There is little doubt now that the Russians actively interfered in the 2016 election, with false ads tending to support Donald Trump. Other ads existed to foster hostility between Americans in an election year as they encouraged some of the most extreme viewpoints in our culture to express themselves. Trump was the candidate the Russians favored, and despite a failure to obtain the popular vote, he is the president we got. The analysis is still underway, and we may never know for sure, but if their ads led enough Americans to choose Trump over Hillary Clinton in states with a tight race, it won’t be incorrect to say the Russians chose the United States’ President. We should not have to ask this question. This cannot happen again.
The pathways to their interference are our social media and information-sharing giants, primarily Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Until now they have been stories of magnificent success and wealth. But with the 2016 election, they have been revealed as unregulated agents for the spread of a plague. Now there must be a cure, and if they do not act quickly and decisively, the government will have to impose it.
The Wild West Era of the Internet Is Coming to an End Because of the Russians
Early on, the internet was simply ungovernable and uncontrollable. First was its inception and creation; only then could we see how it would expand and how humans would use and misuse it. It has been a Wild West—a vast sweep of invisible “property” with few fences, vulnerable homesteaders dotted across the landscape, and criminals. There are the gold diggers who hit gold, like Mark Zuckerberg (more on him later), the homesteaders who barely make a go of it as they watch for bears and suffer extreme weather conditions, like the victims of Equifax, and the criminals who raid the law-abiding citizens with abandon, like the Russians and child pornographers.
We need fences that withstand the cyclonic hackers and alarms that sound when liars and enemies approach us. Companies invest in whatever fences they can buy to surround the data customers entrust to them. Each company seems to believe that they have first-rate security, but one major company after another has been raided by the internet’s moral-free hackers. Predictably, the day after the hack, corporate heads roll, but given the number of companies that are struggling, it can be hard to tell which incidents involve corporate negligence. Without defending the corporate leaders at the helm of the worst consumer attacks, it seems to me that there is more of a chimera of security than real safety.
Social Media Stockpiles Its Gold While Ignoring the Needs of the People
So who has the most data about Americans (and the rest of the world)? Well, that would be Facebook. And who has done the most research to exploit all that data to their benefit? Again, that would be Facebook. And who is in control of Facebook? Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg spent 2016 touring the country purportedly pondering a run for the presidency. You have to ask yourself: why would the founder of a data company think that he could be president? Our current president rode mediocre reality TV to the White House, so I suppose why not? Yet, the apparent disparity between Zuckerberg’s position and the presidency is even greater. Do not forget the Framers’ core insight: all those with power will seek to expand it. Accordingly, the owner of the company that owns the most data in the world would think the presidency is his to take. He has the data analytics, data, and money that no other candidate can match. His company knows how to interest and manipulate hundreds of millions of Americans. But, of course, Facebook is not the only social media platform that has created the conditions where enemy states can secretly sow discord and skew the democratic process. Social media and information providers as a whole are the problem.
The issue for Zuckerberg, Twitter, and Google is that they made it possible for Russian hackers to interfere with the election in the first place. They created the platforms—but they have not constructed the fences or alarms that are needed to protect the democratic process from corruption. No one knows more than they do what would yield the best fences and alarms, but their philosophy until now has been that barriers are bad for business and, therefore, bad.
They have dragged their feet on adequately blocking child pornography as well. The same attitude also greeted the 2016 attack on our democracy. Zuckerberg has been forced to admit that he dragged his feet on the Russian hacking, too.
Congress Threatens to Regulate Social Media to Our Benefit
Congress has been grilling the heads of social media companies to find out why they did nothing to block the Russians from meddling in our election. Their corporate answers are basically: it’s bad for business. But they are being forced to find a moral compass that would lead them to make decisions not just based on business but also on morals and values like democracy. Zuckerberg has announced that Facebook is not only cooperating to ensure this never happens again, but seeking the technology that will keep our enemies from secretly shaping our worldview. While he has been unable to control himself from adding that this is going to cost him a lot of money, at least he sees the imperative.
This moment in history reminds me of when video games were unregulated and unrated. The violence and sex in many games led to an outcry. Parents demanded that Congress regulate the industry, and there were many hearings purportedly to that end. The video game companies, though, figured out that they were better off self-regulating than leaving it to the government. Thus, they created the labeling system used to this day to rank games according to the potential offensiveness of the content. The same happened in the motion picture industry. I expect the same result here.
The social media and information giants have a clear choice in front of them: create the fences and alarms and monitor your borders to keep the democratic process itself safe. Or Congress will force you to do it, as it should if you do not step up.
Finally, the ones with the most know-how and resources are being forced to construct the fences and detection systems that will keep us safe. It is time for the Wild West era of the internet to fade into the background, and for a vista of transparency to appear. It’s just our system of representative democracy at stake. Mr. Zuckerberg: that’s your cue.