From Russia with Like

Published on the 09/11/2017 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

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What to do when your platform is loved by users and Russian propagandists alike?

US Congress is ready for a fight. As details of extensive Russian interference in the 2016 election continue to emerge, the governing body has ordered Facebook, Twitter and Google to Washington to explain just what’s happened, how bad it is, and what’s being done.

A quick catch up: As far back as March there have been reports that Russia has been using Twitter and Facebook to, among other things, foist conspiracy theories, misinformation, and ‘fake news’ onto the US public in the run up to the 2016 US general election.

Not an impressive feat in itself, but for the scope and success with which they’ve apparently carried that mission out: It’s estimated that 126 million Americans have been reached by Russian propaganda on Facebook alone.

What kind of propaganda? One example: A Facebook page ‘Vietnam Vets of America’ – with a following of around 200,000 – is known for publishing politically divisive material. It was recently revealed to be Russian-owned. (Note, the real Vietnam Veterans of America has a mere 120,000 followers). Other reports show the Russians playing both sides of divisive issues, pushing Hillary Clinton conspiracy theories, both questioning and supporting the validity of Trump’s election, and even playing both sides of the NFL ‘kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner’ nonsense, et al.

It’s not just the corrupting of hearts and minds that has captured the Russians interest. More egregiously, fake “vote by text” tweets – which technically constitutes voter fraud – have been discovered.

Much of the propaganda has been produced by a group known as ‘Internet Research Agency’, a company that conducts online influence operations on behalf of the Russian government. From what we know the IRA employs hundreds of staff – at least 90 of which are located in the US – and spent about $2.3 million on its 2016 US election work alone. (It’s highly unlikely that the St. Petersburg-based IRA is the only arm of the Russian operation.)

So what’s being done by these platforms to curb the Russian scourge? Precious little so far, hence the congressional hearings.

In response to the trouble, those platforms have gone into defensive mode, sending lawyers in lieu of executives to report to congress last week, and underplaying the scope of the issue. Facebook, for example, originally estimated that 10 million American’s had been audience to Russian propaganda – that number has now ballooned to 126 million. Twitter has now admitted to uncovering 2,700 propaganda accounts tied to Russia, quite the jump from the original 200 it originally admitted to.

And thanks, in part, to that passivity, the Russian challenge has so far gone unanswered.

“This country has to have some kind of cyber warfare deterrent capacity,” said Sen. Angus King at last Thursday’s hearing.

“Right now, there’s no price to be paid for meddling in our democracy…Our adversaries have to understand that, if they’re going to undertake a campaign like this, there will be a price to be paid.”

“Right now, that doesn’t exist, and all of what the Russians did last year has basically been a free pass. And I think that’s a very difficult problem.”

In 2017 the question of ‘who is responsible for the technology once it’s created?’ is one increasingly understood by the general population. Kumail Nanjiani, star of HBO series ‘Silicon Valley’ described his experience meeting with tech startups in a Twitter thread last week:

“We meet ppl eager to show off new tech,” he wrote, “Often we’ll see tech that is scary…stuff w obv ethical issues…And we’ll bring up our concerns to them. We are realizing that ZERO consideration seems to be given to the ethical implications of tech.”

“They don’t even have a pat rehearsed answer. They are shocked at being asked. Which means nobody is asking those questions….Only ‘Can we do this?’ Never ‘should we do this?’ We’ve seen that same blasé attitude in how Twitter or Facebook deal w abuse/fake news.”

Of course, no one cares what an actor thinks, but he’s right to be questioning this ‘business is business and nothing else’ ethical model.

And of questions, there are plenty: Are the platform creators ultimately responsible for end-user behaviour? Both foreign and domestic? Can you build an empire and then absolve yourself responsibility for what it does?

There’s a tension between our right to privacy – and, in the internet age, our right to anonymity – and security itself. How do we maintain one without compromising the other?

If the power exists to identify and disarm nefarious actors on these platforms, should that power even be used? Used by whom? Self-regulation? Government intervention?

And just how would the state regulate such a fast moving industry with any degree of efficacy?

That last one is a question that Congress is now beginning to consider more seriously.

“You bear this responsibility,” said California senator Diane Feinstein during her congressional grilling of Facebook, Twitter and Google last week.

“You’ve created these platforms and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.”

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