Top Democrats Press Mark Zuckerberg for More Information about Facebook’s Role in American Democracy
Lawmakers Call for Regulatory Action; Ask Facebook to Pull Back the Curtain on Its Advertising Programs, Campaign Embed Operations and Content-Control Protocols
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Democracy Reform Task Force Chair Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) today joined House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) in asking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to answer a series of lingering and critical questions following Zuckerberg’s appearance on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
“The extent to which your company has become intertwined with the health and functioning of our democracy calls for significantly enhanced regulatory oversight,” the Members wrote. “As policymakers, we must understand Facebook’s relationship to the robust exchange of competing views in a diverse marketplace of ideas.”
The Members continued, “We need your cooperation in this effort. To that end, we ask for your responses to the questions and document requests below. It is our hope this dialogue will inform potential federal legislative and regulatory responses to the challenges we face.”
A full copy of the letter is below.
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April 25, 2018
1 Hacker Way
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:
We are writing to request your cooperation in better understanding Facebook’s unprecedented role in the American political system. While we appreciate your willingness to testify before Congress earlier this month, many questions remain.
Americans of all political stripes rely on Facebook for their political information, democratic engagement, and grassroots organizing. Candidates and elected representatives—including the undersigned—use the powerful Facebook platform to connect with constituents and voters. Outside advocacy organizations use Facebook and tools you have created to engage in our great democratic experiment. This centrality to American political life is an awesome responsibility for Facebook.
As the 2016 election demonstrated, foreign and domestic actors can abuse your social networking tools to disrupt our democracy. Russian agents sowed seeds of dissension in the American body politic through paid and non-paid engagement with the Facebook platform. These same actors used Facebook to engage in political activity to directly aid political candidates—an express violation of federal election law. These abuses may not have been confined to nation-state actors. Massive tranches of stolen data on American voters may have been deployed systematically on Facebook by campaign vendors and operatives working on behalf of an American political candidate.
All the while, a rash of fake content masquerading as “news”—too often elevated and promoted by Facebook’s own “News Feed” algorithm—perverted the public debate. This fake content continues to have a negative impact on the public discourse, fueling conspiratorial thinking and degrading the American public’s trust in our democratic institutions, including the U.S. electoral system itself. Research has shown that the use of Facebook as a vector for fake content fueled the public consumption of objectively false information. In other words, Facebook—and the content it serves to its users, both legitimate and fake—influenced the American election and our democracy.
To aid the use of Facebook’s tools, your company deployed sophisticated teams of sales representatives and customer support teams to provide direct support for candidates using the Facebook platform. This assistance raises new, thorny questions about the services Facebook provides and your company’s relationship to our nation’s campaign finance laws.
The extent to which your company has become intertwined with the health and functioning of our democracy calls for significantly enhanced regulatory oversight. As policymakers, we must understand Facebook’s relationship to the robust exchange of competing views in a diverse marketplace of ideas.
We need your cooperation in this effort. To that end, we ask for your responses to the questions and document requests below. It is our hope this dialogue will inform potential federal legislative and regulatory responses to the challenges we face.
In October 2017, Facebook announced that political ads placed on Facebook would soon be subject to heightened transparency requirements. In addition to implementing a more stringent verification process for purchasers, your team announced that political ads would soon carry disclaimers stating who paid for them and making it easier for viewers to see the ads that a given account is running. This new policy was to be beta tested in Canadian markets before being implemented in the United States “ahead of the US midterm elections.”
Facebook officials admit that this new political and issue ad regime will not be perfect, recognizing that some ads that violate its policy—whether due to verification concerns or content violations—may evade initial detection. Your legislative affairs team has said Facebook plans to have a “reactive” policy of pulling down content after it is determined to violate its terms of service.
Facebook’s Trending Topics section “helps people discover timely and relevant conversations about the news that they care about.” For years, this section relied on human editors to curate content by filtering out inappropriate content or content that offends Facebook’s community standards.
