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Social Media Are Victims, Not Villains, in Russian Scandal

Scapegoating social media in the Russian influence scandal is the opening salvo in an effort to place social media under government control. Already we are hearing that these companies have too much “power” and should be controlled like public utilities. What’s missing in the debate?

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In the roughly three years since our intelligence services first notified the Democratic National Committee that Russian hackers had gained entry into their computer systems, a great number of people have expressed great amounts of outrage over what has become known as the Russian “influence” scandal. Much of that outrage has been focused on Donald Trump. Lately, even more has been heaped on social media companies, particularly Facebook, because of the Russian government’s use of the platforms to try to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Last November, after Facebook revealed that the Russians had run roughly three thousand ads on the site during the 2016 presidential campaign, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pronounced her verdict on the scandal in a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee: “You have a huge problem on your hands,” Feinstein told representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. “You created these platforms . . . now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will.”

By February, when special counsel Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian companies for spreading Russian propaganda through false social media accounts, the view that social media companies were to blame for enabling the Russians’ actions had become widespread. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote at least five columns criticizing Facebook and other social media companies for helping Russia spread “fear and hatred” and allegedly skewing the election for Trump. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who co-sponsored a bill, the “Honest Ads Act,” which was supposedly designed to address the problem, chided social media companies for being “naïve at best and disingenuous at worst” in failing to take responsibility for Russian activity on their sites.

All of this has had its intended effect. Facebook has since agreed to do what the Honest Ads Act would otherwise have forced it to do—impose disclosure obligations on those who run political ads on the site. And in mid-April, CEO Mark Zuckerberg concluded an “apology tour” of Washington, D.C. in which he expressed regret for, among many other things, Facebook’s failure to discover the Russian government’s activity on the site earlier than it did.

There’s certainly a scandal here, but the focus should not be social media companies or even Donald Trump. It should be on our government, which is the institution tasked with the responsibility of dealing with threats from abroad.

The Russian influence scandal is a massive foreign policy failure, the fault for which lies with both political parties. Donald Trump is not the first politician to cozy up to Vladimir Putin. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have been ignoring the threat from Russia for decades.

This foreign policy failure is a scandal in itself, but it is worse if we allow the blame to fall on social media companies. That not only relieves government of its proper responsibility, it turns a foreign policy debacle into an invitation to control social media and threaten free speech.

President Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” One way to take his point, which is typical in Washington, is to approach a crisis cynically and use it to gain leverage over someone, to scapegoat others for your own failures, or to push a pet project that was otherwise going nowhere. Check.

But there’s another option: use a crisis as a time for serious reflection and improvement. No, that doesn’t happen often in Washington. But that shouldn’t keep the rest of us from trying to bring clarity to an issue like this, rather than confusion.

To do that, let’s start with a closer look at what happened.

It’s the Russians, stupid.

Trump may have colluded with the Russians. The Russians hacked the DNC’s computers. Russian trolls used social media to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and sow distrust and discontent.

Notice the pattern?

At the risk of stating the obvious: the first party to blame in this scandal is the Russian government. Whatever malfeasance others may have exhibited, it was so because it was connected to a Russian plot. There’s no collusion without someone to collude with. For misuse of social media to happen, there has to be a misuser.

That’s the Russian government. The details of the Russian plot are described in a declassified U.S. intelligence report and the Mueller indictment, and a number of news outlets have done extensive reporting on the plot.1

In 2014, under orders from Vladimir Putin, the Russian government began what our intelligence services describe as an “influence campaign,” designed to impact the 2016 election. Agents of the Russian government hacked not only the DNC’s computers, but also the computers of the Republican National Committee and several state election boards. There’s no evidence that they used any RNC documents or tampered with voting machines,2 but they obviously weren’t hacking these systems for their own entertainment.

The Russian scheme also included a propaganda effort. That’s where the social media ads and posts come in, but the Russians also used RT (formerly Russia Today), a state-funded television station based in America, and Sputnik, a state-owned radio network. Both have offices in Washington, D.C.3

The purpose of the propaganda effort was twofold. First, attack Hillary Clinton and Trump’s competitors in the Republican primary and help Trump and Bernie Sanders. Second, try to inflame passions on “hot button” issues, such as race, class conflict, immigration, police misconduct, and electoral fraud.4 This is what people mean when they say the Russians were trying to “sow conflict and discontent,” “divide Americans” on sensitive social issues, “undermine faith in the democratic process,” and spread “fear and hate.”

