ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
During the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives used American social media to influence American voters. It was a point Special Counsel Robert Mueller underlined this week.
SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER: (From video.) There were multiple systematic efforts to interfere in our election, and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.
MR. COSTA: According to the Pew Research Center, about 68 percent of Americans get news on social media. That raises questions about how much responsibility rests with tech companies. Last week President Trump retweeted video of Speaker Pelosi that was dramatically altered. Facebook did not take the video down and said the company, quote, “doesn’t have a policy that stipulates the information you post on Facebook must be true.” The speaker criticized Facebook for their position. The standoff highlights the complex relationship between politicians and Silicon Valley at this time.
Joining me tonight to discuss it all, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Devlin Barrett, national security reporter for The Washington Post; Susan Page, Washington Bureau chief for USA Today; and Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal.
Devlin, we heard a lot from Robert Mueller this week on interference in the 2016 election. It dovetails, in a way, with this larger conversation in American politics about tech companies. Where does federal responsibility end? Where does corporate responsibility begin?
DEVLIN BARRETT: So there’s two ways to think of the problem. One is if you look at the 2016 election there was the hacking issue, right? A bunch of files were taken, a bunch of files were published, and that was designed to harm one candidate. And the other part, though, is, frankly, trickier, which is the social media question, which is a bunch of basically trolls pumping out misinformation, disinformation, you know, sort of like hate speech lite in a way. And those are two very different problems. The government can actually do quite a bit on the hacking front, or at least they can get on the field and make a difference on that front, and they tried to do that in 2016 and people can argue about how effective they were. I think the troll problem is actually a much harder problem for the government itself to fix, but it’s also a problem for the companies to fix because I think the companies – the social media companies really don’t want to become the truth police of their own platforms and they really don’t want to become the hate police of their own platforms. But then you’re left with sort of a problem of the marketplace, which is who’s going to fix this if not the government and if not the companies? If everyone’s just going to sort of like wash their hands and walk away, what you’re left with is a lot of garbage online, and does that affect a society in a bad way?
MR. COSTA: And Speaker Pelosi really took on Facebook, drawing headlines in the process.
SUSAN PAGE: Yes, she said that they were the unwitting agent of Russia interference in 2016 and the witting agent of this video of her that makes her look like she’s drunk – slows it down, you know, misrepresents her appearance before a group here in Washington. You know, I think public attitudes about whether Facebook has an obligation to police its platform better have changed because of the Russian experience. I think –
MR. BARRETT: I think that’s right, yeah.
MS. PAGE: Americans before 2016 thought it’s the marketplace, don’t – we don’t want, like, censorship. I think their attitude is much more now something has to be done. And we’re more comfortable, I think, as a country having Facebook do it than having the U.S. government – having a government agency trying to police it.
GERALD SEIB: Yeah, and we’ve done some polling that certainly supports the idea that people now say, well, let’s do something about this, but it’s not clear who they want doing the something. You know, I do think, though, that for – if you’re in Facebook’s position you kind of want to have it both ways because these sites do not want to be – they want to convey news and information because it’s profitable for them, but they don’t want to take the responsibilities that go with the traditional publishing role, which is to say to self-police, decide what the rules of propriety are, and then enforce them. So they kind of want to be a common carrier but also get the benefit of being essentially a publisher or a broadcaster because that’s a very profitable thing. And I think what’s happening is they’re going to reach a point where that – you can’t have it both ways anymore.
MR. COSTA: So you have a lot of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates heading to Silicon Valley every week for campaign fundraisers. They’re collecting money from the tech giants. They’re also getting questions on the campaign trail from voters and others about whether these social media companies and tech companies should be made into utilities, federal utilities that are regulated like a telephone company would be regulated. I asked Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor, that question a few weeks ago.
MR. COSTA: (From video.) Should Facebook be a utility?
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) Well, in some ways, Facebook is a utility.
MR. COSTA: (From video.) Yeah, but should it be a utility, federally regulated like a utility?
