Whether you voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, you should be concerned about how one of our country’s enemies, Russia, interfered with our presidential election in 2016. If your candidate won this time around, who knows what will happen in 2018 or in 2020? This isn’t a partisan issue. This is about protecting our democracy. Every American should want to get to the bottom of what happened.
That can’t happen unless we have more transparency from the companies that control social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Mark Zuckerberg waited nearly a year to take seriously President Obama’s warning that the Russians had placed fake news on the social media’s platform. And these stories were carefully targeted to push hot button issues like race, religion, and trade in battleground states. Negative articles about Hillary Clinton appeared and were not taken down. Twitter was implicated, too, in what was happening on that platform. And when Twitter officials appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia, called their briefing “very disappointing,” and, according to the New York Times, “accused them of ignoring extensive evidence of nefarious Russian activity.”
And now for the first time Google has admitted that the Russians took out ads on YouTube, as well as advertisements associated with Google Search, Gmail, and the company’s DoubleClick ad network. For the record, Google runs the world’s largest online advertising business, and 60 hours of video are uploaded every minute to YouTube.
In Bob Schieffer’s new book, Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News, the longtime CBS reporter and anchor talks about how social media is changing the news landscape. In one interview on CBS, he pointed out how advertisements that appear in mainstream media are carefully vetted to make sure they meet certain standards for truthfulness and accuracy. No such filter exists for what appears on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. It’s the Internet version of the wild, wild west. Every man and woman for himself. Somehow when something appears online, our tendency is to believe what we are reading. And there’s no shortage of outrageous stories that gain traction.
Remember Pizzagate? That Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, were involved in a pedophilia ring that operated out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C.? The hashtag #pizzgate began trending on Twitter which, of course, did nothing too shut down these false rumors. The owner of the pizza restaurant was targeted online and he and his employees worried about their safety. According to the Washington Post, other shopkeepers on the block began to receive threatening phone calls. Approaches to Facebook and Twitter to have the fake comments removed were stonewalled. Edgar Welch believed that story and was so incensed he drove from North Carolina to Washington, ostensibly to rescue the children. Armed with a Colt AR-15 assault rifle, he walked into the restaurant and fired his gun two or three times. Police, who had earlier told the owner that what appeared online was protected as free speech, finally showed up to arrest Welch. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
This recent news about Google hits close to home. When we launched Woman Around Town in 2009, we were able to run Google ads on our site. For those who don’t understand how this works, Google accepts your application to run these ads and then places ads that they deem appropriate on your site. Whenever anyone clicks on one of these ads, the site receives revenue. One day, those Google ads disappeared. Because Google (like Facebook and Twitter), doesn’t have a customer service number, we went through a year of back and forth emails before we learned that because we had run with stories photos that Google tagged as unacceptable, we could no longer run Google ads. The photos? One was of a woman wearing a Playboy bunny costume. The other photo was of red fishnet stockings which ran in a shopping article on Valentine’s Day fashion. So somehow Google found these two photos objectionable but fake stories planted by Russian trolls were allowed? For the record, we have still not been able to get those Google ads back on the site.
Being active on social media is necessary in these days and times if you run a business. For better or worse, most people now get their information online. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are necessary evils. But that doesn’t mean they should not be held accountable when they aid and abet forces that attempt to create havoc and meddle in our elections.
Hopefully, Congress will act and get to the bottom of what happened in 2016. And our elected officials should keep up the heat on these social media giants to make sure they monitor what happens on their platforms. In the meantime, be on guard. Don’t believe everything you read online. Don’t hit that share button without checking out that story first.
There’s a lot at stake.
Top photo: Bigstock