Orchestrating info warfare was easy, fixing businesses is much harder
The truth of Russian meddling in global politics through social media platforms is starting to emerge. It isn’t just, as we humourously suggested in EV#86 a group of bored, but digital savvy teenagers in Veles, Macedonia.
It’s becoming clear that it is much more widely orchestrated, not just by Russia and their agents but by social networks (Facebook, and punching above its weight, Twitter) abetting them.
- How Russian agents spent $200 to organise protests and counterprotests in a Texas town. This resulted in real-world showdowns between the two sides.
- The NY Times shows examples of Russian-bought Facebook ads.
- Facebook reckons that 146m Americans saw ads bought by Russian agents, above the company’s initial estimate of close to zero. (Some members of US Congress want Facebook to notify every member affected.)
- Twitter’s sales pitch to Russia Today offering them 15% reach of their US audience during the election for $3m.
- Thomas Rid, a cybersecurity historian, explains cleary why Twitter’s bot problem is so pervasive & pernicious.
- Facebook’s segmentation offering outlining how to use Ad platform to slice, dice & divide Americans by their political leanings.
- Nick Bilton: “What have we done”. Early Facebook employees rue “the monster they have created.”
- The AP unearths evidence of Russian infowar far outside the US, stretching even to the Vatican.
- Leslie Miley, a Twitter exec, sounded the alarm of Russian botnets on the network back in 2015. He says “Anything we would do that would slow down signups, delete accounts, or remove accounts had to go through the growth team. They were more concerned with growth numbers than fake and compromised accounts.”
- Twitter botnets are still stoking racial divisions in a contested gubernatorial race in the American state of Virginia.
I used to run PeerIndex, which analysed 316m users on Twitter in real-time, predicting behaviours and scoring their trustworthiness and resonance in a highly granular fashion. My experience is that flagging, tracking and identifying bots or implementing mechanisms to audit who is buying ads is a pain, but is far from technically insurmountable.
This boils down to business decisions, the sorts of things Mustafa Suleyman alluded to in last week’s Exponential View:
We also need to rethink the standard metrics our industry uses to measure progress — investment round valuations, “active users”… and revenues are the crudest of proxies for company success, and largely ignore externalities…
In any case, Facebook has admitted as much. Taking steps to mitigate abuse will hurt its profitability. In their recent earnings announcement, Zuckerberg says the company was shifting its focus to “time well spent”. Tristan Harris, the promulgator of the ‘time well spent’ movement doubts Facebook’s intention. (See EV#33 for a discussion on Tristan Harris and time well spent.)
My friends at The Economist pull no punches, either:
Facebook, Google and Twitter were supposed to save politics as good information drove out prejudice and falsehood. Something has gone very wrong and… [the] stakes for liberal democracy could hardly be higher.
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