Election Meddling and Facebook


Emotions run high as the highly contested 2018 mid-term elections draw near. One indicator of these elections’ importance is the amount of campaign contributions given to the candidates. According to reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have respectively collected an astonishing 13 to 14 million dollars in direct campaign contributions, to date.[1]  Even political action committees have increased their spending to unprecedented levels.[2]  Indeed, the stakes are high. But what happens before a vote is cast or, more specifically, what influences an individual’s voting decision?[3]  In a coordinated effort to garner votes, candidates traditionally influenced voters through mail, posters, public speeches, and television.[4]  Now however, commentators and political organizations are puzzled on how to manage a new and emerging medium of communication—social media and the internet. Though the benefits of the internet touch so many important facets of daily living[5], critics argue that using social media to influence voters may not be suitable to garner votes in public elections [6]

Undoubtedly, the internet allows voters to easily and quickly access information about a candidate.[7]  However, election meddling is a serious drawback of using social media to campaign for candidates.[8] Such an impediment to voting integrity is typically associated with the moniker “fake news” —denoting an organized effort to influence voters via the internet through popular social media platforms.[9]  Illustrative of this problem is the Facebook debacle. During the 2016 presidential elections, Facebook influenced voters when its users received ads that inflamed reactions by touching on sensitive topics from religion, race, and gender.[10]  At the height of this occurrence, Facebook’s poor handling of these claims subjected the company to an onslaught of public criticism.[11]  The backlash only intensified as more evidence came forth in the aftermath of the election.[12] Facebook initially denied these claims, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying it was a “pretty crazy idea.”[13] 
But the allegations could no longer be ignored once it was discovered that Cambridge Analytica, a voter profiling firm with ties to President Trump, improperly accessed millions of Facebook users’ information.[14]  After this news was made public by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), Facebook quickly lost a staggering 35 billion dollars due to this fallout.[15] Spooked by the news, investors began selling shares at an alarming rate that resulted in a 6% reduction of Facebook shares.[16]  Just a few days after the announcement, Facebook had lost over 100 billion dollars.[17]  Meanwhile, a report by U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Facebook was veritably used in an attempt to interfere with the 2016 election.[18] The immense pressure renewed attacks on Facebook and resulted in Mr. Zuckerberg appearing before Congress in the Energy and House Committee.[19] 

Having since recognized the validity of previous election meddling claims, Mr. Zuckerberg sought to highlight Facebook’s efforts to curtail election interference.[20]  For instance, Facebook now requires that its political ads be authorized before it appears on its platform.[21] However, such self-imposed efforts to combat election meddling have been met with skepticism.[22]    

As Facebook continues to be scrutinized, two noteworthy remedies have been advanced. First, Senator Mark Warner has called for new laws, administered by the FTC, that would regulate Facebook ads much like how television ads are currently regulated under the Communications Act of 1934.[23]  A second solution is to pass the Honest Ads Act,[24] which requires social media and internet companies with more than “50 million monthly users to make public detailed information about any political advertiser who spends over $500 on their platforms.”[25] 

It still remains to be seen whether these proposals are truly meaningful solutions. Facebook recently reported that it “removed 652 Pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran.”[26] Facebook now has a war room that “bring[s]leaders from the company’s policy, legal, and security teams together,” in the hopes of preventing future problems like election meddling.[27]  Further regulation will force Facebook to monitor and update their policies. Proponents argue that this is a step in the right direction.[28]  All things considered, it seems likely that Facebook will recoup the entire $134 billion in losses since news of the Cambridge Analytica data hack broke.[29] However, the mistakes of 2016 certainly are not easily forgotten.

[1] Florida Department of State, Candidates and Races, Florida Division of Elections, https://dos.elections.myflorida.com/candidates/CanList.asp (last visited Oct. 20, 2018).

[2] Brian Schwartz, Billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer Preparing to Unleash $16 Million in Final 11 Days of Midterms, CNBC (Oct. 25, 2018), https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/25/democrat-tom-steyer-to-spend-16-million-in-midterms-final-stretch.html.

[3] Alan S. Gerber, Donald P. Green & Ron Shachar, Voting May Be HabitForming: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment, 47 Am. J. Pol. Sci. 540 (2003).

[4] Chris Good, The Evolution of the Campaign Poster, The Atlantic (Aug. 17, 2011), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/08/the-evolution-of-the-campaign-poster/243381/.

[5] Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert & Ramona S. McNeal, Digital Citizenship: The Internet, Society, and Participation (The MIT Press 2007).

[6] Christopher Bing, More U.S. States Deploy Technology to Track Election Hacking Attempts, Reuters (Aug. 16, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-cyber/more-u-s-states-deploy-technology-to-track-election-hacking-attempts-idUSKBN1L11VD.