For example, RT ran a number of stories on electoral fraud in the U.S. and claimed that our two-party system is a sham that does not represent the views of many Americans. It promoted the anti-fracking movement and Occupy Wall Street and helped both to organize on social media.5 Russian social media posts announced rallies of both pro- and anti-Islamic groups in the same locality in an apparent effort to prompt a violent clash. It created posts purporting to be from groups affiliated with Black Lives Matter that showed young black men who were killed by police, and posts calling on gun owners to defend the Second Amendment from attack.6 There are many other examples.

Whether Trump knew about the Russian plot and whether it affected the outcome of the election are important questions. But they obscure a more fundamental issue: Russia essentially attacked America. It hacked the computer systems of our two major political parties and several state election boards. It stole documents and released them in an effort to skew an election against one of the candidates. It operated a propaganda campaign, the purpose of which, according to the Russians themselves, was “information warfare against the United States of America.”7

According to our intelligence services, the entire influence campaign was part of the “Kremlin’s longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.”8 It was, as veteran CIA agent Daniel Hoffman described it, “a Russian espionage disinformation plot targeting both parties and America’s political process.”9

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Scapegoating social media

Why, then, are so many blaming social media?

According to critics like Dianne Feinstein and Anne Applebaum, social media companies created the “platforms” that the Russians used to spread their propaganda. “Don’t let them off the hook,” Applebaum urged in one of her many columns about the Russian scandal. “Until they take responsibility for what appears on their platforms—or until they are held legally liable—the social media companies will continue to fuel [division.] They are not accidental victims of Russia’s information war. They are its tools.”

There are two points being blended together in this argument. Both are wrong and unjust.

1. Blaming the victims

The first blames social media companies for something that isn’t their fault. That’s the claim that Russia used them as “tools” in its plot. It’s true, but only in the same sense in which Russia “used” the DNC. Indeed, there are any number of businesses or organizations a government like Russia could use in the same way—from internet service providers to media of all sorts, to cell phone companies, to banks and other financial institutions, to computer companies, and many others. Hostile foreign entities of all sorts have used American businesses to execute their plots in the past. Al Qaeda used airlines to carry out the 9/11 attacks. Their pilots trained at American flight schools. ISIS spreads its evil messages over the internet.

Saying that the social media companies were Russia’s tools is not the same thing as saying they were knowing or willing tools. There’s no evidence that social media companies were in any way complicit in Russia’s actions. In fact, they were duped. According to the Mueller indictment, the Russians used false and stolen identities, fraudulent PayPal and email accounts and fake social security numbers to set up bogus social media accounts,10 essentially committing fraud against Facebook and the other companies. Social media companies were victims of Russia’s plot just as the DNC was a victim. Yet no one has blamed the DNC, and rightly so.

A related line of attack is that Facebook is really a “publisher” and should be liable for content that appears on its website just as any publisher would be. Anne Applebaum makes this claim:

The company continues to argue that it is not legally liable for material that appears on its platform because it is not a “publisher,” even though it behaves in every other way like a publisher, including by collecting advertising revenue that used to go to publishers. The result is that anyone who seeks to spread false information on Facebook or any other social media site is, in practice, no longer bound by laws on libel or false advertising that were explicitly designed to stop them.

Again, there’s a grain of truth to this, but only a grain. Yes, publishers can be liable for content they publish just as an author can be liable for what he or she writes. It’s also true that Facebook and other internet companies are not liable as publishers because Congress immunized them from such liability in section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That obviously made a lot of people in the publishing industry mad, as Applebaum’s comment about losing revenue to Facebook shows.

But the basic idea makes sense. Facebook, alone, has over two billion users. The company can’t police everything posted on its site, and it is just not a “publisher” of all that content in the same way the Washington Post is the publisher of Anne Applebaum’s column. However, that does not mean that everyone is free to ignore laws against defamation and false advertising on social media. The Communications Decency Act only immunizes platforms. Users are still liable for what they post.

