercials and the associated organic content were largely ineffective in their disruptive purposes. However, this message contrasts with Facebook's promotion of the power of its advertising tools and the effectiveness of its targeting, which helped it to record revenue in the third quarter.
Google and Twitter both downplayed the impact of fake content and ads on their sites. Rather than hijacking, they should fully recognize that they have been used with very negative results.
The question now is what to do and how to prevent a repeat of 2016 (new measures could also help fight fraud more generally). The IAB has adopted the position that government regulation should be associated with self-regulation. However, the companies themselves have sought to override any government regulation with promises of heightened vigilance and the use of artificial intelligence and other mechanisms to prevent this from happening again.
Less than a year before the midterm parliamentary elections. If Google, Facebook and Twitter hope to avoid regulation and restore trust, they will have to do more than promise to do better. In addition to specific measures, they will have to assume greater responsibility for their broad influence on society, which means recognizing that they are no longer mere instruments of social progress.