Bottom Line Up Front
- As the extent of Russia’s manipulation of Facebook became more apparent following the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the social media company reluctantly investigated itself and discovered serious shortcomings.
- In the aftermath of the Saudi-ordered murder of Jamal Khashoggi, there was renewed attention to the use of social media by nation-states for nefarious ends, including Twitter bots and troll farms to harass critics.
- The trend of malevolent actors using social media will continue since it is by far the most powerful non-military force available to governments in terms of influence and propaganda.
- Unlike in the past, the future may be ruled not by those countries with the most powerful militaries, but those with the best access to data and a sophisticated understanding of how to employ it.
As the scope of Russia’s use of social media platforms to sow disinformation and spread malign influence became apparent after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Facebook belatedly investigated itself and, rather unsurprisingly, discovered serious shortcomings. But rather than undertake wholesale reform, Facebook used its vast resources to deflect otherwise valid criticism of how the platform is used by nations to shape or stifle public opinion and discredit those whose critiques gained traction. This is just the latest example of how social media titans have grown powerful, yet still remain largely unaccountable for the data they gather and how their platforms are utilized. The impact of state-run disinformation campaigns that rely on social media ‘echo chambers’ is so enduring that even when uncovered and made public, these campaigns can still be incredibly effective. Humans are hardwired to believe information that fits with and reinforces their extant worldview, regardless of its authenticity. At current, there is no greater source of information tailored to reaffirm, mislead and provide confirmation to existing cognitive biases than social media. Erroneous reporting is often consumed without scrutiny or even further interrogating the veracity of the source.
The amount of personal data collected by social media giants is also unprecedented and in many ways, access to data—not money, energy resources or advanced weaponry—is now the most valuable asset available to nation-states. Most governments have nowhere near the amount of personal details that users of social media freely volunteer to corporations. Now governments are simply leveraging the information available on these platforms for their own purposes. The power of such information has always been known by intelligence agencies that once struggled simply to obtain scraps of personal information. Now, social media platforms contain de facto personality workups of millions of people that can be used to groom potential sources and develop target packages. It is impossible to overstate the power of such data, and rogue states and their intelligence services have taken notice.
In the aftermath of the Saudi government’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate, there were press reports of troll farms run by the royal family whose sole purpose was to discredit critics of the government. The Saudis use social media like an automated cudgel, with armies of thousands of bots and human accounts spreading misinformation through hashtags and range of virtual swarming techniques. Riyadh has been particularly aggressive with Twitter, using it against other Gulf countries, as well as against journalists and regime critics, even working with a Twitter employee to access the accounts of dissidents. More recently, the AP reported on an aggressive campaign by a suspected Saudi hacker who impersonated a BBC journalist in an attempt to get a prominent Saudi opposition figure to click on a malicious link to gain access his email inbox.
During the Cold War, there seemed to be an agreed upon set of “rules of the game” between adversarial states, but the current environment is completely devoid of boundaries, as nation-states see private sector companies as more valuable troves of data than rival intelligence agencies. The trend of malevolent actors harnessing social media for nefarious purposes will continue, since it is by far the most powerful non-military force available to governments in terms of influence and propaganda. In countries like Myanmar, the Philippines, and Cambodia, where media literacy remains comparatively low, governments have already exploited social media in an attempt to influence the population. In China, there are numerous examples of the government collecting data on its citizens to control them while minimizing dissent.
Who will rule the future? It may not be those countries with the most powerful militaries but rather, those countries—and their proxies—who can gain unfettered and consistent access to data. This data can be used in conjunction with a range of techniques, relying on artificial intelligence, so-called ‘deep fakes’ and the proliferation of advanced social bots. The Congressional hearings that have occurred thus far border on farcical, as septuagenarian senators with only the most tenuous grasp of social media and emerging technologies ask anodyne questions to tech company leaders. The issue does not receive the attention it deserves. The potential of so much personal data is such that every government is using it for their own ends. In this new world where data is the currency of geopolitics, states and their citizens are more likely to be impacted by terms of service agreements than institutional agreements and international treaties.