Facebook and the new Red Scare

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The discovery that Russian-linked firms bought thousands of Facebook ads prompted the return of a common trope in America, namely, that foreigners are engineering our downfall by defiling our political purity. Russia, a familiar foe, now has a new tool: Facebook. The political ads placed on the social media giant by a troll farm in St. Petersburg is proof. “Something must be done now,” demand politicians, pundits and interest groups. “I’m on it,” Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg responds. But before manning the digital trenches, we should at least review the known facts and learn more.

As a practical matter, the Russian ads appear to have as much substance as spitting in the ocean. Estimates indicate the ads cost $150,000, and over half was spent after the election. By comparison, the money spent in the 2016 election in support of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was over 16,000 times more than the money Russians spent on ads. At most, only four percent of the nation’s voting age population saw one of the Facebook ads at issue.

{mosads}According to reports, the ads were rife with spelling and grammar errors, contained outlandish assertions, and many of the ads occurred in 2015. Importantly, few even mentioned federal candidates. As one group tracking Russian puppet accounts stated, “What we see over and over again is that a lot of the messaging isn’t about politics, a specific politician, or political parties.”

Various interests have seized on Russian chicanery to push “reforms” lacking priority in less neurotic times. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) sent a “Dear Colleague” letter seeking new rules for online ads. The resulting bill would burden internet speech with suffocating rules, even possibly banning some forms of online speech. Instead of hitting the Russians, the bill instead targets American speech, press and assembly rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. In short, despite the dearth of candidate references in the Russian ads, there is already a rush to chill the world’s most dynamic speech forum.

Egging on lawmakers in this endeavor is the usual cadre of nonprofits and opinion shapers. Oft-quoted progressive professor Richard Hasen direly warns, “It is a matter of national security and sovereignty to assure that only Americans should be able to influence who American leaders should be.” This is absurd and impractical.

The largest shareholder of the New York Times is a Mexican mogul. The Economist, based in Britain, somberly informs Americans whom to elect. Russia Today, China Daily and, until last year, Al Jazeera, influence stateside elections. Foreign national Piers Morgan appeared on CNN for years. Today, comedians like British John Oliver and South African Trevor Noah enjoy lambasting American candidates on cable TV.

Our campaign finance laws are already discomfiting. According to the Supreme Court, Congress can ban a Canadian legally residing in the United States from spending a few bucks on pamphlets he wanted to distribute urging a vote for Barack Obama. Yet, Englishman Elton John raised millions of dollars for Hillary Clinton’s presidential runs by entertaining gratis at her fundraising concerts. In the rush to respond, we have to remember the most important values, which are our rights to freely speak, publish, listen, read and watch. That’s the real risk of an irrational response, whether the threats come from new laws or more speech cops at Facebook.

Once we move beyond traditional political advertising disclosure in broadcast, cable and satellite, many uneasy questions emerge. Should every tweet from former Mexican President Vicente Fox disparaging the president disclaim that he isn’t a U.S. citizen? Should Jimmy Kimmel reveal conversations with Chuck Schumer before he attacks would-be ObamaCare repealers? If Kimmel’s sponsors had a financial interest in the legislation, should that flash across the screen?

The Washington Post reported that President Obama confabbed with Zuckerberg to ensure people on Facebook saw only legitimate news sources. The head of the federal government asking a media company to censor unwanted speech is frightening. Facebook says, “We share the values of free speech, that when the right to speech is censored or restricted for any of us, it diminishes the rights to speech for all of us.”

But when government officials pressure it and other online outlets to police political speech, censorship risks skyrocket. The government should focus on ensuring that our voting machinery is safe from foreign hackers. Protection is also needed to prevent foreign agents from stealing internal candidate campaign communications. But when the issue is speech, we must exercise great caution lest zeal to curb foreign influence instead damages our own free speech rights.

David Keating is president of the Institute for Free Speech.

Paul Jossey is an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Free Speech.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Barack Obama Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Elections Facebook free speech Hillary Clinton Mark Warner Politics Russia United States

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