In the run-up to the 2016 elections, Russian operatives famously used social media to spread fake information, suppress voting and sow social discord.
In response, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter vowed to prevent foreign actors from meddling with the elections in the future.
This time around, the companies did better at preventing foreign interference. But they struggled with a different and seemingly more difficult problem -- false claims of election fraud from former President Donald Trump and his political allies.
Starting in the spring, Trump used his Twitter account to bash mail-in voting, claiming without evidence it would result in fraud.
By May, Twitter was flagging Trump's posts about voter fraud as disputed -- but Twitter, along with Facebook and YouTube, allowed him to continue spreading false claims on their platforms.
While Facebook allowed Trump to continue posting until recently, the company attempted to clamp down on some forms of political propaganda through other means. In October, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told a Senate committee the company would stop recommending civic groups to users.
The company appears to have overpromised on that front. The Markupreported last week that Facebook continued to recommend political groups like “Donald Trump Is Our President."
On Tuesday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) blasted Facebook over its apparent failure to stop funneling users to these groups.
“Facebook’s system of recommending political groups poses grave threats to American democracy and public safety,” Markey says in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “Users organize and coordinate violent and anti-democratic efforts on these pages, but Facebook does not just allow these dangerous pages to exist on its platform, it recommends them to users. ... Your company’s group recommendation system aims to maximize users’ time spent on the platform but seems to disregard the dangerous behavior that many of these pages foster.”
He is asking Zuckerberg to provide “a detailed explanation of this apparent inconsistency between your commitments and your platform’s practices,” and to state how the company will prevent Facebook from recommending political groups.
While Markey and others can criticize Facebook's decisions, lawmakers will be on very shaky ground if they attempt to control how private companies handle political speech. That's because social media platforms like Facebook have the same right to publish political speech as book publishers, newspapers or any other media companies.
What's more, when it comes to recommendation engines, courts have upheld web companies' rights to promote content -- and to do so based on algorithms.
Consider the outcome of a lawsuit brought by terrorism victims against Facebook: When victims of Hamas attacks sued Facebook for allegedly allowing its platform to be used by terrorist organizations, the victims specifically argued that Facebook's use of algorithms for recommendations should strip the company of its Section 230 protections. (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes web companies from liability for users' posts.)
Judges on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals specifically rejected that idea, and upheld a trial judge's dismissal order.
The appellate judges wrote that websites typically recommend third-party content to users -- even if only by prominently featuring it on a homepage, or displaying English-language articles to users who speak English. The use of algorithms -- as opposed to human editors -- to make those recommendations doesn't make Facebook liable for the posts, the judges said.
“Services have always decided, for example, where on their sites (or other digital property) particular third-party content should reside and to whom it should be shown. Placing certain third-party content on a homepage, for example, tends to recommend that content to users more than if it were located elsewhere on a website,” Circuit Judges Christopher Droney and Richard Sullivan wrote.
“Seen in this context, plaintiffs’ argument that Facebook’s algorithms uniquely form 'connections' or 'matchmake' is wrong,” the judges added. “That, again, has been a fundamental result of publishing third-party content on the Internet since its beginning.”