On Friday’s Morning Joe, Willie Geist hosted a panel to discuss the latest news on the Russian hacking narrative regarding Facebook ads that were purportedly used by Russian intelligence to stoke "racial tensions" during the 2016 presidential election. The panel’s primary reaction, with only one dissenting voice, was to call for increased government "regulation" and financial “penalties in the hundreds of millions” to shut down alleged Russian influencers.
The segment started off with Geist introducing the latest reporting on the topic:
GEIST: Twitter says it has shut down more than two-hundred accounts that were tied to the same Russian operatives who bought political ads on Facebook. Of the 450 accounts released by Facebook as part of its investigation, Twitter was able to match 22 of them to its own site. The disclosure by Twitter followed a briefing by company officials to staffers of the Senate and House Intel committees yesterday. Following that meeting, the top Democrat on the Senate committee, Mark Warner, slammed Twitter for its presentation.
SEN. MARK WARNER [D-VA]: [playing clip] The presentation that the Twitter team made to the Senate Intel staff today was deeply disappointing. The notion that their work was basically derivative based upon accounts that Facebook had identified showed enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and, again, begs many more questions than they offered.
GEIST: The top Democrat on the House Intel Committee, Adam Schiff, also weighed in on Twitter’s briefing to his committee, releasing a statement that read, in part: "... it is clear that Twitter has significant forensic work to do to understand the depth and breadth of Russian activity during the campaign. This additional analysis will require far more robust investigation into how Russian actors used their platform as a part of their active measures campaign..."
Without any perceptible degree of skepticism about the Democratic Congressmen's claims, Geist then teed up Nicolle Wallace, host of the MSNBC afternoon show Deadline: White House, to talk about social media and the 2016 election more generally:
GEIST: You do get the sense, Nicolle, that Facebook, Twitter, social media was totally clueless about what was happening on their sites during the 2016 campaign.
WALLACE: It's worse than that [...]. The social media companies are sort of like the worst stereotype of a Republican political organization. They're reactive, they’re opaque, they're defensive, they are very slow to understand the value of transparency. They're totally lawyered up, lobbied up. And they are as a culture, the hubris of thinking that they're all about the public good, when if you take a low-tech analogy, it’s basically like someone got mugged in your backyard and their position is: well, it's not our problem, I mean, we just bought the lot on which the house was built, not our problem.
Donny Deutsch chimed in his agreement with Wallace’s analysis, mainly to suggest that perhaps internet news sites and social media sites need government regulation to make sure that what they post or allow up is accurate:
DEUTSCH: [T]here’s a tremendous irony with these guys, because, the tech guys, these young-, are, are the ones who are revolutionizing the world for betterment, yet the irony is, if I wanna take an ad out on NBC or anyplace else for a laundry detergent, the things I have to go through-
WALLACE: [interrupting] It has to work, it has to be real, you have to be real. Right!
DEUTSCH: [continues talking over Wallace] -[...] to prove that it’s got 5% more blue crystals in it, yet there is no regulati[on]. There is nothing more important for us, for people watching this show over the next ten and twenty years as the regulation of these companies. They control the flow of communication. [...] [W]hat's happening here, as far as our power versus what's happening over here [points to his smart phone], multiply it a thousand-fold and there is no regulation.
Ah, so here we see one of the real reasons for wanting to regulate internet-based news content: it’s out-competing (supposedly) respectable news outlets like MSNBC!
After Deutsch floated the idea of government censorship to get the internet under control, Wallace decided to try her hand at stand-up comedy, declaring: “One difference though is that we have quality controls, we have standards. [...] [A]nd they [internet/social media] should be held to the same standards.”
But on a more serious note, Geist subsequently moved the segment forward to allow New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor to summarize her latest findings on “racially divisive Russian ads on Facebook.” Alcindor said:
Facebook admitted to members of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the subcommittee on the House Oversight Committee that there were ads that were targeting Black Lives Matter and targeting, specifically, ethnic groups [...] and allowing people to target, not only for Russian influence, but also target housing ads, employment ads. [...] [A] lot of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus are fuming because they're saying that Russia actually exploited a lot of the racial divisions that already exist in America and used both Facebook and Twitter [...] in this way to essentially make people hate each other more.
So, Alcindor and the Congressional Black Caucus think that decades of the Democratic Party and the far left exploiting racial divisions for political gain was totally normal and fine, but now, they demand aggressive government action to stop it when it is being used by the Russians?
