March 19, 2018 – Russia never would have been able to conduct “information warfare” against the United States in the way it did in the 2016 presidential election without Facebook, Twitter and Google. The latest allegations — that a Trump campaign consulting firm with Russian connections used improperly obtained Facebook data on tens of millions of Americans to target voters — raise disturbing questions about the roles of both Facebook and Russia.
Will this finally be what it takes for these CEOs to appear before Congress?
Facebook denies knowingly aiding and abetting this or any other misconduct, as do the other companies. They may indeed have been unwitting vehicles for the Russian intervention activities that occurred in 2016. Or we may learn that they were negligent or reckless for financial or other reasons. Whatever the explanations, the tech companies cannot use them any more.
Our top intelligence leaders tell us foreign manipulation is ongoing. They expect Russian intervention to continue in the 2018 mid-terms and beyond. Facebook, Twitter and Google have so far not been willing to take the dramatic steps that only they can carry out to ensure that history will not repeat itself.
In 1994, the presidents and CEOs of the seven largest American tobacco companieswere subpoenaed to testify to Congress about the dangers of cigarette smoking. In 2001, following the attacks on 9/11, the CEOs of major airlines testified before Congress. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, eight bank chief executives testified before Congress.
Congress must require testimony under oath from Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, CEO Larry Page of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. They need to tell the American public what they are doing to prevent bad actors or foreign adversaries from invading their platforms and our future elections.
We need information that only the three major tech companies can provide to fight these insidious attacks on our national security and on our constitutional system. We need to know, for starters, whether any of these companies or their employees knew or suspected what Russia was doing in the 2016 presidential election, and, if so, what they did with this information.
We need to see all the data these companies have related to Russian use of their platforms to intervene in our elections. This does not mean their proprietary algorithms, but it does, for example, mean all of the Facebook posts, ads, groups and events generated by Russia-affiliated groups. The information should be provided for each of the 126 million Facebook users and the 20+ million Instagram users who were subjected to Russian manipulation efforts. Facebook should also notify the 50 million Americans whose profiles were reportedly “harvested” by Cambridge Analytica — the consulting firm now suspended by Facebook that claims to have provided the “secret sauce” that drove Trump’s electoral success.
Twitter and Google, including its YouTube subsidiary, should provide the analogous information to Congress. All of the data provided by the three companies should be provided in searchable form.
The companies need to reveal how much advertising Russia-affiliated groups bought before and after the 2016 election in all currencies, not just the obvious one of rubles. They also need to provide full information about any automated and human advertising support services the companies provided to Russia-affiliated groups, facilitating their intrusions upon American society. For example, did the companies provide support to recent disinformation efforts such as #ReleaseTheMemo and efforts to discredit the Parkland high schoolers?
Congress and the public also need to be fully informed about exactly what advertising support services the companies provided to individual candidates in the last election, and how that functioned. For example, did tech company employees embedded in the Trump campaign provide it with any extra advantages that amplified Russian support or might otherwise be considered unfair?
Perhaps most importantly, Congress and the public need to be fully informed about the steps the companies are taking to eliminate election interference on their platforms, including, but not limited to, interference by trolls and bots — and why they expect these steps to work.
Today, any hostile power or other malicious actor can follow the Russians’ 2016 “information warfare” playbook, and it is likely that others will do so. We must know what Facebook, Twitter and Google are doing to help prevent that.
To date, those companies have been operating as if it is up to them to decide how much to tell us about their role in Russia’s interference in the last elections.
That is dead wrong.
This is a national crisis and these CEOs and their companies are right in the middle of contributing to it. Congress needs to promptly subpoena Zuckerberg, Page and Dorsey. They need to testify under oath about precisely how Russia used their companies to attack our democracy, and about what they are doing to make sure it won’t happen again.
Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook and Google, is the managing director and co-founder of Elevation Partners. Norman Eisen, chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was chief White House ethics lawyer in the Obama administration. Fred Wertheimer is President of Democracy 21. Follow them on Twitter: @Moonalice, @NormEisen and @FredWertheimer.