The latest revelations about Facebook’s conduct during the 2016 presidential campaign are angering a crucial group of the social media giant’s onetime allies — the Democrats who hope to regain control of Capitol Hill in November.
Democratic ire at the company has grown in the wake of President Donald Trump’s victory, amid a steady drip of disclosures about the way Russian operatives had exploited Facebook’s platform to aim politically themed ads, posts and so-called fake news at U.S. voters. But the acrimony is reaching new heights following this weekend’s news reports revealing that Facebook had allowed the Trump campaign’s data consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, to obtain information on more than 50 million Americans.
All that suggests that Congress could be poised to crack down on Facebook if Democrats achieve the giant “blue wave” victory they’re hoping for in the midterm elections, and with it the gavels of key committees. The changing Democratic attitudes could augur a long-term shift in the social network's political prospects in Washington.
Consumer and privacy groups have pleaded for years for checks on massive data-collecting companies like Google, largely in vain. But Facebook is clearly in the Democrats’ sights now.
“The entire platform has gotten away from them, and they mishandle every problem that comes their way,” Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton, told POLITICO on Monday. Reines and others with the Clinton campaign said anger and confusion over Facebook’s role in the election is widespread among Democratic campaign veterans, all the way up to the former nominee herself.
Democrats for years celebrated Facebook as a demonstration of the power of a connected world driven by liberal values. In the Obama era, Democrats and Facebook reveled in each other's reflected glory. It hasn't hurt that people associated with the company have been ready donors to Democrats.
But in a sign of how complete the Democratic metamorphosis is, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, normally an enthusiastic advocate for the U.S. tech industry, wrote to Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg on Monday to demand answers on the latest reports of data leakage.
"I have serious concerns about the role @Facebook played in facilitating and permitting the covert collection and misuse of consumer information by Cambridge Analytica," Wyden tweeted.
One embodiment of the shift is former President Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign famously made use of the social network and who as president participated in a chummy town hall with Zuckerberg, where he praised Facebook employees for “helping to revolutionize” how Americans communicate.
Obama later turned critical of social media during the 2016 election cycle, questioning what he called the “dust cloud of nonsense” circulating on Facebook and later calling on social media companies to re-examine their roles in society.
At the moment, prospects for any immediate U.S. crackdown are remote: The Republicans who head the relevant congressional committees have mainly not commented on the latest news about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, although Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters Monday night that he wants written answers and a briefing from Facebook about the Cambridge Analytica flap. And it's unclear if the GOP-led Federal Trade Commission, which is in the midst of a full turnover of its members, will pursue the company over potential violations of a 2011 consent decree over its privacy practices.
Facebook may face repercussions more quickly in Europe, where the British regulator said it had included the latest Cambridge Analytica allegations into an existing investigation, which will report back by May, and Věra Jourová, the EU’s justice commissioner, called on other European data protection authorities to similarly look into the activities of both Facebook and the British data analytics firm.
Facebook announced Friday night that it had suspended Cambridge Analytica and related people and companies from its platform, and said Monday that it was hiring a digital forensics firm to conduct a "comprehensive audit” of the company. Cambridge Analytica, a firm with deep ties to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and benefactors Robert and Rebekah Mercer, has denied committing any improprieties.
Still, Facebook’s stock price took a dive Monday as the recriminations kept coming.
In Washington, Democrats who looked kindly on Facebook during the Obama era are offering abundant signs that changes could be coming if they regain control of Washington.
“We need to do a great deal more oversight of social media and its role in our society, how these technologies operate, whether privacy protections are in place, how subject they may be to foreign manipulation, whether they’re having the effect of balkanizing our population,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in an interview with POLITICO.
Schiff called the Cambridge Analytica reports “deeply disturbing" and said he'd like to get Facebook executives to testify at a public hearing. But he acknowledged that he's limited in what he can do now, given that Republicans in charge of his committee have wrapped up their investigation of Russian election interference.
Schiff stands to serve as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee should Democrats take over that chamber in the fall. And two other prominent Facebook critics — Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — are in place to take the reins of the Senate Intelligence and antitrust panels should their chamber end up in Democratic hands.
Facebook declined to comment on Democrats’ shifting attitudes toward the company.
On the Cambridge Analytica situation, a Facebook spokesperson pointed to a statement from Justin Osofsky, the company’s vice president of global operations, who said the social network changed its platform three years ago “so that developers can’t access the information of people’s friends” — the violation at issue in the Cambridge Analytica case.
Reines, the Clinton adviser, said that if Zuckerberg and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg harbor political ambitions of their own — as is widely rumored — they should think twice about that.
“Good luck running in a Democratic primary,” he said. “In a primary, you’re not talking about run-of-the-mill Democrats. You’re talking about die-hards. And in this coming cycle, you’re talking about angry Democrats.”
John Hendel and Laurens Cerulus contributed to this report.