Next week, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hear testimony from representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google as part of an ongoing inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The tech giants will be asked about Kremlin-sponsored propaganda and misinformation on their platforms during last year’s campaign and their plans to prevent future interference.
Drew Margolin is a professor of communication at Cornell University who studies the way people interact about politics online and the role of accountability, credibility and legitimacy within social networks. He says the ultimate question is whether these companies are emerging tech innovators or dominant media firms – and in the latter case, a certain amount of regulations would be needed.
“The key question about the hearings is whether Facebook, Twitter and the social media ecosystem are defined as an emerging technology industry or as dominant communication infrastructures. Right now, both narratives are plausible.
“On the one hand, many of the specific problems of the day are novel: foreign governments potentially targeting users with ads, fake news being promoted by fake accounts and algorithms, inconsistent censoring of users and posts. I expect Facebook and Twitter to say that this is a new technological frontier and that they’re solving problems as proactively as they can. They’ll also point out that these areas of concern are, in quantitative terms, tiny compared to the vast number of messages they carry every day.
“In short, they’ll argue that the problems are real, but small, and complex, and so the best way to address them is to let these nimble, innovative tech companies continue to address them on their own. It might be interesting to compare their arguments to those made by financial institutions who claimed that their industries were too complicated and fast moving to be anything but self-regulated.
“On the other hand, the conflict between the public’s interest and these companies’ private interest is growing more palpable. Social networking sites are critical communication infrastructures – connective pubic goods. As public goods administered by a private company, it follows that they will often be faced with the choice between benefiting the public interest or their own bottom line. In other words, these ‘novel’ challenges are just the 2017 version of the problem. Issues will continue to arise until the basic conflict is recognized, and some kind of regulatory regime, if only minimal, is installed.
“Will next week’s round of hearings be the one that tips the balance toward regulation?”