The old saying about a lie traveling halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes has never seemed more relevant than in this new era of propaganda-pushing Twitter trolls and fake Facebook users.
But here’s a truth that we hope sinks in quickly in Silicon Valley: Without major changes to the way business is done at Facebook, Twitter and Google, the regulations that these California companies have spent years trying to avoid could become a reality.
That’s a scary thought, the government regulating an industry that drives public discourse as the world’s biggest distributor of news and information. Requiring more transparency about the source of political advertising is one thing. But infringements on the First Amendment would be all but certain if Congress decides to weigh in on what is and is not appropriate to post online.
But this is where we are after tense hearings on Capitol Hill. In testimony before three congressional committees, attorneys for the tech giants tried — and mostly failed — to ease fears over how millions of Americans were exposed to fake news and divisive ads created by Russian troll farms, possibly influencing last year’s presidential election.
When pressed, the attorneys repeatedly and infuriatingly downplayed the problem, even as they admitted as many 150 million people — or almost 65 percent of eligible U.S. voters likely were exposed to Russian propaganda. That’s a big number.
Promises to do better in the future fell flat, too, even as the attorneys talked about hiring bringing more human fact checkers into the highly automated operations.
It didn’t help that the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google declined to testify. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was in California delivering the company’s quarterly earnings report and promising investors: “Protecting our community is more important that maximizing our profits.”
Members of Congress weren’t impressed, least of all Sen. Dianne Feinstein. After hearing testimony Tuesday, she made her thoughts plain.
“We are not going to go away, gentlemen. And this is a very big deal,” she said Wednesday. “I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers. And that just won’t do … You created these platforms, and they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it — or we will.”
She’s right. But for all of the incremental changes being made at Facebook, Twitter and Google, coming up with a solution to eradicate all fake news will be tough, if not impossible. At the very least, it will be bad for Silicon Valley’s bottom line.
At issue is a business model that depends on people spending as much time as possible online, clicking on stories and videos. Billions of dollars in advertising revenue depend on giving people what they want to see, and the comforting echo chamber of fake news has proved to be very popular. Analysts found that some of the bogus news got more readers than real news during the presidential campaign.
That means social media companies aren’t just fighting foreign troll farms. They’re fighting human nature.
But there has to be a middle ground for the common good of American democracy. Silicon Valley must be more direct about promoting news from verified sources. The only way to drown out fake news is with real news, not regulation. Congress is understandably impatient. Time is running out.