World Wide Web or Wild Wild West? How Russian Operatives Hijacked American Democracy and Exploited Billion Dollar Tech on a Shoestring

“We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the U.S. public believes is false.” ~William J. Casey

All day today and yesterday, representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before the Senate and House Intelligence Committees on the extent of Russia’s campaign to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election by spreading fake news and propaganda on their sites.

They were raked over the coals and the problem is worse than previously reported.

Facebook now says that 126 million people in the U.S. may have seen posts from Russian-backed agents.

Google says over 1,000 Kremlin-linked ads were uploaded to its YouTube service.

Twitter says over 130,000 messages were tweeted.

Sophisticated in their scope and tactics, the ads used carefully targeted  messages on hot-button topics geared toward specific audiences to sow confusion, anger and discord. Targeted ads on divisive issues such as race and gun ownership were dispensed with the savvy of a digital ad agency.

Organizing Hate

But even more disturbingly, the campaign went beyond ads and actually organized opposing rallies across the street from each other. This was just one of the stories at the center of the testimony today.

Apparently, last May, Russian trolls organized a simultaneous protest and counter-protest in Texas. The first protest, called “Stop The Islamization of Texas,” was organized by a Facebook group with more than 250,000 followers called Heart of Texas. As it turns out, a counter-protest on the same day, at the same time, and at the same location was also organized by Russian operatives, this time using another Facebook group called United Muslims of America, which had more than 328,000 followers. What neither knew was that Russian trolls were behind the creation of the Facebook groups and the protests; encouraging both sides to battle on the streets of Texas.

Russia’s activities in the digital world, pitted Americans on the street in the real world. The kicker? The nefarious campaign cost a total of $200!!

“I don’t think you get it…You have a huge problem on your hands. … You bear the responsibility. You created these platforms and now they are being misused…What we are talking about is a cataclysmic change what we are talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to tech giants testifying before Congress about Russian interference in U.S. elections.

 Extreme Sophistication

The sophistication used by the Russian operatives is astounding and shows a deep understanding of how these platforms work. One ad cited a real October 2016 news story — about a gunman’s battle with Boston police officers and used it to attack Hillary Clinton as anti-police. It received 761 clicks. Another, called for Clinton’s removal from the ballot, citing “dynastic succession of the Clinton family” as a breach of the constitution.  Others piggybacked on a real pro or anti-Trump rallies.

The beneficiary of this disinformation campaign, one U.S. President Donald Trump, has been largely silent on the issue. While much of this activity was aimed at aiding Trump, more disturbingly, there are other indications that it was intended to sow general divisions among Americans.

“People are buying ads on your platform with rubles—they’re political ads,” Franken interrupted. “You put billions of data points together all the time. That’s what I hear that these platforms do; they’re the most sophisticated things invented by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go like, ‘Hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?”

Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today investigating Russian interference on social-media platforms during the 2016 election.

A Warning Unheeded

On November 19, 2016, nine days after Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as “crazy” the idea that fake news played a key role in the U.S. election, then President Barack Obama pulled the wet-behind-the-ears tech billionaire aside and made a personal plea to Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously. He didn’t. It is now clear that Facebook, Google, and Twitter were manipulated, and through them, so were the American people.

Social media is all about getting attention and engagement. With the right attention, you can convert the people who see your content into dedicated fans or dedicated fanatics who will promote your stuff to others who believe what they believe. Since these outlets trade on attention and engagement, they are loathe to kick of users who foster it. Their very business model depends on increased attention, increased engagement, and increased growth.

This is a time of broader reckoning for the tech giants and for the American people. But it is no longer just about their profits or even freedom of the World Wide Web, which is really the Wild Wild West. It is the very soul of our democracy. Russians wanted to pit us against each other. You could argue, given the climate in our country (and the result of the election), that they succeeded.

Avoiding regulation is endemic to Silicon Valley. But if YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are the equivalent of ABC, NBC, and CBS, should they not be subject to the same regulatory mandates? Should our democracy not be protected?

Sound out below.

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