The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, my old Committee, will hold a critical, open hearing today with the three largest social media content providers in the U.S. market—Facebook, Twitter and Google. The big three are, belatedly, acknowledging that Russia used their platforms in the 2016 election cycle to harm American civil society, and that they have to be far more active in preventing foreign efforts to undermine the nation on their platforms. Members on the Committee, most prominently Vice Chairman Mark Warner, have introduced legislative fixes that do not threaten our First Amendment rights and modernize outdated political disclosure rules, but they will do little to counter Moscow’s conspiracy against the nation.
To understand Russia’s information war success against the homeland, one must understand what Russia has done and how it is continuing to do it. Moscow has come up with the dangerously successful formula of playing to our deep fears, penchant for conspiracy and sensationalism, and willingness to pit ourselves against each other. Russia’s assault is indirect, intended to be deniable and operating primarily – but not exclusively – in social cyber space. It is pernicious, long-term and grave to our way of life. It uses our modern mediums against ourselves.
Russia’s most effective strength is its keen mapping of our society and how to push divisive messages to mass audiences. One of Russia’s most important weapons in this war is internet “troll farms,” like the Internet Research Agency (IRA) that generate fake, divisive content and push outrage generated by others. False content providers like this push controversial themes via submissions of “organic content,” and use legal and illegal boosters, such as paid social media space for ads and content, to make sure their word spreads widely across our social media ecosystem. Dimtry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Press Secretary, summed up Russia’s approach to this new means of war when he said, “The new reality (digital reach) creates a perfect opportunity for mass disturbances, or for initiating mass support or mass disapproval.”
Russian messaging is indirect. It does not rely on sponsoring wide-scale content that says vote for Donald Trump – although it did fund 3,000 ad buys for Donald Trump on Facebook. Moscow operates more insidiously to foment extremism and division on issues ranging from race, gay rights and gun control to immigration. It generated content in created forums on Twitter, Facebook and Google, like Being Patriotic, Texas Life, Blacktivists, Secure Borders, LGBT United, United Muslims of America, and Defend the 2nd, to push extremist, fake and damaging content to receptive audiences’ inclined to activate. Russia, for example, hid behind its fake Blacktivist forum to call for widespread protests in Baltimore following the killing of Freddie Gray in 2015. This particular line of effort failed because a local reverend challenged the idea of unidentified outsiders calling for confrontation in his city. Facebook believes Russian content like this has been viewed by at least 129 million users.
Russia correctly recognizes that the social media ecosystem is interconnected and vulnerable, and that introducing fake and conjured content infects the entire network. Russia’s approach is like an accelerant of incivility across our already fraying civil society. Russia has spent the last few years injecting false and/or paid content onto a host of platforms, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube. That content reportedly spreads across mediums, jumping from and to platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, Reddit, 4chan and Imgur. Pinterest, a website known for idea swapping about home décor, fashion and recipes, ended up being an unwitting host of an image Russia originally posted on Twitter that depicted a fake picture of a police officer with a story board saying a “Georgia Police Office was Fired for Flying the Confederate Flag.” The image originated from a Russian forum called “Being Patriotic.”
Russia is aware that American fact checkers cannot keep up with the attack of the false, malicious and inflammatory. Social media providers are getting better at identifying obviously duplicative social media accounts and message accelerant tools like bots, but still fall short. Even human fact checkers, like those at PolitiFact and Snopes, are overwhelmed. Snopes was created in 1994 to debunk urban legends but has evolved into a 16-person operation to assess political spin. PolitiFact started in 2007 as a service of the Tampa Bay Times and has grown to 14 state chapters in addition to a national operation. Both partnered with Facebook last December to debunk patently false political stories that had gone viral on its platform, marking them as “disputed” and not to be promoted in News Feed.
The social media providers own a large part of the solution and should make more moves to keep confidence in the validity of their content. One issue of concern is the co-placement of sponsored content and ads next to real news stories. It used to be clear that The National Enquirer was entertainment and “fake” news. It was most often found in the gossip section at supermarket checkout lines. Its stories were not embedded in personalized news feeds, co-mingled with The New York Times and alike. This blending of earnest journalism with sponsored content is eroding the line between actual reporting and paid injects.
Sensationalism sells, and clicks make money, so getting providers to alter their basic revenue model will be difficult. Facebook recently announced a step in this direction, stating it will sell subscription news bundles from a diverse range of newspapers to readers. If enough people want clean, real news content and sign up for this service, perhaps we can regain a modicum of space for real, clean journalism separate and distinct from “sponsored content” and ad click bait.
There may not be many legislative fixes to counter Russia’s information war, but there is much we can do as a nation to be more resilient going forward.
Revoke foreign propaganda broadcast rights in the United States. Russia Today and Sputnik are propaganda arms of the Kremlin. It is not appropriate in the context of Russia’s information war to grant them broadcast licenses in the homeland. Twitter announced this week that it will no longer host RT ads on its platform. The other providers should follow suit. The Congress and Executive Branch should consider establishing a named entity list of hostile, foreign information providers that are not entitled free access to our democracy. Ending broadcast space in the United States does not address Russia’s indirect information war, but it would be an important signal to Russia – and the American people – that we are aware of the campaign and it is not punishment free.
Social media providers should withdraw company embeds from political campaigns. Facebook, Twitter and Google were well within the law and their business ethics to equally offer staff to the political campaign operations of the two presidential candidates. Both campaigns accepted company advisors to guide them on electorate demographics for ad/sponsored content placement. While legal, it is not in the public interest. Public confidence is hard won and easily lost. Social media providers are not empty vessels; they have algorithms that choose which news, sponsored content and ads are put in our personalized feeds. Stepping back from campaign advisory roles will increase public confidence in the providers political neutrality, recognizing it will slightly reduce their revenue streams.
Reinvest in national civics. Our civil institutions and public discourse are under great stress. Our President has convinced a considerable percentage of the public that unflattering journalism is “fake news” and therefore not legitimate. His deliberate conspiracy theory injects and ahistorical assertions are reducing public faith in institutions and an open press, one of our most cherished rights. Ironically, Russia too is pursuing this objective. But this willful undermining of our civic rights and social norms can only succeed if we become ignorant as a nation of what our forefathers gifted us in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. There needs to be far greater emphasis in our schools on the teaching of American civics and vocal, supportive advocacy for civil institutions from our elected officials. New public service programs on our form of government are vital. Our system of checks and balances is under attack, and attackers have correctly weaponized our inadequate understanding of basic facts about our form of government.
Public–Private Civil Liberties Oversight. It is not fair or appropriate for the nation to outsource permissible content monitoring exclusively to the private sector. The providers have a business requirement to pursue profit, not work for the public good. However, they do have a business interest in safe space for legitimate content. This provides a basis for more cooperation between civil society, governments and social media providers on finding a new consensus of the online boundaries. But the government must play a role in defining the public square. Industry and government should set up joint centers to evaluate content and form consensus where possible. There will always be disagreements on some percentage of content reviews, but industry will be better protected having government participate in the process, and government will play the large role we expect it to play in protecting the homeland.
Too many of us are downplaying the scope and scale of Russia’s information war against the United States. We must harden the homeland against foreign, comprehensive information operations. There are no quick or easy legislative fixes. Social content providers need to accelerate steps they are taking to clean up their news feeds by keeping them legitimate and separate from sponsored content. Congress should pass legislation creating a new named entity list that gives a legal basis for banning foreign, hostile networks from broadcasting in the United States. But the biggest thing to be done is improving our national understanding of American civics. We are vulnerable because we are ill-informed and too easily aroused to division.