OPED: Tame the Wild West of cyberspace

Christopher Dale
Tribune News Service

Our laws need to catch up with our technology. And fast.

In early October, Facebook finally turned over to Congress more than 3,000 Russia-linked advertisements, strategically placed throughout its platform prior to the 2016 election.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said these ads "help demonstrate how Russia employed sophisticated measures to push disinformation and propaganda to millions of Americans online."

Schiff spoke of the need to "inoculate the public against future Russian interference in our elections," appropriately likening Russian President Vladimir Putin's meddling to a virus.

What Schiff failed to mention: To do damage, a virus requires a host.

How on Earth did Facebook let this happen? Just as damning: How is this only coming to light nearly a year after the election?

The idea that Facebook, one of the world's most sophisticated organizations, needed this long to discover and disclose evidence of Russia-linked advertisements is mind-boggling. At best, Facebook remained willfully ignorant of its powerful platform's large-scale usurpation by a hostile foreign power. At worst, it knew — if not instantly, then shortly thereafter — and kept silent, pocketing ad revenue and allowing Russia-linked saboteurs to spread politically motivated lies across its network.

Google is guilty of equally disgraceful conduct, allowing purchasers to buy ads tagged to offensive search terms. When reporters from BuzzFeed went cyber-incognito to buy ads tied to the phrase, "Why do Jews ruin everything?", they received suggestions to purchase additional ads for similar terms, including "the evil Jew" and "Jewish control of banks."

Twitter, meanwhile, allowed advertisers to target people with a certain word beginning with "n" and comprising six of the platform's allotted 140 characters. The company called this "a bug that we have now fixed."

Online media obviously need to do a better job of preventing their platforms from being used to spread hatred and disinformation, including allowing a hostile foreign power to hijack our worst instincts, kick them into hyper-drive and crash them into mainstream politics.

With two-thirds of Americans relying on social media platforms to stay informed, we need to recognize the situation for what it is: a clear and present danger to our sovereignty. Addressing it means regulating media technology as we would any other sector with elevated national security implications.

Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Mark R. Warner (D-Virginia) and John McCain (R-Arizona) have introduced a bill requiring digital platforms with more than one million users to create public databases of "electioneering communications." Importantly, the companies would have to make "reasonable efforts" to ensure political ads aren't being purchased by foreigners.

It's a start, but doesn't go far enough. Notably, the word "reasonable" reeks of legislative hedging. It is well within the ability of tech giants to completely eliminate any political ad purchased by a foreign entity.

Any effective legislation also must address the viral nature of social media. These companies can and must get a firmer handle on their users and content, not just advertisers. They must do a better job of keeping their platforms from being used to spread "fake news."

The days of social media tycoons pleading ignorance to the nefarious plots unfolding on their enormously influential sites must end, and soon. Taming the Wild West of cyberspace starts by closing to Russian hackers and propagandists their largest ports of entry. Congress must act, and act boldly.

—Christopher Dale writes on society, politics and sobriety-based issues.