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Are Tech Giants Doing Enough To Fight Against Foreign Powers Trying To Influence Elections?




CORNISH: All this month, we're looking at how technology can be used to influence or undermine the core tenets of democracy. Top executives from Facebook and Twitter will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee this Wednesday. Google has also been invited. Facebook has led the way on public disclosures of propaganda operations from Russia. As NPR's Alina Selyukh reports, the company is trying to show how much it has changed since the last election.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Every year, Facebook makes billions of dollars on ads. And some of them really blend in. They can look like just another video in your news feed, except a tiny tag says sponsored. This became a particular sticking point in the investigation over what happened in 2016, how Facebook exposed tens of millions of American users to misinformation and divisive propaganda. Here's Louisiana senator John Kennedy questioning Facebook's lawyer in October.


JOHN KENNEDY: The truth of the matter is you have 5 million advertisers that change every month, every minute, probably every second. You don't have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you?

SELYUKH: Facebook's lawyer acknowledged the company has to rely on advertisers to identify themselves. This is tricky with elections at stake. Facebook now says 11 million people saw ads purchased by Russia-linked accounts during the 2016 cycle. As campaigns geared up for this year's midterms, Facebook decided to get more transparent.


ROB LEATHERN: Starting today, all election and issue ads on Facebook and Instagram in the U.S. must be clearly labeled.

SELYUKH: This was Rob Leathern, a Facebook ads executive, on a call with reporters in May. All political ads on Facebook now have to show not just the Facebook group behind it but the person or entity paying for it. And whoever is buying the ad has to submit a copy of their U.S. ID and get a special code in the mail. That applies to ads about people running for office but also politically sensitive issues - think immigration, guns or civil rights. And on top of it all, Facebook is now collecting these ads into a searchable archive.

ADAV NOTI: Facebook has done a very good job in the last few months.

SELYUKH: Adav Noti is with the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center.

NOTI: It's a real step forward for Facebook, given that, until a few months ago, Facebook was the most recalcitrant of all the major online platforms in terms of fighting against that sort of disclosure and transparency.

SELYUKH: So far, the most common complaint against the new rules is how broadly Facebook applies them. If you spend enough time on the ad archive, you'll find news stories and even random events like a comedy show - but also, of course, the never-ending flood of political ads. University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Young Mie Kim studied divisive advertising in 2016. And she says Facebook's new archive still does not address one common tactic - multiple groups coordinating to push the same agenda.

YOUNG MIE KIM: A large number of small groups were targeting similar types of people. So then, at the aggregate level, it adds up.

SELYUKH: There's still no way for the public to connect the dots between multiple Facebook pages that may be funded by the same people and advertising to the same users. Kim also has a more obvious complaint about Facebook's new transparency.

KIM: They should have done this way before 2016 election.

SELYUKH: Now the midterms are weeks away, and the 2020 campaigning is starting up. Raffi Krikorian is the chief technology officer of the Democratic National Committee. And he says transparency on social media remains a huge concern.

RAFFI KRIKORIAN: This technology landscape is changing so quickly that I'm worried that voters don't fully grok how to tell truths apart from advertising from misinformation.

SELYUKH: Krikorian wants Facebook and other tech companies to start being more proactive about correcting misinformation on their platforms. The tech platforms say that's not really their role. Meanwhile, campaign finance experts point out whatever tech companies do for transparency is completely voluntary. The laws on the books were not written for the age of social media. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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