In 2016, after reported lobbying by conservative political leaders, Congressional Republicans, and supporters of then-candidate Donald Trump who accused Facebook’s Trending Topics editors of “anti-conservative political bias,” Facebook removed the human editors from their Trending Topics section and replaced them with an algorithm in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Political Sales Support, Campaign Finance Law, and the Influence Economy
Facebook provides so-called “sales support” teams for their clients, including political clients. However, federal campaign finance law is clear that providing staff or assistance to a political campaign in a manner outside the normal course of business or on better terms than offered to commercial clients can constitute an illegal contribution to the campaign, violating so-called “in-kind” contribution limits designed to prevent quid pro quo corruption.
It has been reported that the Trump campaign accepted the paid Facebook employees to serve as “campaign embeds.” Reporting indicates these individuals played a central role in the Trump campaign, supporting the Trump communication operation in ways that extended far beyond helping the campaign use Facebook’s tools to target ads, including by “actively shaping campaign communications through their close collaboration with political staffers.” It was reported that the “sales support” officers were enmeshed with the Trump campaign and helped “to tee up responses to likely lines of attack during debates.” In contrast, the Clinton campaign was reported to have “viewed [Facebook] as vendors rather than consultants.”
Facebook’s Expectations for the 2018 Election Cycle
A grand jury has indicted 13 Russian nationals for activities that relied upon Facebook as both an advertising platform and social network. Some have raised concerns that the News Feed reforms that you announced recently—including the idea that Facebook will put a renewed premium on content from family, friends, and network contacts over legitimate news—may exacerbate the effectiveness of the tactics deployed by Russian operatives during the 2016 election cycle, given their use of organic Facebook groups and content generation.
Facebook’s meteoric growth and subsequent centrality to our collective political life has been extraordinary. We are just beginning to grapple with the radical changes in our political life that Facebook has forged. We are confident that if we work together, we can respond responsibly and nimbly to the significant challenges we face. But to do so, we need more information. We appreciate your attention and continued cooperation, and look forward to your responses.
 Craig Timberg, Russian Propaganda Effort Helped Spread ‘Fake News’ During Election, Experts Say, Wash. Post (November 24, 2016) (online at www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/russian-propaganda-effort-helped-spread-fake-news-during-election-experts-say/2016/11/24/793903b6-8a40-4ca9-b712-716af66098fe_story.html).
 Matthew Rosenberg et al., How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions, New York Times (March 17, 2018) (online at www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-trump-campaign.html).
 Andrew Guess et al., Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the Consumption of Fake News During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign, European Research Council (January 9, 2018) (online at www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/fake-news-2016.pdf).
 Daniel Kreiss & Shannon McGregor, Technology Firms Shape Political Communication: The Work of Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Google With Campaigns During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Cycle, POLITICAL COMMUNICATION (October 26, 2017) (online at www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10584609.2017.1364814).
 Rob Goldman, Update on Our Advertising Transparency and Authenticity Efforts, Facebook (October 27, 2017) (online at https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2017/10/update-on-our-advertising-transparency-and-authenticity-efforts/).
 Griffin Connolly, Facebook To Tighten Grip On Political Ads, As Zuckerberg Heads To Hill, Roll Call (April 6, 2018) (online at www.rollcall.com/news/politics/facebook-political-ads-zuckerberg-hill).
 Allana Akhtar, Facebook Removes Human-Written Descriptions on Trending Topics, USA Today (August 26, 2016) (online at www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/08/26/facebook-removes-human-written-descriptions-trending-topics/89440416/).
 Nicholas Thompson & Fred Vogelstein, Inside The Two Years That Shook Facebook—And The World, Wired (February 12, 2018) (online at www.wired.com/story/inside-facebook-mark-zuckerberg-2-years-of-hell/).
 Nancy Scola, How Facebook, Google and Twitter ‘Embeds’ Helped Trump in 2016, Politico (October 26, 2017) (online at www.politico.com/story/2017/10/26/facebook-google-twitter-trump-244191). See also Daniel Kreiss & Shannon McGregor, Technology Firms Shape Political Communication: The Work of Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Google With Campaigns During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Cycle, Political Communication (October 26, 2017) (online at www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10584609.2017.1364814).