Russian meddling and American desperation

BY SEEMA SIROHI| IN Digital Media | 25/10/2017
Last week, three senators introduced “The Honest Ads Act” to regulate political advertising on the Internet and plug the gap in existing laws.
SEEMA SIROHI on the US crisis created by Internet giants
Democratic Party senators introduce the bill

 

Washington Oct. 24 – The true dimensions of Russian interference in the US presidential election through social media platforms are still unknown but what’s clear is that Russian trolls not only pushed a pro-Donald Trump agenda through fake interactions on Facebook and Twitter, they also exploited race, class and gender divisions in American society.

It’s difficult to overestimate the shock the revelations delivered to the American psyche in general and the US establishment’s confidence in particular. In short, the guardians of the country can’t believe they were robbed in broad daylight by forces of innovation and technology they cherish so deeply. 

Representatives of the three big companies are scheduled to testify on Nov. 1 in front of the House Intelligence Committee in the US Congress. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has adopted a humbler stance since last November when former President Barack Obama pulled him aside at a conference in Peru to alert him about the problem. From arrogant denials, Silicon Valley kings are moving to a quieter and grudging concession that the Russian invasion of social platforms was far wider and deeper than they ever imagined.

Since the jolt was so off the Richter scale in a manner of speaking, the response has been slow in coming. It is also confused, haphazard and inadequate. The Republicans don’t want to crackdown on Facebook, Google, Twitter and other companies because it would amount to admitting their candidate may have won by subterfuge. The Democrats are pushing but don’t have the numbers in the US Congress.

"The guardians of the country can’t believe they were robbed in broad daylight by forces of innovation and technology they cherish so deeply"

 

A US special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed in May to investigate Russian interference and potential collusion between agents working on behalf of Moscow and the Trump campaign, which spent $70 million in targeted Facebook advertising. 

US laws prohibit foreign nationals and entities from giving money to political campaigns and buying ads that explicitly endorse or oppose a candidate. But they only cover broadcast, cable and satellite networks and do not mention the Internet. No one foresaw the massive gap and the US establishment is struggling to plug it. 

Last week, three senators – two Democrats and one Republican – introduced “The Honest Ads Act” to regulate political advertising on the Internet and put some of the onus on companies to disclose who is buying the ads – something the traditional media like print, radio and television are required to do.

Facebook, Google, Twitter and others will also be required to store all political ads so one could go back and see the targeting patterns. Any platform with 50 million monthly viewers will have to maintain a “public file” of ads bought by individuals or groups who spend more than $500 on ads a year. 

The idea is to make political advertising more transparent and accountable. Online platforms will have to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that political ads are not “directly or indirectly” bought by foreign nationals to influence elections. They will have to allow “online public inspection” and keep records of what audiences were targeted.

"Any platform with 50 million monthly viewers will have to maintain a “public file” of ads bought "

 

Senator Mark Warner, Democrat, and one of the sponsors of the bill said that it was not “too much to ask that our most innovative digital companies work with us by exercising additional judgment and providing some transparency.” The big three companies have not explicitly endorsed the bill but have made some noises about finding the best solution.

Their lobbyists and lawyers are at work in Washington to ensure the regulations for the bill are according to their taste and needs. The first response of Facebook was to plead helplessness – there are too many ads, too many users and too many messages. It’s impossible to say what’s political and what is not. 

Non industry-related critics say while the bill is a good move, it falls far short of what’s really needed to address troll farms and automated bots spreading unrest, social discontent and other malaise. 

During the 2016 presidential election, fake accounts linked to Russian operators had hundreds of millions of interactions with potential US voters, according to Columbia University’s Jonathan Albright who broke the story of how deep the penetration went. Toll accounts exploited already fragile race relations by repeating sharp views on both sides, giving everything a political twist, Albright’s research showed.

Muslim and Black Americans were particular targets. The fake interactions could have shaped views and influenced votes. Words such as “illegal,” “welfare state,” “Sharia law” and “Patriotic” appeared on Facebook pages created by imposters and resulted in millions of interactions with real voters at the height of the campaign in the summer of 2016.

Albright’s study of six Russia-linked Facebook pages showed more than 18 million interactions but there were hundreds of such pages in existence, which haven’t all been detected and shut down. The number of exchanges is possibly in the hundreds of millions, he has said in interviews. 

"The oversight measures in the bill do not address the basic problem – Facebook and Twitter allowing one person to open multiple pages and accounts"

 

Zuckerberg acknowledged only last month that Russia-linked accounts bought thousands of ads. His chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, finally said recently that “things happened on our platform that shouldn’t have happened.”

Google had similar invasions on Gmail and YouTube.  As did Instagram.

The imposters apparently took their cue from none other than Donald Trump to go after people he criticized and ridiculed on Twitter. No sooner than he targeted a Democrat, they posted articles corroborating his view or simply going after mainstream media as “fake news.”

But the Russian trolls were not simply pro-Trump or anti-Clinton – they took both sides of an issue whether it was police violence against African Americans or anti-immigrant feeling among Whites to exacerbate divisions by appearing both sympathetic and in opposition.

But political ads are not the only way imposters can intrude on social platforms. If they exploited the ads today, they can target companies tomorrow and banking the day after.

Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian columnist for Bloomberg, wrote that the Honest Ads Act is too narrowly focused and doesn’t have the reach to shut down Russian troll farms. Keeping a public archive would only help communications specialists because few members of the public would have the time to wade through digital archives to figure out how they were targeted.

The oversight measures in the bill do not address the basic problem – Facebook and Twitter allowing one person to open multiple pages and accounts. “The only way to prevent abuse of digital platforms is to make them introduce tough identification rules and cut off anonymous and semi-anonymous payment methods for advertisers. When the platforms are recognized as publishers, it should become impossible to broadcast content anonymously, without the author’s true, verified identity being known at least to the platforms themselves,” Bershidsky wrote.  

“It should also be impossible to buy an ad in the US without a US bank account,” he added. The bill in its current form creates only “the semblance of a regulatory effort.” 

Despite the media focus and outrage in the US, Russian troll farms appear to still be active. The trolls most recently intervened in the debates on Trump neglecting hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and his fight over football players “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest police violence against African Americans. 

Any open society needs to worry about what happened in the US and is still happening.

 

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