Facebook Ads, Trolls, and Russian Hackers: The Impact of Social Media and Digital Giants on Politics in 2017

2017 was a long and tough year for everyone who deals with politics. An unusually large number of political scandals made the last 12 months unforgettable. And as the Hungarian (and US midterm) elections slowly approach, it is worthwhile to take a moment to examine these scandals, as well as the surprising role that Facebook and other major digital giants played in some of the most important political stories of the past year.

 One major issue was the role that Russian support may have played in President Trump’s electoral victory. The story is easily imaginable: the Russians preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton because they expected the former reality TV star to be more likely to create an international environment amenable to their aspirations. This is clear, but the, real exciting question is this: how could a few hackers and Facebook trolls hijack the world’s oldest, most developed democracy?

When three tech giants testified before a hearing of the US Senate judiciary committee, several uncomfortable questions arose. During the hearings, shame was unsurprisingly visible on tech executives’ faces when Senator Al Franken asked the following question: “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points… somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia? Those are two data points. American political ads and Russian money, roubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”

This is, of course, a legitimate line of inquiry, but who should take the blame for this situation? If we consider Facebook as a platform, which can show us political content, like television, billboards, radio stations, why is Facebook not forced to abide by the same rules these other platforms must follow? Can we imagine the following: some advertising company from Saint Petersburg buying anti-Hillary ads on national television and paying with roubles? Political ads are usually not grouped into the same category as commercial ads; by extension, any platform whose messaging could have a huge effect on election outcomes should be regulated.

When you create a Facebook ad, no one asks any questions about your organization or the type of content your page produces. If your Facebook “creative” fits into their policies, the system lets the ad through. In this, however, Facebook doesn’t take the country’s law under consideration where the content will be presented. In America laws about political advertisement content are stricter than here in Europe, but when these ads clearly break a law, for example Hungary’s laws limiting political campaigning, there are no ways to hinder that content from being spread on Facebook.

There is, in addition to all this, an even bigger problem: what should we call a political ad on the internet? If some interest group makes a Facebook video ad, showing Hillary Clinton calling some group of kids “super-predators” and targeting black communities in the last hours of the election just to intimidate them from going out to the voting poles, is this part of the campaign, or not? Fighting negative comments with trolls; is this campaigning or not?

These two examples both happened in the last US elections, and they show that we have not only failed to regulate the biggest companies in the world, they have, in the meantime, created a whole new political sphere, whose existence we haven’t yet fully recognized. Meanwhile in Hungary, there is a political fight around political billboards, which are truly not as effective as online political propaganda. Despite this, there is still no legislation to deal with real problems which could appear online.

The digital giants have grown to almost unimaginable sizes partially due to a lack of regulation.

While other actors, which these tech companies increasingly replace, suffer from institutional and financial barriers that states put on them, digital companies can evolve freely, and now we can see that they don’t just take away local advertising revenues, but can pose a threat to our democracies as well. To avoid this, these companies should be encouraged to pay taxes and respect the laws of the countries where they make their money, and to provide adequate compensation for those who create content on their sites, since this content is ultimately the engine of their fortunes.


By Gábor Sarnyai


About the author:

Originally from Serbia’s Vojvodina region, Gábor Sarnyai holds a degree in political science from Budapest’s Corvinus University, and has worked as a journalist at numerous Hungarian news outlets.


Image via CNN