Information Warfare: Social Media and the Unfreedom of Speech

Rowan Houlihan, Editor

The last decade has shown an increase in foreign-spread disinformation through social media, which has been especially highlighted in recent US and EU elections. In May 2018, Christopher Wylie, a whistle blower from Cambridge Analytica, told Congress, “If a foreign actor dropped propaganda leaflets by aeroplane over Florida or Michigan, that would universally be condemned a hostile act. But this is what is happening online.” [1] He went on to argue that information warfare should be taken seriously, but unfortunately, disinformation on social media has already deeply infected Western democracies. This is evidenced by foreign interference in recent elections of the US and the EU as well as civil unrest directly linked to foreign spread propaganda and conspiracies.  

Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), popularly known as the government funded troll farm, remains a key enactor of weaponizing disinformation. [2] While the intricacies of their attacks have changed since early 2010’s elections, some key components remain the same: The IRA makes fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and other popular social media apps. [3] They spew propaganda in the form of homemade memes, statuses, and the like. The IRA’s massive army of bots spread these messages automatically, helping the messages gain popularity. Real people then believe the content and reshare it themselves. Russia endearingly refers to these people as ‘useful idiots’ for allowing themselves to be hosts to their parasitic ploy, essentially doing their labor for free. [4]

It is important to stress that disinformation affects everyone on the political spectrum. For example, the Russian playbook in the 2016 election included convincing Trump supporters to vote, while simultaneously targeting those on the left either not to vote by repeating the message Hillary Clinton would win through polls, or by enticing them to vote for a third party candidate. The propaganda goes beyond elections: these fake accounts have been known to frequently sow racial discord in America by organizing Facebook events on the left and right, some even on the same day. [5] In Germany, Russia used similar tactics to increase the far right and anti-facist groups, such as Antifa West Berlin and Antifa Nord Ost. [6] These methods to sow discord have been applied to many countries, regardless of ideology, and will continue to be as long as social media companies remain unregulated. 

Due to the asymmetric rivalry between Russia and its Western democracies, it engages with disinformation warfare in order to sabotage elections and stir civil unrest. They can elect leaders that are more friendly to Russia, such as Trump, or create domestic upheaval to brag how great Russia is in comparison to the targeted countries.  However, this problem is not limited to Russia as the actor nor the US and EU as potential victims. Many other countries have done the same as Russia, including China and Iran, just as others have fallen prey to the same playbook. [7, 8, 9] As long as social media continues to exist in it’s highly unregulated form, disinformation will continue to harm our institutions and societies. 

Social media has no gate-keepers for truth. This free-for-all allows conspiracy theories to proliferate and hidden actors with nefarious motives to hide behind innocuous disguises. Even worse, due to social-media’s free reign to collect data on its users, it’s now easier than ever to target individuals with ads and accounts that personalize propaganda. This tailored content is more likely to influence a person than a TV ad marketed to millions. Algorithms now do most of the work for the propagandists.

Apart from fact checking, social media companies should regulate verified accounts and show more transparently who is marketing what to whom. One can still maintain their privacy if they wish, but by verifying the user, this ensures against the use of bots that spread disinformation. The marketing aspect addresses unverified content, and allows people to know if their movement is being coopted or who they are being targeted by with a specific ad. People have the right to know who is influencing them through ads, events, and other content on their screens.

Recently, governments have started to question the tech giants’ unregulated power. The US is reexamining Section 230 to potentially allow social media companies to be held legally responsible for issues related to their platforms. [10] In 2018 the EU passed the European Data Protection Regulation, but this left Ireland in charge of everything, and it has so far only charged Twitter with a fine since its enactment. [11, 12] The EU is having talks again about different strategies and fine, but it would be best for the EU and US to work together to figure out how to prevent election interference and social disruption through disinformation. Both sides have a vested interest in cooperating.With most tech giants operating out of the US, it could help pass restrictions domestically. This would save the tech firms the hefty fees the EU seeks to fine them with. Most of all, this move would help wind down social unrest, decrease polarization, and ensure that our democracies remain intact.

[1] Gold, Ashley. “Cambridge Analytica whistleblower warns of ‘new Cold War’ online.” Politico, 16 May 2018, https://www.politico.eu/article/cambridge-analytica-whistleblower-christopher-wylie-warns-of-new-cold-war-online/.

[2] US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “Exposing Russia’s Effort to Sow Discord Online: The Internet Research Agency and Advertisements.” US House of Representatives, https://intelligence.house.gov/social-media-content/.

[3] Alba, Davey. “How Russia’s Troll Farm is Changing Tactics Before the Fall Election.” The New York Times, 29 March 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/29/technology/russia-troll-farm-election.html.

[4] Milbank, Dana. “Putin’s Useful Idiots.” Washington Post, 20 Feb. 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/putins-useful-idiots/2018/02/20/c525a192-1677-11e8-b681-2d4d462a1921_story.html.

[5] Seetharaman, Deepa. “Russian-Backed Facebook Accounts Staged Events Around Divisive Issues.” The Wall Street Journal, 30 Oct. 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-backed-facebook-accounts-organized-events-on-all-sides-of-polarizing-issues-1509355801.

[6] Apuzzo, Matt and Adam Satariano. “Russia is Targeting Europe’s Elections. So Are Far-Right Copycats.” The New York Times, 12 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/12/world/europe/russian-propaganda-influence-campaign-european-elections-far-right.html?auth=login-email&login=email.

[7] Goldman, Adam, Sheera Frankel, and Julian E. Barnes. “Facebook Takes Down Fake Pages Created in China Aimed at Influencing US Election.” The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/22/us/politics/facebook-china-election-interference.html?auth=login-email&login=email.

[8] Tabatabai, Ariane. “Iran’s goal is to undermine democracy. Americans shouldn’t take the bait.” Washington Post, 22 Oct. 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/22/iran-interference-election-dni-ratcliffe/.

[9] Jakes, Lara. “As Protests in South America Surged, So did Russian Trolls on Twitter, US Finds.” The New York Times, 19 Jan. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/19/us/politics/south-america-russian-twitter.html?auth=login-email&login=email.

[10] McCabe, David. “Tech Companies Shift their Posture on a Legal Shield, Wary of Being Left Behind.” The New York Times, 15 Dec. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/15/technology/tech-section-230-congress.html.

[11] Satariano, Adam. “Big Fines and Strict Rules Unveiled Against ‘Big Tech’ in Europe.” The New York Times, 15 Dec. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/15/technology/big-tech-regulation-europe.html.

[12] Schechner, Sam. “Twitter Fined for Breaking EU Privacy Law in First for US Tech Firm.” The Wall Street Journal, 15 Dec. 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/twitter-fined-546-000-in-first-cross-border-gdpr-case-for-u-s-tech-firm-11608027373.

Image: https://interestingengineering.com/social-media-plays-a-huge-role-in-disinformation-campaigns-with-70-countries-on-the-list