Facebook and Twitter higher-ups have long prided themselves on obliterating obstacles to communication, allowing far more people and far more communities voices and megaphones that they never knew prior.
But the past few months have revealed that both platforms, with Instagram alongside, have also allowed foreign autocracies to inject propaganda, misinformation, and outright fictions in ways dictators never could have dreamed. Where the Soviet Union’s broader propaganda efforts in the U.S. remained limited to a handful of pamphlets and anonymous phone calls – as well as a smattering of individuals in the American press – Twitter and, most especially, Facebook allowed foreign actors to reach into millions of American homes with little cost. Facebook announced that the recent spate of fraudulent Facebook accounts, pushing distinctly pro-Trump, anti-Clinton messaging, found their way to some 10 million Americans.
Renewed pressure from both Congress and the public appears to be leading to some soul-searching, with both Facebook and Twitter issuing mea culpas via video, statement, and tightened policies. While neither Facebook nor Twitter have yet released all of their findings on fake accounts and ads to the public, both companies appear to be cooperating with investigators – albeit, in Twitter’s case, with a bit less professionalism than others were hoping for.
But where Twitter and Facebook have since removed the Russian accounts flagged – including those posing as black activists, Texas secessionists, and anti-immigration xenophobes – ReCode reported earlier this week that Twitter has continued to allow at least one Russian propaganda outlet to advertise on the site. The report, revealing that Twitter has permitted the RT outlet to continue advertising, comes one week after Twitter released a lengthy post detailing how RT spent some $274,100 on ads in the U.S. in 2016 alone. These purchases include promoting nearly 2,000 tweets, which “were directed at followers of mainstream media and primarily promoted RT Tweets regarding news stories.”
It remains unclear whether Facebook has barred RT – or other Kremlin outlets like Sputnik – from purchasing ads. Neither Twitter nor Facebook responded to questions.
However, in light of the ongoing news surrounding Russian actors abusing social media platforms to meddle in the U.S. election, Google announced this week that it was removing RT from its YouTube premium package, which is aimed at advertisers. While the outlet will remain on YouTube – where it gains the clear majority of its views, rather than on television – RT will no longer be packaged with other popular channels, according to Bloomberg.
The questions surrounding Twitter’s and Facebook’s willingness to allow foreign propaganda outlets to advertise on their platforms come amidst renewed discussions about registering RT with the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). While FARA is generally used only to identify those lobbying on behalf of foreign governments – including the types of autocracies producing content like RT – it has, on occasion, been used to register media outlets. A recent report from the Atlantic Council, arguing for registering RT with FARA, noted that a handful of other media companies, including those from China, Japan, and South Korea, are already registered, and that outlets like RT meet the threshold required for registry. Added the report, “During the Cold War, the largest Soviet news agency, TASS, had its New York bureau registered as a foreign agent under FARA; other Soviet media also had their US correspondents registered as agents.”
But even if the Department of Justice does compel RT to register with FARA, that wouldn’t necessarily prohibit private companies like Twitter or Facebook from allowing the outlet, or other outlets run out of foreign autocracies, from advertising with them. Facebook has no problem allowing state media outlets or official pages from regimes like those in China or Azerbaijan to run on their platform. Nor, of course, does Twitter, which allows dictators like Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev to offer gems like this:
Azerbaijan is rapidly developing in all areas, all socio-economic issues are solved.
— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz) August 22, 2017
Still, there might be some precedent for these social media giants to clamp down on foreign dictatorships who keep abusing the platforms to spread propaganda. In 2013, Facebook removed a page for Korean Central Television, an alleged page for North Korea’s primary state television outlet. While the account may have been a hoax, Facebook had prior removed media material from North Korea. Twitter, on the other hand, appears to have allowed a popular North Korean news feed to remain, permitting viewers outside of Pyongyang to catch up on the latest on North Korean memorials, mining, and basketball.
— uriminzokkiri (@uriminzok) October 4, 2017
For the time being, though, there’s little to indicate Facebook or Twitter will do much to make it more difficult for foreign propaganda outlets to gain access to American viewers – a reality that foreign autocrats will find comforting, given that their propaganda machines have already flipped the social media platforms into megaphones for their own messages.