George Boardman: Social media getting serious about its responsibility to the public? | TheUnion.com

George Boardman: Social media getting serious about its responsibility to the public?

George Boardman
Columnist

Here's some insight into how diligent the big brains at Facebook were monitoring content in the run-up to last year's presidential election. The insight came in an exchange between Colin Stretch, general counsel of the company, and Sen. Al Franken, whose former career as a comic prepared him well for Washington.

Franken pointed out during recent hearings that Facebook ads purchased by Russian agents during the campaign were paid for with rubles. "How could you not connect those two dots?" Franken asked. Stretch's answer: "It's a signal we should have been alerted to and in hindsight, one we missed."

Of course, this is the same company whose founder, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, insisted almost a year ago it was "crazy" to suggest that misinformation and fake news that ran rampant on its platform could harm or distort political discourse.

And this is also the same company that insisted it had no evidence of malicious Russian activity before revealing in September that IRA, a pro-Kremlin outfit, spent $100,000 on almost 3,000 Facebook ads and generated 80,000 posts between January 2015 and August 2017 that were seen by about 126 million Facebook users.

All of this came out last week in testimony before two congressional committees that wanted answers on how Facebook, Google and Twitter made it possible for foreign actors to stoke political tensions during the 2016 campaign.

None of the top people of those companies managed to make it to Washington. Zuckerberg was apparently on his way back from China after trying to smooth reentry of Facebook into the world's largest censored market, and COO Sheryl Sandberg, who is usually trotted out when a charm offensive is required, was MIA.

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Eric Schmidt, the front-man for Google's two publicity shy founders, didn't make the hearings along with whoever is running Twitter these days. Instead, the three companies lawyered up, sending their chief legal counsels to testify.

Twitter acknowledged for the first time that 288 million automated election-related tweets from accounts tied to Russians were transmitted between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15, 2016, including tweets that falsely claimed people could "vote by text."

The ads and posts that so easily got past the social media monitors were designed to increase discord and discontent among Americans. "Many of the ads and posts we've seen so far are deeply disturbing — seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other," Stretch testified. "They would be controversial even if they came from authentic accounts in the United States."

But that isn't all. Workers behind Russian-linked Facebook accounts helped organize or finance real-life events before and after the 2016 election, often working directly with U.S. activists and playing both sides of the same hot-button issue, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal concluded.

The Journal story, which didn't get the exposure it deserved, found that at least 60 protests, rallies and marches were publicized or financed by eight Russian-backed Facebook accounts. "Many were sparsely attended, but some attracted news coverage, helping the accounts seem legitimate, add followers and enlist activists to plan future events," the paper reported.

One example of how the Russians played both sides of an issue involved the police shootings of black men in 2016. The Russian agents organized two events on July 10 of last year: A "Blue Lives Matter" rally to honor five slain Dallas police officers, and an event near Minneapolis to protest the shooting of a black man, Philando Castile, by a cop during a traffic stop.

Russian entities likely promoted these events because the Kremlin believes protests destabilize democracies, according to Sara Oates, a political communications professor at the University of Maryland who studies Russian propaganda. The work is a lot easier when American social media companies refuse to take responsibility for the content they transmit.

But apparently Zuckerberg got religion last week, saying Facebook will sacrifice some growth to invest heavily in its safety and security operations. "I'm dead serious about this," he said. We'll see.

DREAM SCENARIO

Two conservative readers of this column took me to task for last week's item on the new gas tax to fix our crumbling highway system, particularly my comment that opponents of the tax have offered no alternative and that maybe they want to return to the horse and buggy days.

Bob Hren and Richard Ulery, the current and former chairs of the Nevada County Republican Party, pointed out separately that gas taxes levied to maintain our highways have been diverted to the state's general fund to cover other expenses. If the state spent the money as intended, it wouldn't be necessary to raise another $54 billion in taxes over 10 years to fix our crumbling highway system.

Hren suggests we repeal the gas and license tax increases, break the Democrats' super majority in Sacramento, redirect the current gas taxes to their intended purpose, and subject any future gas tax increases to "hearing from the voters instead of the out-of-touch elites that now run Sac."

Well, we can all dream. The diverted money is never coming back unless the Republicans take over Sacramento — and even then it wouldn't be a slam-dunk. Exhibit A: The seven-year-old pledge to repeal Obamacare.

State officials appear to take seriously the possibility that a referendum to repeal the new taxes might make the ballot and win. Then the majority Democrats would have to decide if they want to arouse the fury of special interests that benefit from the diverted gas taxes by spending the money as it was intended.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.

Observations from the center stripe: Dining edition

THAT MUST be tough: A Grass Valley restaurant offers “stake” on its menu … ONLY ON the internet: Google has created a dust-up by placing the cheese under instead of on top of the patty in its cheeseburger emoji. But then the CEO of Google is a vegetarian … BUMPER STICKER on an old Volkswagen bus: “0 to 65 in 13 minutes”… CONSUMER TIP: If they start advertising a movie less than a week before it opens and don’t tell who’s in it, the movie is a dud … NOT ONLY did Sports Illustrated predict in 2014 that Houston would win the 2017 World Series, the cover story featured a picture of George Springer, who was named series MVP … IN MY mind, winter starts the day after the World Series ends … BUT AS my father used to say every Christmas Day: “Seven weeks until catchers and pitchers report” …

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