James Bovard is a USA Today columnist and the author of 10 books, including “Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty” (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).
The 2016 election was the first time in history that goofy advertisements were considered an act of war. The frenzy on Capitol Hill over a smattering of Russian advertisements would be comical except that most of the American media has jumped on the hysteria bandwagon. The latest clamor is a stark warning to anyone who presumes that politicians are natural friends of freedom of speech.
Russian political advertisements amounted to only .004 percent of the total content that Facebook users saw last year in the United States. Russian ads on Facebook were clumsy and schizophrenic, hitting multiple sides of issues, and were often laughably simplistic (such as the "Jesus Punches Hillary” ad shown here).
Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) railed that "a dictator like Vladimir Putin abused flaws in our social media platforms to inject the worst kind of identity politics into the voting decisions of at least 100 million Americans.” This presumes that Russian ads had a mysterious power to zap the minds of Facebook users who perhaps had zero resistance after viewing too many cat videos. But my experience running a few ads on Facebook for one of my books found that it was a worse investment than buying used lottery tickets from a wino on the street corner.
Axios reporter Sara Fischer observed, "In the political advertising world, you would need to serve at least 7-10 viewable impressions to a person over a short window, two-four weeks, to even begin driving intent or action."
No one has proven that Russian ads on Facebook or Twitter had any significant impact — especially in swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Regardless, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) berated tech company officials: "You bear this responsibility. You’ve created these platforms and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.”
Alternet reporter Max Blumenthal observed that "the liberal Democrats in #TechHearings are most outspoken opponents of press freedom & supporters of media censorship.” The lambasting of social media companies is a reminder that nothing is so fleeting as political gratitude. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, in an email to Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, declared that she wanted "HRC to win badly. I am still here to help as I can." (Thanks, Wikileaks!)
Twitter did its best to suppress tweets about leaked Clinton campaign emails. After identifying 2 percent of tweets with a #DNCLeak hashtag as "potentially Russian-linked accounts,” Twitter admitted to suppressing almost half of all tweets with that hashtag, making them invisible to search engines. Activists were confounded last Fall when extremely popular tweets on leaked emails rarely showed up as "trending.”
To highlight the Russian peril, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D- Minn.) created a bogus Facebook group named "Americans for Disclosure Solution” to purportedly show how easy it was to spread fake news. But any Russian contribution to fake news was infinitesimal last year compared to the Trump and Clinton campaigns’ vast expenditures to bombard Americans with deceitful advertisements. And when it comes to the damage from fake news, nothing compares to the carnage from the Bush administration’s false claims before invading Iraq or the Obama administration’s deluded forecasts about the happy results of bombing Libya. Governments often define "fake news” as anything that debunks official falsehoods.
Shamelessness was bountiful this week. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared: "When you use cyber in an affirmative way to compromise our democratic, free election system, that’s an attack against America. It’s an act of war.” Ironically, Cardin did his saber rattling in a spiel at the National Democratic Institute — a Washington organization heavily financed by the federal National Endowment Democracy, which has been caught interfering or alleged to be interfering in elections in France, Panama, Costa Rica, Ukraine, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Haiti and many other nations.
Facebook’s piety helps make it a juicy political target. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg pledged in September to "to ensure our community is a platform for all ideas and force for good in democracy.” But Facebook is already suppressing plenty of postings in the United States; I reported last week in USA Today on my own experience being zapped by Facebook after seeking to post a photo of a U.S. government atrocity.
In much of the world, Facebook permits government officials to suppress practically any information they please. Facebook instructs its employees that "we will not censor content unless a nation has demonstrated the political will to enforce its censorship laws.” But when governments demand crackdowns, Facebook has obliged in nations ranging from inTurkey, India, Pakistan, Morocco, and Israel.
Daily Show host Trevor Noah sneered on Thursday that Facebook would have permitted Hitler to buy social media ads. This is ironic since critics may be seeking a Germanification of Facebook here. German police recently responded to offensive social media postings by conducting dozens of high-profile "home searches and interrogations.” Facebook sought to placate the German government by deleting 15,000 posts a month but the government is threatening a $50+ million fine unless Facebook censors far more comments. Judith Bergman of the Gatestone Institute warned: "When employees of social media companies are appointed as the state's private thought police ... free speech becomes nothing more than a fairy tale."
Actually, this may be the secret wish of some members of Congress. Unfortunately, many Americans would cheer federal muzzling. Almost half of millennials supported restricting freedom of speech on social media, according to a recent survey.
Congressional threats have probably already done long-term damage to corporate spines. It would be naive to expect Facebook, Twitter, or other social media companies to take heroic stands in favor of free speech. But it would be even more naive to expect anything good to result from permitting politicians to decimate freedom in the name of democracy.