Week 19: Internet Billionaires Prepare for Their Public Shaming

 In Politics

Internet giants Google, Facebook, and Twitter—worth more than a trillion dollars combined—have now joined the ever-expanding cast of the Trump Tower scandal. Portrayed in the press as the witless enablers to the Russian meddlers of Campaign 2016, the tech firms have been invited to take their public beatings before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The House Intelligence Committee plans similar humiliations.

On the day Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives his congressional testimony, we can expect him to play the naïf, a role that fits the contour of his personality as tightly as his usual T-shirt. Visualize, if you can, Zuckerberg going wide-eyed and then gulping out this opening statement:

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Senator Burr, Ranking Member Warner, Members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to discuss the 3,000-plus politically divisive ads we sold to Russian customers for $150,000. I’d love to gossip about all the wild noises sounding from the upstairs cathouse at Facebook, but heck, I just play the piano in the parlor.

I don’t know nothing was the tune Zuckerberg sang back in November when first confronted with the argument that Facebook had helped Trump win. “The idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” he said. This week, sculling water like an Olympic oarsman, Zuck rowed that comment back. “Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it,” he wrote in a post. He now concedes that during the campaign Russian viral disinformation chewed its way though Facebook like conquering termites. Zuck has bowed to both Congress and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, handing over copies of the ads the Russians bought as well as providing the companion billing information. Do you supposed they used a Kremlin-issued affinity card from Visa?

The Washington Post reports that as early as June 2016, Zuckerberg was warned by President Barack Obama about the peril fake news and political disinformation presented on his platform. In his row-back post this week, the tiny billionaire attempted to fend off President Donald Trump’s tweet that accused Facebook of being “anti-Trump” and of colluding against him with other media outlets. Sounding like a convicted felon begging for leniency from the judge, he begged for the company to be judged in the context of its “broader impact.” Facebook helped get out the vote, he whined, ran millions of legitimate political ads, gave candidates a chance to communicate directly with voters via their Facebook page, and so on.

If Zuckerberg grovels like this when he runs the Capitol Hill gauntlet, they’ll slice him into strips and barbeque him. What sort of ads did Russians place on Facebook? Ads referencing Black Lives Matter and targeting Ferguson and Baltimore; ads impersonating an American Muslim organization; and ads backing Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, for starters. Conspicuously there were none for Hillary Clinton. The Congressional Black Caucus, calling Facebook a “Trojan horse through which America’s vulnerabilities are exploited,” demanded to know more about the Russian Facebook pages that promoted “incendiary anti-immigrant rallies” and planted ads “designed to inflame and exploit racial, political and economic rifts in the U.S.”

The operatives behind the Facebook ads also ran 201 Twitter accounts, reports the Washington Post, which the company has since canceled. Last year, Twitter collected $274,100 for ads from RT, the Russia-controlled broadcaster, and Russian Twitter-bots amplified the Putin message throughout the Web. Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., gave Twitter a full-rotisserie scalding this week after its director of public policy and philanthropy Carlos Monje gave a what he thought was a limp briefing behind closed-doors before the Senate and House intelligence committees. Twitter’s response to the Russian intrusion was “inadequate,” Warner said. “I don’t think we have more than scratched the surface of our understanding of how the Russians may have used that platform,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said. Google insisted in a statement at the beginning of the month that it had “seen no evidence” of Russian propaganda ads on its platforms. That’s not counting RT, though, which is the most popular news channel on Google’s YouTube. Google promises to nose deeper for the Russian scent, and will likely sniff out more Russian mischief.

What to make of all of this congressional dudgeon? Members of Congress love to bang on the billionaire class to please the viewers in the cheap seats who live to see blame affixed. Your standard-issue congressional investigation rarely traces a direct path to genuine wrong-doing. Or are the Warners and Schifffs onto something bigger than discovering a few hundred thousand dollars worth of Russian propaganda ads sloshing around in a digital advertising market of $83 billion? If congressional investigations were magazine feature assignments, most of them would get the spike.

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