The story of how Russian operatives secretly manipulated Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social-media platforms during the 2016 election is getting bigger, uglier, and more urgent—and, according to numerous recent accounts, Russia’s use of bots and trolls is still going on.
On November 1, executives from Twitter; Alphabet, Inc., which runs Google; and Facebook—including Facebook’s general counsel, but neither CEO Mark Zuckerberg nor COO Sheryl Sandberg—are expected to appear before a rare open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). Among other topics, they will be grilled about alarming new reports—including a series of revelations from inside Russia itself—about Moscow’s covert purchase of political ads, use of countless Internet bots and trolls, and creation of fake American users, all as part of an effort to instigate racial and religious conflict and spread conspiracy theories during last year’s campaign and beyond.
All of this is getting some belated attention from the trio of Internet giants, as well as members of Congress from both parties who are searching for ways to stop it. Last Thursday, Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner, along with Republican John McCain, announced the introduction of the Honest Ads Act, which would regulate political advertising on the Internet much like such advertising on television and radio. It would compel the biggest social-media platforms to archive and maintain a public file of all political ads for buyers who spend more than $500 and require them to “make all reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate,” according to its sponsors.
A parallel bill in the House is sponsored by Colorado Republican Mike Coffman and Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer. Many other members of Congress, including at least two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, are looking into the issue as well. Senator Richard Blumenthal says he’s considering an even tougher bill. “It’s only going to expand,” said the Connecticut Democrat. “We have to muster a self-defense, just as we would [from] a military or a cyberattack.” It seems clear now that, at the very least, one consequence of Russiagate will be a whole new set of rules and regulations for the corporate giants of the online world, who until now have coasted along in a mostly regulation-free Wild, Wild West.