Last week Facebook reported that a Russian troll farm had purchased $100,000 worth of ads on its social network, content intended to send “divisive social and political messages” to millions of Americans. This revelation does not shock. We already know Russian actors attempted to interfere with the presidential election. We already know that fake news sites published hoaxes and spun facts to benefit Donald Trump’s campaign. And we already know that Facebook did nothing to stop it until a public outcry.
It’s unlikely that these ads tipped the election in Trump’s favor. But they are still instructive: Like all good propaganda, they tap into existing prejudices and polarizations, spreading fact-free messages that both scapegoat marginalized communities and amplify the fear factor. They also underscore how these messages are being delivered. In an era that has seen the emergence of comprehensive, right-wing propaganda campaigns, two tech companies—Facebook and Google—have started to monopolize how we consume information. And both entities have become useful megaphones for propagandists.
Far-right propaganda is now everywhere, whether it is Trump TV being broadcast on Facebook or fake news items that appear as advertising on Google. The problem is exacerbated by scale. “Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising, Facebook (and its subsidiaries Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) owns 77 percent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon has a 74 percent share in the e-book market,” Jonathan Taplin recently noted in The New York Times. “In classic economic terms, all three are monopolies.”
News outlets, meanwhile, struggle to achieve the same reach that non-state actors have been able to so easily purchase. Facebook and Google didn’t make Trump president, and Mark Zuckerberg is not some unwitting Russian agent. But they have become the most powerful arbiters of what people read and watch online, and the consequences of that are evident: The far-right thrives in part because its message saturates the internet.
Both companies are loath to claim any responsibility for this state of affairs, insisting that they are neutral vessels for the information their users and clients generate. Zuckerberg famously denied his site had a problem at all, saying that it was “crazy” to think that fake news influenced the election and that “voters make decisions based on their lived experience.” Later he backtracked. In February, he published a meandering 6,000-word Facebook note that claimed the site would take steps to censor “sensationalist” headlines and content. It also eventually blocked ads from known fake news sites and introduced a “flagging” system intended to label hoax posts.
For its part, Google banned hundreds of fake news sites from its AdSense program, and in August it banned some racist sites from its servers after a white supremacist murdered a woman with his car in Charlottesville, Virginia. But Google could have done this well before Charlottesville; it obviously knew that white supremacists organize and recruit online, in posts that often use violent language.
We would not be at the mercy of Facebook and Google’s shifting moral standards if they were not virtual monopolies. Experts tell the New Republic that their mega-status reflects a general weakening of American anti-trust policy. “We used to have a competition policy regime that was explicitly designed to prevent the control of the dissemination of information by powerful private corporations,” said Marshall Steinbaum, a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute. “In addition to that, we also had an antitrust policy that said, ‘Well we don’t actually want a single private corporation to be in control of entire markets. … We basically have given that up, in my opinion. I mean the FCC still exists, but the extent of things that it regulates is vastly curtailed.”
Lina Khan, director of legal policy for the Open Markets Project, explained that Facebook and Google have escaped scrutiny because they don’t price-gouge customers. But they still command a “monopoly-like share of the market.” She added, “We went from a system that had been a rich set of concerns about concentration of economic power, to a system that really only looked at if a company is charging higher prices.”
In the context of internet media, that shift is particularly troublesome. “Moving to a system where a single company or a handful of companies are basically acting as private regulators, as private governments, over the dissemination and organization of information in a way that is totally unchecked by the public is quite worrying,” she told me. “Market structure and competition issues are especially salient where information and media are concerned, in part because having a vibrant marketplace for ideas is really critical for democracy.”
Facebook and Google say they are neutral platforms, and this is technically accurate. But they are also easy targets for cash-flush propagandists, while acting as gatekeepers for cash-poor media organizations. “On the plus side, Google and Facebook are amazing distribution systems that reach billions of people,” said David Chavern, head of the News Media Alliance. “The challenge is that, because of the way the current ecosystem is set up, there’s not a lot of financial return for news organizations to use these tools.” In July, the News Media Alliance asked Congress to allow media organizations to collectively bargain with platforms like Facebook and Google so that individual outlets do not have to contend with these behemoths on their own.
Chavern told the New Republic that it’s possible for media companies to work within Facebook and Google’s operating models. “One of the things we’ve been asking for is better brand identity within the Facebook and Google platforms,” he said. Without it, he asserted, “People get used to not knowing where the news come from. And where news comes from matters a lot.”
Steinbaum, meanwhile, said a more drastic solution might be required. “There’s no one correct policy that will solve the country’s monopoly problem,” he said. “But I think one solution will eventually look like breaking up Google and Facebook, vertically. Maybe in the case of Google, break up the Android operating systems and the search engine so that all these businesses are separate and you don’t have this vertically integrated conglomerate.”
“One way is to break up their power, and the other is to regulate that power or ensure that there are rules in place to prevent that power from being abused,” Khan asserted. She added that consolidation isn’t always harmful—it can be useful to consumers, and the power implied by consolidation can be “neutralized” to block the harm it causes.
Others have argued for nationalizing Facebook and Google. (The Intercept reported that former White House adviser Steve Bannon wanted to turn them into utilities.) Whatever its merits, the push to nationalize, like the push to regulate, acknowledges that it is futile to ask these companies to regulate themselves without first strengthening anti-trust policy. Relying on self-regulation reinforces, rather than challenges, their dominance; they are still accountable only to themselves, rather than the public.
Google’s motto is “don’t be evil.” Zuckerberg believes Facebook “stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community.” But this rhetoric—self-effacing in Google’s case, lofty in Facebook’s—is really a carefully calibrated, wildly successful marketing effort that is meant to obscure the fact that these are enormous companies out to make a lot of money. According to The New York Times, Facebook reported $9.3 billion in revenue for the second quarter of 2017. In the same quarter, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, reported revenue of $26.01 billion—a figure mildly dented by the $2.74 billion anti-trust fine levied against it by the European Union. Neither entity has any incentive to alter its business model, and in this they behave as corporate conglomerates have always behaved.
Cracking down on monopolies is not enough to defeat propaganda on its own. But monopoly-busting can and must be part of that effort, for reasons both practical and philosophical. It makes it more difficult for propagandists to do their work, and breaks up the power of moguls who answer to no one but themselves. This is progressivism working at two different levels, but they both come from a single idea: allowing Facebook and Google to dominate their markets harms democracy.