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) Yeah. I mean, it’s very clear that Facebook and other companies are having to make – I mean, they’re making decisions as a company that amount to public policy decisions. And the reason they are is that the policy world has failed. I mean, we’ve had this spectacle of legislators making it abundantly clear that they don’t even understand what they’re regulating.
MR. COSTA: A lot of these candidates are trying to navigate being on the side of Silicon Valley to a certain point, calling for the discussion of making these companies utilities, but not always making it entirely clear. What do you make of how candidates are dealing with this issue? It’s complicated politically.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, Pete Buttigieg just, I think, was an example of how hard it is to thread that needle because he’s in one aspect saying this should be federally regulated, and then on the other aspect he’s saying, well, let’s remind everyone that the last time Facebook came to the Hill everyone sat back and thought maybe people who are serving and elected to do a lot of work don’t understand Facebook because it’s pretty clear that some of the people generationally just don’t understand social media. So I think that it’s a really tough thing.
Facebook, of course, has this thing called a newsfeed, but they don’t want to act like a newsroom. Also, a thing that you have to add here is that the president is someone who likes to traffic in conspiracy theories. So when you’re – so you’re not just censoring anybody’s newsfeed, you’re censoring the president of the United States and, of course, that’s a little different. And we haven’t, I think – I mean, historically, maybe we’ve had presidents that have liked to maybe fudge the truth. But in this case, we have a president who part of his campaign was saying things like Ted Cruz’s dad might have been involved in an assassination. I mean, those are – those are the conspiracy theories that his supporters have obviously really liked and have, in some ways, helped him get to the White House.
MR. SEIB: But to show you how complicated this is, at the same time we’re having this conversation, conservatives are attacking Twitter for allegedly censoring conservative voices by basically blocking them. And, you know, people say most of these voices are alt-right and hate and neo-Nazi, white supremacists.
MR. COSTA: White supremacists.
MR. SEIB: But still, the conservative complaint is, well, you’re policing people and you’re policing conservatives off of Twitter, why not liberals?
MS. PAGE: Which all goes to show how powerful these platforms have become, not just in people connecting with their long-lost relatives and the people they went to college with, but in how Americans get their news and what they think about what is happening in the world.
MR. COSTA: When you hear Senator Elizabeth Warren and others call for breaking up these social media companies, making them a utility, is that something that’s logistically possible, legally possible?
MR. BARRETT: I think it’s logistically possible. But I think if you look at the interaction between the government and these tech companies that have grown so much in the last 15 to 20 years, the companies move and the marketplace moves so much faster than the government that you could create a regulation, you could do the most ambitious breakup, reorganization, whatever, you could do the most far-reaching change possible in government law, and I think within a month people will have written code that works around those regulations and you’d be dealing with a completely different dynamic and the government will always be playing catch-up. So I think the notion that the government can somehow regulate good behavior by the tech companies, that feels very farfetched to me based on the track record so far.
I think the real question is, to Susan’s point, at some point, do enough of the customers have enough of a problem with what’s happening that the companies themselves decide OK, fine, we will be some version of the truth police or the hate police.
MR. COSTA: Just a final question on the politics side of this. Is there enough energy on the left right now in the Democratic Party to draw a firmer line in the sand, Democrats and progressives versus the tech companies? Or is it still this muddled political question?
MS. ALCINDOR: I think it’s still a muddled political question mainly because, even if you can say or take the position yes we should regulate Facebook or Twitter, there’s still no clear-cut answer for what you actually should do. I know I’ve talked to some activists who are people who maybe are freelance journalists. They’re scared that they could be part – they could be part of this censorship, that their writings and their videos could then be pulled into this. So I think there’s this idea that people want to have the First Amendment and have freedoms, but also don’t want to be lied to. And I think it’s going to be very, very hard to combine the two.
MR. COSTA: Any final thoughts?
MS. PAGE: Well, it’s a big – it’s a big debate for sure. But I think the energy of the left, it’s all directed at President Trump. There is not enough energy left to make this the line in the sand.
MR. COSTA: Mark Zuckerberg probably appreciates that. (Laughter.)
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on our Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa, see you next time.