‘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.
This week, Facebook, Twitter and Google (which owns YouTube) are testifying about Russia before congressional committees. They have revealed that Russian agents used their platforms to spread propaganda to perhaps hundreds of millions between 2015 and 2017 (see graphic above).
More than just influence the election, this fake content aimed to inflame tensions in American society. Russians sent out vast numbers of ads and posts, purportedly created by Americans, which promoted divisive causes like gun ownership and gay rights. Some pushed made-up stories.
The tech giants stress that this only accounts for a tiny percentage of what users see. Yet the new figures show that the problem runs far deeper than previously known.
The companies 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.
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.
“Propaganda is bad,” say some. But fighting it through regulation would be even worse. Politicians would have to decide what content counts as illegitimate — which threatens free speech. A proper democracy lets the people decide who and what to trust.
“That's naive,” reply others. 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?
- 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.
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 US intelligence community says that Russia interfered with the nation's democratic system in order to sow confusion and aid Donald Trump.
- What do we not know?
- Whether Trump’s campaign assisted Russia — several inquiries are looking into this. Also, whether Russia swung the election in Trump's favour. The contest was close, but it is very hard to prove what influenced voters.
- Congressional committees
- Today the companies appear before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, both of which are investigating 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.
- 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.