Hit & Run

Sen. Feinstein's Threat to 'Do Something' to Social Media Companies Is a Bigger Danger to Democracy Than Russia

Do not ignore the self-interest of elected officials in controlling online political messaging.

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Dianne Feinstein
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) took the opportunity this week to remind social media companies that she's as authoritarian as President Donald Trump and isn't afraid to try to push people around.

Reason's Jacob Sullum and Jesse Walker have ably punctured the hysteria surrounding the Russian government's attempts to influence America's elections with really, really lame social media ads. The ads attempted to exploit our polarized electorate to Russia's advantage, and apparently some of our senators take issue with that.

Perhaps they don't like the competition? Feinstein certainly knows a thing or two about taking advantage of a polarized electorate. Perhaps that explains her Mafia-don approach this week when social media companies failed to kiss her ring sufficiently at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

From The Verge:

Senators raised the stakes against some of America's biggest tech companies on Wednesday, telling them they must take more comprehensive action against foreign actors misusing their platforms. "You created these platforms…and now they're being misused," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told the top lawyers at Facebook, Google, and Twitter. "And you have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will."…

"We are not going to go away, gentlemen," Feinstein continued. "And this is a very big deal. I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers. And that just won't do. You have a huge problem on your hands. And the US is going to be the first of the countries to bring it to your attention, and other countries are going to follow I'm sure. Because you bear this responsibility."

Just imagine somebody saying this about the printing press. Actually, you don't have to imagine it: Powerful political figures did indeed abuse their authority (and continue to abuse their authority) to hold printing press owners responsible for how their "platforms" were "being misused."

Very little coverage of this conflict between the Senate and the social media companies seems interested in pointing out that lawmakers are not neutral, disinterested parties here. Any policy Feinstein might enact here could erect barriers for people using social media tools to challenge her position and power as a senator. Feinstein, it's worth noting, is running for re-election next year and has a personal stake in any policies that control how political speech is presented online. What sort of ads are going to pop up on Facebook and Twitter next year, and what will they be saying about her?

So look at those terrible Russian Facebook ads that try to exploit Americans' unhappiness about their government. And then look at Feinstein declaring that communication tools are being "misused" and must be regulated, possibly by her and other lawmakers unless the companies implement stronger censorship policies on their own. Which presents a greater threat to the proper, open functioning of American democracy?

By the way: This week, as part of this investigation into Russian meddling, Feinstein sent the CEO of Twitter a letter asking that he provide him with a bunch of records, including the content of private direct messages from Julian Assange and other Twitter users. No, she doesn't have a warrant.