Calls for a Facebook Crackdown Increase After Damning NYT Report

'Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself,' congressman says

Lawmakers are again indicating they plan to take action against Facebook. Getty Images
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

In the wake of a New York Times report detailing Facebook’s public and private actions in the face of crises related to Russian disinformation, Cambridge Analytica and government scrutiny, some lawmakers are again indicating they plan to take action against the social media giant and its tactics.

The damning report, which detailed the ways in which Facebook tried to downplay concerns over Russian disinformation, blunt legislative inquiries and redirect criticism to other tech companies, has landed amid various efforts on the part of lawmakers to draft federal privacy regulations, address disinformation campaigns on the platform and require greater transparency regarding political ad spending on social media.

Some lawmakers have floated the prospect of breaking up Facebook through antitrust action, and on Wednesday, Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island and the ranking member on the House Antitrust Subcommittee, suggested legislative steps.

“Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself,” Cicilline said. “…It is long past time for us to take action. I am confident that despite Facebook’s best efforts to buy Congress’ silence, the will of the American people will prevail. Next January, Congress should get to work enacting new laws to hold concentrated economic power to account, addressing the corrupting influence of corporate money in our democracy, and restore the rights of Americans.”

During a Senate Judiciary Committee session today, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she believed Facebook’s opposition research against its critics could constitute a campaign finance violation if it targeted elected officials. Klobuchar is already a co-sponsor of the Honest Ads Act, a bill that would require Facebook to disclose political advertising on the site. (Facebook this year introduced a political ad archive that has been shown to contain false or misleading information.)

The lawmaker said she planned to send a letter to both Facebook and the Department of Justice requesting additional information.

“This is a pretty serious matter,” Klobuchar said.

Other senators, like Mark Warner, D-Va., a co-sponsor of the Honest Ads Act, and Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has drafted data privacy legislation, have been vocal critics of Facebook.

“The New York Times story reinforces the fact that but for consistent pressure brought to bear by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation, we would still be in the dark about the extent of Russian activity on Facebook during the 2016 election,” Warner said. “I’m happy to say that the cooperation has improved significantly, but what’s evident from the story is that for a long period of months, the company hoped this problem would simply just go away.”

Wyden took to Twitter: “Individuals that promote anti-Semitic bile, like Definers, and the people at Facebook who hired them, threaten not just our safety, but our democracy. The truth of Facebook’s conduct behind the scenes – tapping into anti-Semitism, spreading fake news and hiding the facts of Russia’s election interference – could not be further from what Mark Zuckerberg told the Senate his company was all about … Facebook has not only refused to effectively crack down on hate-spewing Nazis, the New York Times revealed it actually encouraged anti-Semitism by hiring degenerate right-wing propagandists to concoct conspiracies that tap into anti-Semitic biases. A corporation that stoops this low in response to legitimate criticism should not be trusted with your personal information. Congress must adopt my proposal to create real privacy rules with teeth.”

The criticism directed at Facebook Thursday has been varied, but much of it hinged on the company’s decision to employ a Republican opposition research firm, Definers Public Affairs, to try and deflect criticism onto Facebook’s critics. Its tactics included suggesting that the Democratic financier George Soros, a Facebook critic, was funding anti-Facebook groups.

A spokesperson for Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic group Soros founded and for which he serves as chair, said the philanthropy had not provided funding to Freedom From Facebook, a group that Definers had targeted.

Soros has long been the target of anti-Semitic attacks for his work funding pro-democratic causes and his support of liberal organizations and politicians, and in October was mailed a pipe bomb in a spate of attacks that are being investigated as domestic terrorism.

Early Thursday morning, Facebook published a blog post responding to some of the Times’ reporting. The company said it had cut ties with Definers on Wednesday following the publication of the report.

“Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of ‘Freedom from Facebook,’ an anti-Facebook organization,” the blog post read. “The intention was to demonstrate that it was not simply a spontaneous grassroots campaign, as it claimed, but supported by a well-known critic of our company. To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue.”

A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment for this story, but Facebook’s board of directors did issue a statement later.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.