If social media companies start publishing the way a newspaper does, perhaps Congress should revisit the law. While they are at it, we might rethink the extent to which publishers are liable for the content they publish as well. In the meantime, if a reporter from the Washington Post were revealed to be a Russian agent who was writing stories on subjects the Russians felt would “sow discontent and division,” I don’t think anyone could legitimately claim the Post was legally responsible. If that happened, I would certainly defend the Post. The fact that social media companies are not considered publishers is just not relevant to this controversy.

2. They’ve created something good.

The second point lumped into the critics’ claims seeks to blame social media companies for doing something good—namely, for creating new communications platforms that the Russians could misuse. This is rather like attacking car companies because they created a way for criminals to escape from crime scenes.

It’s certainly tempting to pin all sorts of bad ideas, trends, and behaviors on social media at a time when everyone seems to have their noses buried in their smartphones 24/7. But that ignores the tremendous value that social media and related technologies, like smartphones, represent. Social media allows people to amplify their voices in ways that the average person has never been able to do. It connects billions of people worldwide and gives them access to unprecedented amounts of information. Think of the incredible amount of valuable and entertaining content put on YouTube every day. Or the number of people scattered around the world who have been able to stay connected with friends and family because of Facebook. Or the fact that social media of all kinds has allowed people in war-torn countries or during natural disasters to keep apprised of lifesaving news.

Yes, a lot of the content on social media is garbage. But crappy content is not exactly a new phenomenon. If you think “fake news” is a product of social media, take a look at the state of journalism at the time of the Founders. Or just read the tabloids in your local supermarket checkout line. Or take a look at almost any political campaign since the early nineteenth century.

It’s true that new technologies can be misused, but that has always been true. Fake news can spread rapidly on social media. But so can the truth that debunks it. Every dictator since the invention of the printing press has used mass communications to spread their ideas. But so has every genius.

Social media companies are innovative, productive businesses run by smart, talented people. Instead of blaming them for what the Russians did, we might consider thanking them for having created something great.

Foreign policy is government’s job.

None of this is to say that social media companies bear no responsibility to take measures against the misuse of their businesses by hostile entities. But their responsibility is on the order of taking reasonable steps to monitor their sites, reporting suspicious activity, and cooperating with authorities. By all accounts, Facebook and the other social media companies did this.11 In fact, according to the Washington Post, it was Facebook that first notified the FBI about the 2016 Russian propaganda campaign. However, even if it is true, as some claim, that social media companies were slow in reacting, that would simply place them on the same footing as the DNC. It waited weeks after the FBI notified it of Russian hackers before reacting.12

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But no private company can be responsible for guarding the country against the actions of hostile foreign nations. Foreign policy and national defense are the Federal government’s responsibility. Only government has the resources and legal ability to undertake these tasks. That is, indeed, why we create governments—to protect our rights.

Blaming Facebook and the other social media companies for the Russian influence plot is, in principle, like blaming airlines and flight schools for the attacks on 9/11. That is a gross injustice in itself, but it is compounded by the fact that our government has ignored the nature of the Russians for years.

Ignoring the Russian threat

“What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change,” Dianne Feinstein said as she scolded social media company representatives in last November’s hearing. “What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.

“You have a huge problem on your hands. And the U.S. 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.”

Feinstein is right about one thing. Russia is at least a “major foreign power” with the ability to hack our political parties and operate propaganda campaigns here. But there is nothing new about that. Feinstein’s claim that Russia’s activities during the 2016 election represent the “beginning of cyber warfare”—or any kind of a change from its long-standing behavior—is preposterous.

The Russians under Putin have been operating influence campaigns in many countries for years.13 They did it before occupying Ukraine in 2014 and in connection with the annexation of Crimea the same year.14 They did it in Germany in 2016. Various news agencies and think tanks have reported about Russian propaganda campaigns that used social media since at least 2013.15 In 2015, Russian hackers penetrated White House computers.16 And RT and Sputnik, which U.S. intelligence describes as Putin’s chief propaganda tools,17 have been operating in Washington, D.C., for years.

This is, of course, not a new activity for Russia. It dates back to the Cold War era. But even after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia operated disinformation and influence campaigns in other countries regularly.18

That the Russian government is still doing this sort of thing should not come as a surprise.

Russia is often described neutrally as a “strategic competitor” to the U.S. But this attitude is more of an effort to ignore Russia’s true nature than to understand it.

