'Would Trump be President if Facebook Didn't Exist?' WashPost Columnist Says No

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The sign outside the main entrance to Facebook headquarters.
The sign outside the main entrance to Facebook headquarters. Credit: Facebook

The question in the headline above appears near the end of the latest column from Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. In the very next sentence she answers her own question: "Although there is a long list of reasons for his win, there's increasing reason to believe the answer is no."

Sullivan's must-read piece, titled "Facebook's role in Trump's win is clear. No matter what Mark Zuckerberg says," slams the social network for downplaying its overall influence and specifically its role in disseminating false information during the presidential campaign. That sort of dodging suddenly got a lot harder this week with the news that, as the Post headlined it, "Russian firm tied to pro-Kremlin propaganda advertised on Facebook during election." Per the story by Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman,

Representatives of Facebook told congressional investigators Wednesday that the social network has discovered that it sold ads during the U.S. presidential campaign to a shadowy Russian company seeking to target voters, according to several people familiar with the company's findings. Facebook officials reported that they traced the ad sales, totaling $100,000, to a Russian "troll farm" with a history of pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda, these people said.

In her column, Sullivan puts that alarming report in context:

The news ... fits right in with the findings of a fascinating recent study by Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Analyzing reams of data, it documented the huge role that propaganda, in various forms, played in the 2016 campaign. "Attempts by the [Hillary] Clinton campaign to define her campaign on competence, experience, and policy positions were drowned out by coverage of alleged improprieties associated with the Clinton Foundation and emails," the study said. The Trump campaign masterfully manipulated these messages. Truth was not a requirement. And Facebook was the indispensable messenger.

What do we do about all this -- and specifically "Facebook's singular power in the world"? Sullivan confesses that she doen't know, but she does make one urgent suggestion at the end of her column. Read it in full here.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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