And if you do it right the way, you leave few fingerprints.
Madrigal: In your mind, what are the key outstanding questions?
Warner: All these companies need to come fully clean about what happened in 2016. Don’t tell me they found 450 accounts linked to the American election when they found 50,000 in France. And don’t tell me they found all the ads.
The first pass from Twitter was worse. They took only things that were derivative of what Facebook found. And they found some stuff. But I said, you have to go back and dig in. So, we need to figure out, number one, what happened in 2016.
While I’m trying to not get into the whole editorial-content argument, this notion that we can’t curate at all just doesn’t hold water. They’ve had to do it every time there has been something that has created consequences. Child pornography for example, or terrorist activity, or information on how to create bombs.
A lot of that was forced by the European governments. Areas reach a tipping point, the [platform companies] step in and act. They have to, if you don’t want over-the-top regulation, or worse yet, we allow this to continue and we have some massive upheaval or loss of faith in the democratic process. Because people see how bad this was with relatively small amounts of dollars spent.
Madrigal: How might this translate into legislation?
Warner: Where we’re headed with legislation is the lightest touch possible. Keep some residual location where someone can go look at the [political-advertising] content. Basically apply some of the most basic rules that apply to print and broadcasting to digital media. It doesn’t get at the whole problem, but it gets at the question of tagging political advertising.
There is not a legislative proposal here, but I think there is going to be a growing interest in this topic. What I want to make sure is clear to the American people, this is not as simple as following the money on Russian ads. We need to look at the bots on Twitter and the pages on Facebook. Has this been done in collaboration with hate groups in the United States? Is it reinforcing the hate groups? How much responsibility do the companies have to sort through all that?
Madrigal: Facebook executives, publicly and privately, as well as pundits like Mark Penn, have argued that any Russian interference had a negligible effect because it was too small-time within the scale of Facebook. Are they right?
Warner: If this tiny tip of the iceberg is the extent of the activity, that might hold some water. But if there is, which I suspect, a much bigger piece of the iceberg below, then they are wrong. The numbers are much, much larger. The public press, so far, is really looking at what is still a limited universe.
You can target very discrete demographic locales. There still remains a question: How did they know where to target? I don’t have an answer yet. I don’t know if we’ve got the full evidence. Some people suspect this was very targeted in Wisconsin and Michigan where the Democrats were asleep at the switch. How were they smarter than the Democrats? That may not be a high hurdle to get over.