History repeats itself with Big Tech’s misleading advertising

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As the US Senate prepares to vote on updating antitrust laws to deal with the abuses of the new digital age, the airwaves have been filled with emotional but factless ads lambasting any action. The Wall Street Journal headlined, “Big Tech spent $36 million on Torpedo Antitrust Bill ads,” and Politics reports that the Senate Majority Leader will not introduce the legislation without 60 votes and that vulnerable Democrats may drop their support.

Amassing large fortunes through market exploitation, then using some of that wealth to pay for propaganda against regulation, is a timeless political strategy. In The Bully Chair, Doris Kearns Goodwin described her 19eimplementation of the century: “Disturbed by the passage of the regulatory bill in the House, the railroads launched a massive propaganda campaign to turn the country against regulation. »[1]

Commenting on the industry campaign, the Fairhope Courier of Des Moines, Iowa – whose readers were farmers abused by railroad practices – wrote: “It is a bit surprising to read how the railroad combines first to steal millions from the country, then to use part of this fund stolen from people to corrupt sources of information and thus attempt to perpetuate their theft through blind public opinion.[2]

Playing on the public’s (and Congress’) ignorance of the details of its activities, the railroads warned that disaster would be the result of any government intrusion. Government surveillance “would mean a general disruption of business” within the industry and the general public, they argued.[3]

History is repeating itself today.

Multi-million dollar campaigns

“Multimillion-Dollar Campaign Pushes Democrats to Abandon Antitrust Reform,” The Washington Post headlining. Of the $36 million spent to date, The Wall Street Journal reports that the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) spent the most — more than $24 million. CCIA ads reportedly focused on the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. CCIA represents companies such as Amazon, Apple, Meta/Facebook and Alphabet/Google.

“Don’t break what works” is the theme of CCIA advertisements. “Congress has plans that could stop progress in its tracks, smashing the products and services you love,” the ad warns. The campaign targets S. 2992, the US bipartisan Innovation and Choice Act, which would give the government the power to challenge online platforms’ self-preference practices if they are found to be anti-competitive.

Amazon, which is often mentioned as indulging in self-preference, is the focus of another CCIA ad. If enacted, the legislation “could break Amazon’s guaranteed delivery within two days,” the ad warns. However, as my colleague Bill Baer has pointed out, the legislation is much more nuanced than the advertisements suggest. The bill does not come to any conclusions about companies, but instead would require antitrust authorities to take their case to court, where companies would have full opportunity to challenge claims that certain practices are anti-competitive.

Another industry group, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), also ran advertisements. The CTA’s angle of attack is that antitrust law is a threat to national security. Referring to the Russian attack on Ukraine and the “cyberwar against the United States,” the ad rhetorically asks, “Why is Congress considering legislation that makes us less safe?” Unlike the CCIA advertisements, these advertisements do not refer to any specific legislation. Adopting the common “don’t break” slogan, however, the ad concludes, “Don’t break American technology when we need it most.”

Which side are you on?

Another ad campaign is being run by a hitherto unknown organization called the American Edge Project. These ads also fail to mention what legislation affects them, how these problems might be solved, or how the horrors they warn of might actually happen.

“I don’t understand why some members of Congress want to take away the technology we use every day,” the small plumbing business owner said in an American Edge ad. Deploring “this political campaign against American technology,” warns Larry Melton of Gilbert, Arizona, “our leaders must strengthen, not weaken, American technology.”

In another advertisement from the group, small business owner Renee Carlton of Corinth, Mississippi warns that “some politicians are imposing new laws that will weaken American technology.” The result, she warns, “will make small businesses dependent on China for the technology we use every day.” Ms. Carlton concludes: “I have a message for Congress. Don’t weaken American technology.

While the CCIA and CTA campaigns are clearly industry-funded efforts, the amorphously named American Edge Project is obviously not an industry group. It turns out, however, that the group was founded and funded by Facebook (aka Meta Platforms, Inc,). May 17e article in The Washington Post headlined “How Facebook Quietly Funded a War on Regulation.” “Backed by millions from Meta, Facebook’s parent company, American Edge has launched a full-scale campaign to fight antitrust laws in Washington,” the article reports.

Meta’s quiet funding of anti-legislation ads isn’t mentioned in Larry and Renee’s ads — it’s buried in American Edge’s website. Facebook, however, is featured in another ad campaign with a seemingly contradictory message. In a series of online and traditional media ads like the one below, Facebook is loudly proclaiming, “We support updated regulations on the internet’s most pressing issues.”

Where are the facts?

Multiple proposals are before Congress regarding the practices of dominant digital platform companies. But, with the exception of the CCIA campaign, none of the ads identify any legislation they are concerned about. Nor do they identify a factual reason for the concern.

Speaking out about congressional action is both a free speech right and an important part of the legislative process. It is possible that Congress may misinterpret a question and/or propose an incomplete or misinformed policy. A factual discussion of specific concerns in the various legislative proposals would undoubtedly be a more meaningful contribution than emotional platitudes and unproven accusations about the weakening of American technology.

Blind public opinion

Historically, the 19eAn editorial in Iowa from the last century warned that the railroads’ propaganda campaign was an effort to “perpetuate their theft through blind public opinion”. As the railroads battled regulation, no emotion-inducing tactic was too low. The railroads even played on racism by suggesting regulations would prevent them from segregating African Americans in Jim Crow cars.[4] Such a refocusing of the debate obscures the real issues in order to blind public opinion.

There has been extensive debate over proposed antitrust reforms in Congress. Resorting to ad attacks that the legislation will “take away technology”, “make small businesses dependent on China”, “stop progress in its tracks” or threaten national security seems like a last ditch effort by the companies. .

Republican Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, co-sponsor of the self-preference bill, seemed to be channeling the Iowa newspaper editorial from the 1800s when he observed, “We are facing these big tech companies that spend tens of millions of dollars on ads. , and also on front groups to spread lies about our bill. Obviously, they want to protect the status quo, which allows them to extend their influence.

As we witness the reconstitution in the age of the Internet of a political strategy developed in the industrial age, it should be remembered that the 19eThe century’s efforts ultimately failed and the protections put in place to ensure a competitive marketplace resulted in a century of competitive progress and innovation that made the United States the envy of the world.

Amazon, Apple, Google, and Meta are general, unrestricted donors to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations and conclusions published in this article are solely those of the author and are not influenced by any donation.


Footnotes :

1. Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2013), p. 448.
2. Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit, p. 456, citing articles by Ray Baker, the legendary muckraker who wrote a six-part exposé “The Railroads on Trial” for McClure magazine.
3. Goodwin, p. 456.
4. Goodwin, p. 455.

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