Russia is not a friendly nation. It is an authoritarian regime dominated by an ex-KGB agent19 who views the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the worst events in the 20th century. The government controls and censors the press.20 It discriminates against religious and ethnic minorities, among others. It often abuses, tortures and kills criminal suspects. It has imprisoned and killed political dissidents.21

Russia does not respect individual rights. It does not respect the rule of law. It does not respect the sovereignty of other nations. It is essentially a dictatorship that, not surprisingly, views America as a threat and acts consistently with that view. That has been true for a long time.

What, though, has our government’s attitude been toward Russia?

In a recent interview about his experiences as president, Bill Clinton recalled Putin as “trustworthy and intelligent.”22 In 2001, George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and pronounced him a “straightforward and trustworthy” man with a good soul.23 In 2009, President Obama proposed a “Russian reset” to improve relations with the nation, which, he claimed, had been tarnished during the Bush years.24 During the 2012 presidential debates, Obama famously ridiculed Mitt Romney’s negative view of Kremlin: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Cozying up to Putin is not something that started with Donald Trump.

Our policy toward Russia over the last few decades has been confused at best; willfully blind and appeasing, at worst. One predictable result has been dithering over what to do in the face of Russia’s current actions.

“U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions,” reported the Washington Post in late 2017.25 “Top U.S. policymakers didn’t appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back.” Ultimately the plans to do something fell apart.

It should come as no surprise, then, that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Facebook executives say they were caught off-guard by the Russian activity.”26 Our own government wasn’t paying sufficient attention to Russia before the 2016 election. Why would Facebook have been?

What should our government have done?

Any sensible foreign policy has to begin with knowing who are your friends and who are your enemies. The first thing our government must do, then, is be willing to name our enemies and treat them accordingly. Treating Russia as an ally, a trading partner, or a free nation on a par with the U.S. and its real allies, as we often have, is a serious moral failure. It only serves to embolden Russia, whose goal is to be seen by its own citizens and other nations as equal to free countries like the U.S. That is part of the reason Russia censors its own press and operates propaganda campaigns: to elevate itself by portraying the U.S. as having the same problems—ethnic strife, authoritarian policies, etc.—as Russia.27 We shouldn’t help Russia accomplish that goal. And if we want our own citizens to be on the lookout for Russian activity, our government needs to notify them and explain why we regard Russia as a hostile nation.

Beyond that, there are any number of actions our government could take in response to this scandal. Investigating Trump is certainly justified, but that investigation should extend to every administration since Bill Clinton was president. If it is important to know how Trump has dealt with the Russian government—and it is—then it is just as important to understand how previous administrations dealt with the Russians and what they knew about Russia. Failing to take seriously the nature of the Russian government and to make clear why they are hostile, and therefore why colluding with them is bad, makes the entire Trump investigation seem partisan—which, unfortunately, it likely is.

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If Congress is really serious about Russian propaganda, it should investigate RT and Sputnik. If our intelligence services are correct that these are Putin’s propaganda machines, as seems likely, we should kick both out of the country. This would probably be controversial, but it would be a good opportunity to convey that foreign governments have no right to free speech and that no one has the right to aid and abet hostile nations.

The point, here, is not to present an exhaustive menu of options for dealing with foreign policy matters such as this one. It is to convey that dealing with them sensibly is possible, and that attacking innocent social media companies is a grotesque miscarriage of justice.


There’s more at stake in this controversy than who bears the blame for the Russian influence scandal.

To see that, ask yourself: What happens now?

Mark Zuckerberg just apologized to Congress because Facebook is good at what it does—allowing people to communicate with one another—and our government is bad at doing what it is supposed to do—protect Facebook and the rest of us from hostile foreign nations. This is an example of what Ayn Rand called “the sanction of the victim.”28 In essence, it amounts to accepting fault for the “sin” of being virtuous or creating values. Like all forms of appeasement, it never works.

For now, Facebook has agreed to do willingly what the Honest Ads Act would have made mandatory. It will require political speakers on its site to disclose their identities and other information about themselves. This will be worse than doing nothing. We already know the Russians don’t comply with the law, so Facebook’s new rules won’t stop them. When they or someone like them does the same thing again, who will get the blame? Not government. When social media’s critics complain that the companies are to blame for not yet having solved the problem, will the companies resist, having already agreed that the Russians’ actions were their fault? Not likely.

