Facebook, Twitter, and Google are testifying on political ads. Here's why you should care

It’s been almost a year since America elected President Donald Trump, and finally, we’re about to learn more about how Google, Facebook, and Twitter were used by outside forces to secure that victory.

The top lawyers for each of those companies will testify before Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday on the influence of social media in the 2016 election. Lawmakers will most likely ask about Russian interference and the spread of fake news. Meanwhile, the companies will try to defend their actions (or lack thereof) in the hopes of avoiding looming government regulations.

The companies have also been trying to get ahead of the game by imposing some new rules on themselves.

“But we aren’t waiting for legislation. Instead we’re taking steps where we can on our own, to improve our own approach to transparency, ad review, and authenticity requirements,” Facebook’s Colin Stretch wrote in his prepared testimony shared with the press Monday. 

The hearings are a major turning point for these companies and how the U.S. treats them. Google and Facebook have thus far been allowed to grow into massive, global companies with little government oversight. That has allowed them to generate hundreds of billions of dollars in profit, but also to make the systems that allowed foreign powers to interfere with America’s Democratic process. 

And there’s Twitter. It’s far smaller than Google and Facebook, but has outsized impact in the world of media and politics. Trump tweets multiple times a day as president. The company’s attempts at a free-speech utopia have made it a haven for harassment—and Russian bot accounts.

For the government, it’s also an important moment. Google and Facebook until now have avoided much in the way of regulation despite growing calls for the U.S. government to begin considering just how powerful they have become—and how much more powerful they could be. Now, U.S. politicians will have their first major face-to-face meeting with these companies. 

The result of these hearings has the chance to be the start of a significant change in how the U.S. government treats tech companies. Or it could end up being more of the same.

A storm brewing

In September, Facebook disclosed that Russia-linked accounts spent at least $100,000 on 3,000 ads during the election. Sen. Mark Warner of the Senate Intelligence Committee called Facebook’s admission the “tip of the iceberg.” He was right. 

The massive discrepancies and the sheer scale of influence are reasons why lawmakers have been calling for more regulation. 

Facebook originally had estimated that 10 million people saw the Russia-linked ads, but on Monday, Facebook released its own correction saying as many as 126 million people saw posts linked to Russian accounts.. Twitter also revealed it found 2,752 Russia-linked accounts, far more than the 200 they previously reported

For the companies, regulation would mean stricter guidelines on what is allowed and therefore could require more time and money spent curbing any misuse. Those changes wouldn’t mean much for the experiences of the millions of Facebook, Twitter, and Google users, but the hope is that American users would no longer be exposed to any foreign meddling in elections via the platforms.

The massive discrepancies and the sheer scale of influence are reasons why lawmakers have been calling for more regulation. What that means for the companies is potentially stricter guidelines on what is allowed and therefore more time and money spent curbing any misuse. For the millions of users of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, little could change on what they look like. But the hope is no more foreign actors meddling the democratic process and a crackdown on fake news. 

There’s already legislation on the table. Earlier this month, Sen. Warner co-sponsored a bill called the “Honest Ads Act” that would require internet companies to keep a public database of who is paying for political ads. Facebook and Twitter have committed to introducing publicly available databases.

Here come the lawyers

Still, despite the companies’ efforts to go at it alone, government-imposed regulations could become a reality. Representatives from the companies will be appearing at three separate hearings this week: the Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, and the House Select Intelligence Committee.

They’ve sent their general counsels aka the chief legal officers. That means the tech giant’s CEOs — Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Larry Page — won’t be taking the stand. This doesn’t mean the event isn’t important. Instead, they’ve sent in the people—three different white men—who are the most well versed at the companies in how to speak to lawmakers. 

Facebook has admitted to failures on its part. 

“The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible and outrageous and opened a new battleground for our company, our industry and our society,” Facebook’s Stretch said in his prepared testimony. 

Facebook, Twitter, and Google have tallied the scale of the Russian accounts: 

  • 80,000 Facebook posts from 470 accounts 

  • 120,000 Instagram posts from from 170 accounts 

  • 2,752 Twitter accounts 

  • 2 Google accounts spent $4,700 

  • 1,108 YouTube videos representing 43 hours of content 

It isn’t just about releasing the numbers. Lawmakers like Sen. Warner want formal changes:

Regulators, mount up

The tech giants have spent years lobbying against just that and are prepping for more pushback. The Internet Association, which represents Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other tech companies, released a new principles to help guide any impending legislation. 

“The internet industry is engaged with all stakeholders to bring greater transparency to online election advertising and ensure foreign actors cannot use internet platforms to disrupt elections,” Internet Association CEO and President Michael Beckerman said in a statement. 

One of the principles is having legislation that requires companies to disclose all political ads but not all advertising. According to the Internet Association, such regulation could discourage against stakeholders purchasing political ads. 

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, and Google benefit financially from receiving more ad dollars.