Facebook admitted last week that it unknowingly sold $100,000 worth of ads to a “troll farm” in Russia during the 2016 presidential election. As if the news could get much worse, The Daily Beast reported Monday that Russians hiding behind fake identities used Facebook’s event management tool to remotely organize and promote political protests during the same time.
This was the first time the social media giant publicly acknowledged the existence of such events, but it likely won’t be the last time Facebook discusses it.
“We’re seeing more evidence of additional ads and how they are used to manipulate individuals,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on Tuesday. Sen. Warner also said representatives from social media companies should be required to testify in a “public hearing” that he will discuss with committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) this week.
“Let’s face it, the whole notion of social media and how it is used in political campaigns is the wild wild west,” he continued, “and again, I’ll grant Facebook that maybe they weren’t as fully aware in the immediate aftermath of our elections, although for many months they said this didn’t happen. I’ve wondered about that.”
This is a big story, sure, but it’s part of a much larger trend: a notable turn against Facebook.
Facebook was once thought of as one of the great beacons of American innovation but it is increasingly being depicted as an epicenter of unaccountable power.
This company, on the surface, is a defining brand that is loved by consumers and has largely been able to hover above politics. But this tech giant also spends incredible amounts of money on lobbying to keep regulators and tax collectors at bay.
And now the calls have come to hold Facebook to account, and it seems the social media giant will have to fight against the political tides that have defined all other major industries. Just as oil prospectors and tobacco companies had their glory days and are now resigned to a defensive stance, so too will Facebook follow.
For Facebook, the move into politics has spelled trouble in a way none of its privacy stumbles have. In 2014, the company was happy to be seen as a major player sharing sentiment data with abandon, and the company fought to replace television to be the place where American elections were fought and won. And as the 2016 presidential election demonstrated, that’s exactly what Facebook became.
Today, politics has become so hazardous for the company that its new video platform won’t have any political content. Though is it all a little too late? The company has aggressively denied that it had any influence in the election, but as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan recently asked: “Would Donald Trump be president today if Facebook didn’t exist? Although there is a long list of reasons for his win, there’s increasing reason to believe the answer is no.”
And that’s coming from an ally on the left, not conservatives who don’t agree with Facebook’s progressive social views.
So is the company ready for this new era of hard-ball politics? You can usually spot a politician’s problems by their overcompensation, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent midwestern tour has all the hallmarks not of a business exec starting a political career, but of a leader who has recognized he needs to fix his company’s image and his own in front of a public wondering if he put profit ahead of patriotism during the campaign. To the political world, Zuckerberg’s tour may reek of a newfound vulnerability around his company and his industry, which is a difficult position to be in when you’re about to be called to testify before a committee.
But I wouldn’t say this is necessarily the beginning of the end for this tech giant. Rather, I’d say that the golden age is over for Facebook. The company is now faced with politics as usual, which will start with a deep bipartisan current flowing against it.