Editorials

Our nation’s democracy is at risk. Where are Facebook and Twitter?

A Facebook posting released by the House Intelligence Committee promotes an anti-Hillary Clinton group called “Being Patriotic.” A federal grand jury indictment charges 13 Russians and three Russian entities with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
A Facebook posting released by the House Intelligence Committee promotes an anti-Hillary Clinton group called “Being Patriotic.” A federal grand jury indictment charges 13 Russians and three Russian entities with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. AP

Except for inside the alternate universe of the Oval Office, there can no longer be any doubt.

Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and hijacked Facebook and Twitter to do it. And if the Silicon Valley social media giants don’t step up, it’s going to happen again in 2018 and 2020.

We got an instructive – and scary – reminder over the past few days: Even as special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians and three organizations on Friday, Russian bots were at it again, this time trying to deepen America’s divide over guns after the Parkland, Fla., school massacre.

Automated accounts linked to Russia have waged a sustained campaign to stoke discord and distrust in America since the 2016 election, sometimes promoting tweets by President Donald Trump.

In some ways, social media executives seem to be getting the message and taking action.

This week, Twitter weeded out thousands of suspicious or fake accounts. Of course, some conservatives complained Wednesday that they were being victimized, but do they really want to make a stink about losing fictitious followers?

In a statement Wednesday, Twitter said its “tools are apolitical” and that it enforces them “without political bias.” In fact, athletes and celebrities – not right wingers by any stretch of the imagination – lost more than a million followers last month after companies that hawk fake accounts were exposed.

As for Facebook, executives pledged to Congress last October that they would double the company’s safety and security staff to 20,000 by the end of 2018. That’s a good measure, too.

What isn’t helpful is Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of advertising, confusing matters by tweeting after the indictments were announced: “I have seen all the Russian ads and I can say definitively that swaying the election was NOT the main goal.”

He had to apologize and Facebook disavowed his comments, after our denier-in-chief retweeted Goldman’s comments to again cast doubt on Russian meddling.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who once said the idea that fake news influenced the election is “pretty crazy,” now talks about the responsibility to do more.

It’s increasingly clear that the business models and bottom lines of social media behemoths are at stake. If their platforms continue to be used to spew vile and fake material, they will lose users and advertisers. Unilever, the consumer products conglomerate and one of the world’s biggest advertisers, is threatening to pull $9 billion in ads from social media networks. That’s real money, even for a company like Facebook, which reported nearly $16 billion in profits last year.

And if companies don’t do more, the federal government could very well impose regulations. That’s not good for free speech, either. We can’t trust the Trump administration to get it right, especially after it hurt consumers by repealing net neutrality last December.

It would be much better for everyone if Facebook, Twitter and others used the vast brainpower and incredible wealth at their disposal to act as responsible corporate citizens. They thrive in our sometimes unruly democracy. They need to help safeguard it.

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