Chuck Schumer was comfortably re-elected as Senate Minority Leader yesterday by the Democratic caucus, but a stunning New York Times exposé of Facebook reveals that he attempted to impede investigations into the tech giant.
The story, which runs about 5,000 words and carries five bylines, paints a damning picture of a company run amok following the revelation that Russia conducted its fake news operation largely through its social media platform. In January 2017, the company planned to release an investigation into their findings, but under pressure from conservatives who said the company would become a target of Republicans if they went forward, COO Sheryl Sandberg backed down. A statement would not be released until that September, amidst a Senate investigation led by North Carolina Republican Richard Burr and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, as well as threats of federal regulation.
Last spring, Sandberg used her connections in Washington to lobby on Facebook's behalf, reaching out to Senator Chuck Schumer who, in his re-election campaign in 2016, had accepted more money from Facebook than any other member of Congress. His daughter is also a member of the company, working in the marketing division of its New York Office. According to a Facebook employee, Schumer told Warner:
"Back off [he said]...Mr. Warner should be looking for ways to work with Facebook, Mr. Schumer advised, not harm it. Facebook lobbyists were kept abreast of Mr. Schumer’s efforts to protect the company, according to the employee.
"A Senate aide briefed on the exchange said that Mr. Schumer had not wanted Mr. Warner to lose sight of the need for Facebook to tackle problems with right-wing disinformation and election interference, as well as consumer privacy and other issues."
An anonymous source in The Hill backs up this account, stating that Schumer wanted Warner to look into election meddling, but was worried that Facebook would bow to right-wing pressure from people like Diamond and Silk, two prominent pro-Trump bloggers who accused the company of discriminating against them for their politics.
Schumer's fears were similar to Sandberg's, who had been pressured in 2015 by Facebook employee Joel Kaplan not to remove a post from then-candidate Donald Trump that called for a "shutdown" on Muslims entering the country. Kaplan, a conservative, warned her that it would trigger right-wing backlash, saying, "don't poke the bear." Both the post and Trump's account remained on the site.
In an interview for the Recode podcast last March with New York Times journalist Kara Swisher, Schumer argued that while the company would have to learn how to ignore Republican backlash, he called it "a very positive force" who "know[s] that their future is at stake with this."
"You're pretty kind to the tech companies," Swisher said. "A lot of people are less thrilled with them."
"I worry about government regulation," he responded.
"But what about the power that they have and what's coming down the pike?" she asked. "Automation, robotics, AI, all these very important technologies could make them more powerful than ever, almost like nation states themselves. Does that worry you at all?"
"Well, it’s something I’m concerned about, yes," he replied. "Do I know what the consequences are, let alone the solutions? No."
Schumer will have to check his optimism in the wake of this article, especially as someone who identifies as Jewish. In perhaps the most potent bombshell to emerge yesterday, to better the company's standing among Republicans, Sandberg hired the right-wing opposition group Definers to circulate stories smearing their competitors. Some of these stories even said Jewish-Hungarian financier George Soros was responsible for funding liberal opposition to the website.
Anti-Soros attacks are bread and butter for conservatives the world over and double as code for antisemitism. In his native Hungary, the ruling right-wing party Fidesz came to power in part by blaming the country's problems on him, even though he has lived in the United States for more than 60 years. Last month, a bomb was sent to his house by the "MAGA Bomber," Cesar Sayoc.
Some members of Congress have expressed their disdain for Facebook in the wake of the story's publication. In a sternly worded thread last night, Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline, the incoming Chair of the House Anti-Trust Committee, said that Facebook "will always put their massive profits ahead of the interests of their customers...it is long past time for us to take action."
Schumer, who has yet to comment on the story, will be critical in ensuring that whatever action takes place in the House will have an actual effect on Facebook when it comes through the Senate. Given his relationship with the tech giant, his response deserves a great deal of scrutiny.
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