‘Americans deserve to know a lot more’
Should politicians crack down on social media? New statistics suggest that Russian online propaganda is more widespread that we thought. The tech giants are under pressure to do something.
Late last year, as people wondered whether Russia had influenced the presidential election via social media, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea as “crazy”. How long ago that seems.
This week, the major tech companies are feeling the heat. Facebook, Twitter and Google (which owns YouTube) are testifying about Russia before congressional committees. So far, they have revealed that Russian agents used their platforms to spread propaganda to perhaps hundreds of millions between 2015 and 2017 (see graphic above).
This fake content, which has been traced to a shadowy Kremlin-backed organisation called the Internet Research Agency, did not necessarily seek to endorse any candidate. In fact, a lot of it was posted after the election. Rather, it aimed to inflame tensions and cause chaos in American society.
Facebook seems to be the agents’ social medium of choice. They sent out vast numbers of ads and posts, purportedly created by Americans, which promoted divisive causes: gun ownership, gay rights, Black Lives Matter – even Texan independence. Some pushed made-up stories.
The tech giants stress that this propaganda only accounts for a tiny percentage of what users see. Yet this week’s numbers show that the problem runs far deeper than previously known. It is awkward for the companies, which have always argued that social media has a positive impact on society.
They insist that they are tackling the issue. They have removed the fraudulent content and blocked the accounts behind them. Facebook and Twitter have set out new rules to provide insight into who funds their ads. Facebook has also promised to hire 1,000 more people for its ad review team.
Yet some say more is needed. TV networks are obliged by law to identify who pays for political ads; two senators have proposed similar legislation for tech companies. One of them, Mark Warner, does not trust the companies to regulate themselves in a transparent way. “I think there’s a lot more that Americans deserve to know,” he warns.
“Russian propaganda is a nuisance,” say some. But fighting it through regulation would be even more problematic. Politicians would have to decide what content counts as illegitimate. This creates grey areas, and free speech is threatened. A proper democracy does not suppress things. It lets the people decide for themselves who and what to trust.
“That's naive,” reply others. The days of blatant Soviet propaganda about happy workers in fields are gone. This new kind of misinformation is subtle and often indistinguishable from genuine posts. Russia could be shaping millions of Americans' opinions. The government must intervene and stop these attacks on democracy.
- Do you think you could tell the difference between a real and a fake political post?
- Do the benefits of social media outweigh the drawbacks?
- Imagine you run Facebook. Come up with a motto for the company. It has to be positive without distorting the company’s impact on society.
- The government wants to create a new “internet literacy” course for schools, and is asking for your input. As a class, list all the things such a course should address.
Some People Say...
“The power of social media is it forces necessary change.”Erik Qualman
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The tech giants and the US intelligence community agree that Russia interfered with the nation's democratic system in order to sow confusion and aid Donald Trump. Several inquiries are now trying to find out how far that interference went, and whether it was assisted by Trump's campaign.
- What do we not know?
- The inquiries are a long way from any conclusions — they will run on for months, if not years. But Monday saw some important developments: the FBI's probe issued its first criminal charges. Also, we will probably never know whether Russia swung the election in Trump's favour. The contest was very close, but it is pretty much impossible to prove what influenced voters. That said, Trump heavily exploited fake news stories about Hillary Clinton created by Russians.
- Zuckerberg has since apologised and asked “forgiveness” for his comments.
- Congressional committees
- Today the companies are appearing before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, both of which are carrying out investigations into Russia’s role in the election.
- Hundreds of millions
- According to Facebook, 80,000 pieces of divisive Russian content were shown to around 29m people. Through shares and likes, they may have reached up to 126m.
- Internet Research Agency
- The company, based in St. Petersburg, is often described as a “troll farm”. Its employees use fake accounts to spread pro-Kremlin messages across the internet.
- Black Lives Matter
- These posts were reportedly targeted at users in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, where racial tensions run especially high.
- TV networks
- The same goes for print and radio advertising.
- Mark Warner
- Warner has been one of the tech giants’ most vocal opponents in Congress. He used to be a tech entrepreneur himself, and is said to understand the industry well.