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  October 4, 2017

Should Social Media Ads Be Regulated?

The Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into alleged Russia's interference in the U.S. election has raised the larger question of how to handle social media advertising, particularly false or misleading ads
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Dean Baker is senior economist at The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of several books including, The United States Since 1980; Social Security: The Phony Crisis (with Mark Weisbrot); and The Benefits of Full Employment (with Jared Bernstein). He appears frequently on TV and radio programs, including CNN, CBS News, PBS NewsHour, and National Public Radio.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. On Wednesday, the Vice Chair and the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee presented their latest findings with regard to Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. presidential campaign. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, one way in which they may have interfered is by buying ads in social media, like that of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Here's what the ranking Democrat and Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, had to say:

SENATOR WARNER: We're seen a over 700% increase in the use of digital political advertising between 2012 and 2016. The expectation is that may double or triple again in terms of the next election cycle because of the ability to so target voters. I was concerned at first that some of these social media platform companies did not take this threat seriously enough. I believe they are recognizing that threat ...

SHARMINI PERIES: The social media platform Facebook turned over 3,000 advertisements to Senate and House Intelligence Committee last Monday. The ads are said to have been sponsored by a front group that is linked to Russia and were intended to influence U.S. presidential elections in various ways. According to Facebook, these groups purchased over $150,000 worth of political advertising through Facebook. About 10 million Facebook users are said to have seen these ads. Whether Russia was actually behind these ads, and to what extent the $150,000 worth of advertising might have influenced the campaign, a campaign that cost over two billion dollars, remain unclear; however, the issue does raise the larger question of whether and how social media advertising, particularly if it is misleading or false, should be regulated.

Joining us today to discuss this is Dean Baker. Dean is a Co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the author of the book "Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer." Welcome, Dean.

DEAN BAKER: Thanks for having me on.

SHARMINI PERIES: Dean, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, ads purchased on Facebook, Twitter, and Google are now a part of the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigations. In response, Facebook recently published a full-page advertisement in The New York Times and The Washington Post promising to do a better job policing social media ads. First, what do you think of that response on the part of Facebook, and can this area be self-regulated as they are proposing?

DEAN BAKER: I wouldn't trust Facebook or, for that matter, the other social media companies to regulate. Just to be clear what's at issue here, there is the debate, of course, what the Russian government might have done in the last election. That to my view is a side ... I mean we do want to know that, but to my view that's really a sidebar. The point here is that you have basically fake ads ... that's at least what's claimed, and sure seems to be the case ... where you had non-existent organizations sending ads over Facebook to hundreds of thousands or millions of people, and whatever happened in 2016 it's a safe bet that we're going to see much more of that if there isn't some effort to prevent it. What I had suggested is basically stealing something from another law that I'm not necessarily that fond of, but it does limit copyright violations, the Digital Millennial Copyright Act of 1998, which makes intermediaries like Facebook responsible for passing along copyright-protected material.

What's important to keep in mind here is that they charge ... The potential damages that Facebook would have to pay for carrying copyrighted material dwarf the actual damages. So let's say I have a song that's 20 years old, it wasn't the biggest hit back in 1997, and Facebook lets it run for three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, a thousand copies made or something like that. Well, you get half a cent a copy, so that comes to five dollars in damages if I wasn't getting money for that. Facebook under this law could easily end up paying thousands of dollars, both in damages and attorneys' fees, which gives them a really strong incentive to make sure that they don't have copyrighted material on their site. The way it works under the law is that if I notify Facebook, I claim to be the copyright holder ... I could be lying, but I claim to be the copyright holder, if Facebook wants to make sure it's not liable, they have 48 hours to remove it from their site.

You could do the same thing with an ad. I contact Facebook and go, "Hey, I got this ad, looks pretty flaky, looks like it's fake. You better remove it." And you could have a law says they have 24 hours, 48 hours, whatever it might be, to remove it and to notify everyone that it was a fake ad. Now they could try themselves to investigate and see whether it was a real ad, but in any case the point would be they would be liable for substantial damages if they passed along the fake ad. I think that would be a worthwhile way to go. Obviously, it would apply to Facebook but more generally with social media, that they would have a responsibility not to pass along fake material.

SHARMINI PERIES: How do you imagine the notification to go out? Because ads you just see on the side of it, some people may click on it, some people may not. Is there a way in which for them to send a notice saying you've just looked at a fake ad?

DEAN BAKER: The notification could take the same form as the original ad. Again, obviously this could take different forms. I'm not a Facebook user, so I don't know all the ways in which they circulate ads, but it could take the same form as the original ad. Obviously you can't guarantee that everyone who saw the original ad will necessarily see the correction, but they could make an effort to try to ensure that it's transmitted the same way.

SHARMINI PERIES: How important do you think this is in terms of our democracy and keeping it intact?

DEAN BAKER: I think it's very important. We've looked at ... Obviously there's a lot of issues that have been raised with the deterioration of democracy, if you want to use that term. The extreme gerrymandering, the case that's before the Supreme Court now where Republicans have just tried to nullify democracy by having the districts structured so that they could get majorities of seats, even in cases where they get a minority of the vote. That's a big issue. Campaign finance, of course, is a huge issue with people able to spend hundreds of millions, billions supporting their favorite candidates, and this is along the same lines. If people could pass along ads that there's no accountability for their ... phony ads and we have no idea where they originated, I think that's a real problem.

SHARMINI PERIES: Why is this so important, but if you were to take this $150,000 that was spent, and actually billions of dollars were spent when you add up all of the money that was spent on these campaigns, what significance will it have, because advertising, if you're looking at all the junk mail that's coming into your house every day through your mailbox, some of it you pay attention to, some of it you don't. Why is regulating so important when it comes to social media?

DEAN BAKER: If this really ends up just being 150,000, that's not going to be that big in the scheme of things, but again the whole point, if we're concerned about money in politics, this is money in politics. This is how you spend the money in politics. So if anyone's concerned about Citizens United, where corporations can basically spend an unlimited amount supporting candidates, they should be concerned about this. Now, if you don't think money matters in politics, well then fine, but I'm sort of inclined to think it does, and again, this is kind of an extreme case because basically it authorizes people to lie and have no accountability. Obviously, politicians say deceptive things all the time, but at least in principle we could trace them back. In this case, we have non-existent entities that are trying to pass along claims about politicians or about issues that are not true, and we have no idea where they came from because they're deceiving us on that.

SHARMINI PERIES: Sort of adding to your argument, just because they spend $150,000, or at least that's what Facebook tells us, doesn't mean that they won't spend more moving forward in other elections and so forth, so some regulation might be in order.

All right, Dean, I thank you so much for joining us.

DEAN BAKER: Thanks a lot for having me on.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.


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