And how will Facebook apply these disclosure rules? Social media companies’ efforts to define “hate speech,” which they will ban from their platforms, have thus far managed to anger everyone. Many Democrats and their supporters think they should restrict speech that is allegedly offensive to “minority” groups. Many Republicans and their supporters think the companies are defining “hate speech” as a way to ban conservative views. Whatever their differences, both sides want to control content on social media platforms.

What will happen when Facebook tries to define “political speech?” Most of the Russian posts did not tell anyone to vote one way or another, but either criticized candidates or simply conveyed opinions about controversial issues. That is the speech to which Facebook is supposed to apply its disclosure rules. At some point, both Democrats and Republicans will throw up their hands and decide that private companies should not be permitted to make these decisions. “We tried to allow you to deal with this voluntarily, and you failed,” the critics will say. “Now it is government’s turn.” Already we are hearing that social media companies have too much “power” and should be controlled like public utilities.

What we’ve just seen in the debate over the Russian influence scandal is the opening salvo in an effort to place social media under government control.

Will we let it succeed?

Explore more on these topics: Free SpeechForeign Policy.

Do you have a comment or question?


  1. See, for example, Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane, “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S., New York Times, December 13, 2016; “2016 Presidential Campaign Hacking Fast Facts,” CNN, updated February 21, 2018; Craig Timberg, “Russian Propaganda Effort Helped Spread ‘Fake News’ During Election, Experts Say,” Washington Post, November 24, 2016.
  2. National Intelligence Council (NIC), Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, 1–3.
  3. NIC, Assessing Russian Activities, 3–4.
  4. NIC, Assessing Russian Activities, 6–10; Mueller Indictment, pars. 34, 42–7; Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Adam Entous and Karoun Demirjian, “Russian Ads, Now Publicly Released, Show Sophistication of Influence Campaign,” Washington Post, November 1, 2017.
  5. NIC, Assessing Russian Activities, 7–8.
  6. Timberg et al., “Russian Ads”; Aaron Mak, “Here Are Some of the Social Media Posts That Russia Used to Meddle in the 2016 Election,” Slate, November 1, 2017.
  7. Mueller Indictment, par. 10.c.
  8. NIC, Assessing Russian Activities, 8.
  9. Daniel Hoffman, “The Steele Dossier Fits the Kremlin Playbook,” Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2018.
  10. Mueller Indictment, pars. 4, 32–41, 89–95, 97.
  11. Adam Entous, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg, “Obama Tried to Give Zuckerberg a Wake-up Call Over Fake News on Facebook,” Washington Post, September 24, 2017.
  12. Lipton et al., “The Perfect Weapon.”
  13. NIC, Assessing Russian Activities, 5.
  14. Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas, “The Danger of Russian Disinformation,” Washington Post, May 6, 2016; Craig Timberg, “Russian Propaganda Effort Helped Spread ‘Fake News’ During Election, Experts Say,” Washington Post, November 24, 2016.
  15. Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fry, “Shredding the Putin Playbook,” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Winter 2018; Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It,” RAND Corporation, 2016.
  16. Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz, How the U.S. Thinks Russians Hacked the White House, CNN, April 8, 2015.
  17. NIC, Assessing Russian Activities, 3, 6–10.
  18. NIC, Assessing Russian Activities, 5.
  19. U.S. Department of State, “Russia 2016 Human Rights Report,” 1.
  20. State Department, “Russia 2016,” 23.
  21. State Department, “Russia 2016,” 23.
  22. Amber Phillips, “18 Not-so-Nice Things U.S. Politicians Have Said About Vladimir Putin,” Washington Post, June 10, 2015.
  23. Phillips, “18 Not-so-Nice Things.”
  24. Jeffrey Mankoff, “The Tricky Russian Reset Button,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 17, 2009.
  25. Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Jaffe, “Kremlin Trolls Burned Across the Internet as Washington Debated Options,” Washington Post, December 25, 2017.
  26. Deepa Seetharaman, Robert McMillan and Georgia Wells, “Tone-Deaf: How Facebook Misread America’s Mood on Russia,” Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2018.
  27. NIC, Assessing Russian Activities, 5–10.
  28. Rand discusses the idea in greater detail in her lecture “The Sanction of the Victims.”
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Steve Simpson

Steve Simpson, a former constitutional litigator, was director of Legal Studies and a senior editor at the Ayn Rand Institute from 2013 to 2018. He is the editor of Defending Free Speech.

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