Without addressing this glaringly obvious point, the segment then moved in a much more interesting direction as Geist turned to Noah Rothman, associate editor of Commentary Magazine, for his opinion on the whole Russia matter. Although Rothman acceded to the larger narrative about Russians hacking the DNC and weaponizing social media, he did offer some true background to the current story:
First, you probably have to know that Russian intelligence is going to exploit anything they possibly can to do precisely what she was talking about. This isn't new, this is the Kremlin playbook. They have been exacerbating racial tensions in the United States since there [has been] a Russian intelligence organization. As recently as 2014, you had RT talking about police tyranny and an Afro-Maidan, referring to the Ukrainian revolution that ousted the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. This is what Russia does. So if you're a media institution and you know that Moscow is going to target your audience, you have to be proactive and aware of that. And, as you say, you have, you had gatekeepers in most institutions. Institutions that are not, you know, aware that they're going to be targeted are the most irresponsible, I would say. But I'm not sure that regulation is something that you can even entertain. This is about responsibility.
Rothman’s point about past Soviet infiltration of the United States was correct, if lacking somewhat in details. Rothman would have done well to point out, in contrast to his characterization of Russian government-owned or funded media, that they actually frequently take stances in support of left-wing causes if those causes serve to diminish America’s international moral authority, particularly as regards anti-war narratives or movements like Black Lives Matter.
It was also refreshing to see someone push back against Wallace and Deutsch’s calls for government censorship and control over the Internet, but that didn’t last. Mark Halperin ultimately decided to make the most straightforward case for the federal government to crack down on "Russian operatives" and fake news with the support of both Wallace and Deutsch:
HALPERIN: [T]here’s some interesting intellectual debates to be had around all this stuff to be sure. But these companies are American companies making a lot of money, dominating our lives, hiding behind a lot of intellectual arguments. And, as the Congressional members of both parties are saying publicly and privately, they are using lobbyists and PR executives and their own platforms to try to limit the disclosure that they make to be accountable. American democracy is under siege and they are hiding behind intellectual arguments.
[Deutsch tries to speak at same time as Wallace, then stops]
WALLACE: And it's ongoing. I mean, they were involved, some of these Russian-linked Twitter accounts were involved last weekend in helping to sow-
EDDIE GLAUDE JR.: [interjecting] Exactly.
GEIST: [mumbles agreement] Right.
WALLACE: -hatred around the debate about the NFL. This isn’t, we're not at a forensic stage where we're gonna look back at what they did in 2016, we're not even there yet. This is still-
HALPERIN: [interrupting] The bombs are still falling.
ROTHMAN: [tries to speak, hard to hear] Wait, to what extent is there even a recourse?
DEUTSCH: [interrupting] By the way, we can regulate, I’m gonna give you, we can regulate, we can regulate this. We start-, instead of the FCC, it’s the FDC. The Federal Digital Communications company. And there is a body, a governing body there, regulatory body, that when something like this happens, the, the economic consequence, the penalties in the hundreds of millions, you hit ‘em in the pocketbook, they'll figure it out.
There are a lot of amazing comments here, particularly from Halperin and Deutsch.
It’s not completely clear what Deutsch means by using a "FDC" "regulatory body" to financially cripple people (or who precisely those people/organizations would be, although based on his following comments it might be Facebook and Twitter that would suffer fines in his mind). However, Halperin’s characterization of protecting people’s right to freedom of speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment, as “hiding behind intellectual arguments” was most chilling.
Thankfully, Rothman stepped in to voice some cogent defense of arguably this country’s most important founding principle: “I suppose there's any number of ways in which the federal government could target an institution that is a media institution that provides a platform for the exercise of the First Amendment. What is the limiting principle there? At what point are we targeting speech that we simply don't like?”
After a brief pause and Deutsch simply interjecting “um,” Wallace tried her Ministry of Truth argument out again:
WALLACE: Well you can't yell [...] fire in a movie theater if it's not true. I mean-
ROTHMAN: [interrupting] You can if it's on fire.
WALLACE: Well, I think the point on Twitter is that some of these things are not true, and-
ROTHMAN: [interrupting] That’s, incitement to violence is one thing-
WALLACE: -Twitter, Twitter and Facebook have done nothing. I mean money,-
ROTHMAN: -and it’s extremely difficult to prove incitement to violence.
WALLACE: -mon-, money has a seal to, so that we know when a dollar is real, when a dollar is counterfeit. There are groups that are trying to get the social media companies to have some sort of water seal or to verify the content, the veracity of it.
It was fun to see Rothman trying, ever so subtly, to point out the basic problem with Wallace’s argument, namely: who determines what is and is not true?
But then Halperin, skirting by having to address Rothman’s concerns, decided to seal the deal and make his position extremely clear: “[T]he government shouldn't be the recourse at first, it should be the boards of these companies.” That is, if Facebook and Twitter don’t start censoring in the right way or to the right extent, then Big Brother should do it himself.
It’s nice to know that the media’s support for the free speech rights of NFL football players extends to all of us rubes too!
The panel closed out the lengthy segment by chuckling at the prospect of quick action to "figure out" this "problem" and never addressed the more fundamental question about whether or not what they were proposing was anathema to the U.S. Constitution, either in law or spirit.