America has been good to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The 33-year old entrepreneur’s net worth is $74.2 billion as of February 26, 2018, according to Forbes. Our country has also been very kind to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Their net worth is $52.4 billion and $50.8 billion, respectively, Forbes tells us. And Jack Dorsey, the founder and CEO of Twitter, has thrived under our system, with a net worth of $3.5 billion.
These individuals, with a total net worth of more than $180 billion, have prospered in our democracy and under our constitutional form of government. But they have not returned the favor to their fellow Americans—at least, not when it comes to dealing with perhaps the greatest foreign, nonmilitary threat our democracy has ever seen. On the contrary, they and their companies have so far largely failed in their responsibilities to respond effectively to the 2016 Russian electoral attack exploiting their platforms—and to defend against the coming 2018 and 2020 attacks. This must change.
Following the 2016 election, the heads of America’s top intelligence agencies concluded “with high confidence” that Russia had interfered with the 2016 presidential election. They found that one of Russia’s goals was “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process” — the very democratic process under which these individuals were able to attain extraordinary wealth.
Earlier this month, our current intelligence chiefs testified in the Senate that Russia is planning to continue its efforts by intervening in the 2018 midterm congressional elections. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified that there should be no doubt that Russia views its efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential campaign as successful. Facebook, Google and Twitter were unwitting facilitators of these Russian efforts to sabotage our elections in 2016. They will have no such excuses in 2018 and 2020.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 37-page indictment of Russian individuals and entities for using social media to meddle in our democracy refers to Facebook more than any other technology company. Facebook itself concedes that Russian propaganda dealing with the 2016 election reached some 150 million Americans. According to one independent study, Russian messages could have been seen on Facebook “hundreds of millions — perhaps many billions — of times.” As for Google, the company found that tens of thousands of dollars were spent by Russian operatives on ads across its platforms. Another Google examination identified more than 1,000 videos linked to Google platforms. And according to Twitter, more than 50,000 Russian linked accounts used that service to intervene in the 2016 election.
Even after these various disclosures, we do not know just how extensively Russian operatives used these platforms to sabotage our elections. We do know, however, that they were crucial to Russia’s disruptive cyberattacks. Facebook, Google and Twitter were used to spread false, wildly misleading and vicious messages from Russian operatives. And Americans did not know until after the 2016 election that Russians were responsible for these distorting, campaign-related communications. The tech companies are now fully on notice about the essential role their platforms played in the Russian intervention.
For Zuckerberg, Page, Brin and Dorsey, this should be a code-red warning about the need for their companies to take immediate, effective corrective measures and to treat this matter as their highest priority. These four founders should recognize their responsibilities to a country that enabled them to become some of the richest people in the world. They need to ensure that a foreign power can never again use their software to manipulate our democracy.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that they have fully recognized this responsibility or understood the duty they have to the American people. Instead, these Silicon Valley giants have appeared to be reluctant warriors in the battle to defend democracy. Rob Goldman, vice president of Facebook ads, perhaps revealed the real state of mind of the companies in his recent tweetstorm. He took on Mueller’s indictment of the 13 Russians, tweeting that “swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal” of the Kremlin’s disruption efforts, even though the intelligence community and the special counsel have explicitly said that it was.
Why haven’t the companies already taken effective action? They appear to be balancing their efforts to stop Russian misuse of their platforms with their perceived need to protect their business plan and their profit margins. According to Jordan Lieberman, president of the ad firm Audience Partners, for example, Facebook could go further in its efforts to prevent Russian intervention, but “it’s going to interrupt revenue flows and it’s absolutely going to cost them money.” Facebook’s algorithms might even reward provocative content since it is more likely to be shared and seen by additional users than content that is less divisive, according to a recent article in Wired.
This is unacceptable. The companies and their founders should aggressively lobby for the Honest Ads Act, which would improve transparency of social media and internet election advertisements in a way that is consistent with our First Amendment freedom of speech. (Zuckerberg has said Facebook supports the Honest Ads Act, but we have seen no evidence of the kind of vigorous lobbying that characterizes Facebook’s or the other companies’ usual pursuit of their interests on Capitol Hill.) They should similarly support efforts to improve the effectiveness of the existing federal ban on foreign interests’ spending money to influence our elections by prohibiting foreign interests from financing any broadcast or Internet ads that promote, attack, support or oppose a candidate. These common-sense reforms will be good for our democracy, but they will also be good for the companies. In the long run, their businesses depend on a large number of individuals spending time on their sites; users may flee if they know that they can expect to interact with bots and fraudulent accounts. Advertisers too will worry that the ads they purchase will appear in front of fake accounts—not the potential clients they seek.
Outside experts have advanced additional ideas worth considering. Some have advocated making the inputs and outputs of the algorithms used to shape social media content much more transparent (through what’s called an “open API”) to help expose propaganda. Others recommend greater communication between tech developers and national security professionals, social media companies and independent researchers to identify potential vulnerabilities in new and emerging technologies.
Whatever help they end up accepting, the big three tech companies must take the lead in presenting the American people with a robust menu of effective solutions. They have the best technology, skills, information and algorithms to address the problems and prevent Russia from again misusing their platforms to conduct cyber invasions in 2018 and 2020.
Zuckerberg, Page, Brin and Dorsey became unimaginably wealthy thanks to America’s open system of government and free enterprise. Now, with that system under attack from foreign adversaries, it’s payback time.