[7] Andrew Keen, How the Internet Is Threatening Our Freedom, Politico (May 18, 2016), https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/05/2016-election-internet-campaign-facts-digital-new-media-213899.

[8] Alyza Sebenius, Hackers Already Attacking Midterm Elections, Raising U.S. Alarms, Bloomberg (Aug. 8, 2018), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-08/hackers-already-attacking-midterm-elections-raising-u-s-alarms.

[9] Jen Weedon, William Nuland, & Alex Stamos, Information Operations and Facebook, Facebook Newsroom (Apr. 27, 2017), https://fbnewsroomus.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/facebook-and-information-operations-v1.pdf.

[10] Alex Stamos, An Update On Information Operations and Facebook, Facebook (Sep. 6, 2017), https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2017/09/information-operations-update/.

[11] Olivia Solon, 2016: The Year Facebook Became The Bad Guy, The Guardian (Dec. 12, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/12/facebook-2016-problems-fake-news-censorship.

[12] Id.


[13] Olivia Solon, Facebook’s Fake News: Mark Zuckerberg Rejects ‘Crazy Idea’ That It Swayed Voters, The Guardian (Nov. 10, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/nov/10/facebook-fake-news-us-election-mark-zuckerberg-donald-trump.

[14] Craig Timberg & Elizabeth Dwoskin, A Voter Profiling Firm Hired By Trump Likely Grabbed Data for Tens of Millions of Facebook Users, Wash. Post (Mar. 17, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2018/03/17/a-voter-profiling-firm-hired-by-trump-likely-grabbed-data-for-tens-of-millions-of-facebook-users/?utm_term=.2d1b4fe29aba.

[15] Lucinda Shen, Why Facebook Suddenly Shed $35Billion In Value, Fortune (Mar. 19, 2018), http://fortune.com/2018/03/19/facebook-stock-share-price-cambridge-analytica-donald-trump/.

[16] Id.


[17] David Goldman, Facebook Just Had The Worst Day In Stock Market History, CNN (July 26, 2018), https://money.cnn.com/2018/07/26/technology/business/facebook-stock-drop/index.html.

[18] Mark Hosenball, Senate Panel Backs Intelligence Agencies On Russia-Trump Conclusions, Reuters (July 3, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-russia-cyber/senate-panel-backs-intelligence-agencies-on-russia-trump-conclusions-idUSKBN1JT2YB.

[19] Elizabeth Dwoskin & Tony Romm, Facebook Makes Its Privacy Controls Simpler as Company Faces Data Reckoning, Wash. Post (Mar. 28, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2018/03/28/facebooks-makes-its-privacy-controls-simpler-as-company-faces-data-reckoning/?utm_term=.7f66d205fe56.

[20] Video, C-Span, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Hearing on Data Protection (Apr. 11, 2018), available at https://www.c-span.org/video/?443490-1/facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-testifies-data-protection.

[21] Iga Kozlowska, Facebook and Data Privacy in the Age of Cambridge Analytica, Univ. of Wash. (Apr. 30, 2018), https://jsis.washington.edu/news/facebook-data-privacy-age-cambridge-analytica/#_ftnref30.

[22] Alfred Ng, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Feels the Burn in Congress Hearings, CNET (Apr. 11, 2018), https://www.cnet.com/news/mark-zuckerberg-feels-the-burn-in-senate-hearings/#ftag=CAD590a51e.

[23] Dustin Volz, U.S. May Need New Law to Address Russian Ad Buys on Facebook: Senator, Reuters (Sept. 7, 2017), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-social-media/u-s-may-need-new-law-to-address-russian-ad-buys-on-facebook-senator-idUSKCN1BI2X7; see also 47 U.S.C. § 151 (2012).

[24] Honest Ads Act, S. 1989, 115th Cong. (2017).

[25] Heather Timmons, Congress Finally Has a Bill to Regulate Facebook. Here’s What It Says, Quartz (Oct. 18, 2017), https://qz.com/1105987/congress-may-try-to-regulate-political-ads-in-the-internet-like-those-on-broadcast-television/.

[26] Nathaniel Gleicher, What We’ve Found So Far, Facebook Newsroom (Aug. 21, 2018), https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/08/more-coordinated-inauthentic-behavior/.

[27] Donie O’Sullivan & Laurie Segall, Bracing For the Midterms, Facebook Builds a ‘War Room,’ CNN (Oct. 18, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/18/tech/facebook-war-room-elections/index.html.

[28] Id.


[29] Anthony Mirhaydari, Facebook Stock Recovers All $134B Lost After Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal, CBS News (May 10, 2018), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/facebook-stock-price-recovers-all-134-billion-lost-in-after-cambridge-analytica-datascandal/.


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Fordham Journal of Corporate & Financial Law