Russian trolls have been really good customers of Facebook, Google and Twitter. That’s the key takeaway from reports released this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee on efforts by Russian agents to spread fake stories and discourage Americans from voting.
Let’s be dead clear: Purveyors of propaganda used these powerful platforms exactly as they were designed to be used. It should not surprise us that what happened was entirely avoidable and pretty much in plain sight of those who ran the platforms. Now we know that the tech companies were not particularly helpful in trying to work with government investigators to unravel the mess, asserting that they were in the dark about the situation, both as the deception was happening and well after it was pointed out to them.
An article in The New York Times described the “dribs and drabs” of information released by the foot-dragging tech giants: “The data they did provide ‘lacked core components that would have provided a fuller and more actionable picture,’ said one of the reports.” That report noted, “Regrettably, it appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress.” Regrets? Apparently, tech has a few, but not enough to do a full mea culpa that might allow us to avoid this kind of disaster in the future.
While all the companies have insisted that they are committed to transparency, the fact is that they have long been resistant to the kind of self-reflection needed to fix the situation for the long term. The only solution is to overhaul their systems in ways that would force them to behave less like bystanders in what will be a never-ending “high-stakes information war.” This is the disturbing term used in one of Senate reports that Renée DiResta, a disinformation expert and director of research at New Knowledge, worked on. It looked at over 1,000 YouTube videos, upward of 100,000 Instagram posts, more than 50,000 Facebook posts and more than 10 million tweets.
Back in July, I interviewed DiResta, who is also the head of policy at the nonprofit group Data for Democracy. She was already sounding the alarm about the lack of information-sharing between tech platforms and independent researchers and the government.
“Each of the platforms has great visibility into their own platform, and third-party researchers have information and signal from across the platforms,” she said. “We’re looking at dissemination platforms and trends and saying: ‘We think this is inauthentic. You’ve got device IDs, you’ve got IP addresses, you’ve got a number of other signals that we don’t have access to.'”
In other words, as was described in more detail this week, the tech giants have been holding back. It’s a crouch posture that I think has its origins in the souring of the industry’s relationship with government agencies in 2013 in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about incursions into tech platforms by the National Security Agency surveillance program Prism.
That moment deeply damaged what had once been a more cooperative back-and-forth between government and tech over issues of national security. While no one in tech was naïve enough to be surprised about some level of government spying on information-rich environments — you rob banks because that is where the money is, after all — the level of it was indeed a shock to some.
I have also heard a number of top tech executives involved in cybersecurity complain that they tried to tell the FBI and other government agencies about potential issues with foreign actors targeting tech companies, but their warnings fell on deaf ears. Engagement, they said, was weak during the Obama administration and became worse under President Donald Trump.
Perhaps that is no surprise either, given what the new reports confirm about the Russians’ preference for the current administration. One report also revealed that fake social media accounts were used to slime special counsel Robert Mueller.
What will happen next?
Washington is taking direct aim at the tech platforms for their lack of cooperation, so we will probably see more regulatory oversight and a push for changes to make them less susceptible to such flagrant abuse.
But in the end, such changes may prove impossible, given how the United States thinks about free speech. As the report noted: “We have conversations about whether or not bots have the right to free speech, we respect the privacy of fake people, and we hold congressional hearings to debate whether YouTube personalities have been unfairly downranked. It is precisely our commitment to democratic principles that puts us at an asymmetric disadvantage against an adversary who enthusiastically engages in censorship, manipulation and suppression internally.” In short: These systems are so easily taken advantage of precisely because they represent our values.
For now, it’s not clear what we can do, except take control of our own individual news consumption. Back in July, in fact, DiResta advised consumer restraint as the first line of defense, especially when encountering information that any passably intelligent person could guess might have been placed by a group seeking to manufacture discord.5 comments on this story
“They’re preying on your confirmation bias,” she said. “When content is being pushed to you, that’s something that you want to see. So, take the extra second to do the fact check, even if it confirms your worst impulses about something you absolutely hate — before you hit the retweet button, before you hit the share button, just take the extra second.”
If we really are on our own in this age of information warfare, as the Senate reports suggest, there’s only one rule that can help us win it: See something, say nothing.