There’s little disagreement that Russia’s intrusion into our elections using social media poses a serious threat to our democracy. While Russia is complicit, they did not do this on their own, nor did they need to develop complex tools to do it. In fact, we made it very easy for them. Facebook, Google, and others gave them the tools to use and the Russians simply took advantage of the opportunity.
The tools are the technologies these companies have created to help the advertising industry target us so effectively with their ads. These tools let companies target specific groups with tailored messages made just for them because they know so much about each of their targets. It’s called micro-tagging and utilizes all the personal information Facebook and Google are amassing.
Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott, researchers at New America and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, just published a report, “Digital Deceit,” in which they take these tech companies and advertisers to task for the tools or, as they call them, “weapons” they created that are now being used by our adversaries. The clearly written report is available as a free download and worth reading.
They note: “The central problem of disinformation corrupting American political culture is not Russian spies or a particular social media platform. The central problem is that the entire industry is built to leverage sophisticated technology to aggregate user attention and sell advertising. There is an alignment of interests between advertisers and the platforms. And disinformation operators are typically indistinguishable from any other advertiser. Any viable policy solutions must start here.”
The Internet has been built on the model that relies on advertising to pay its way, a decision made decades ago. Companies offer us free services in exchange for watching their ads and giving up our privacy.
And we know how they do that. They track us, measure us, see where we live and work, what we buy, what we like and what we don’t. They know what sites we visit, what cars we drive and what we do throughout the day. They’re able to characterize each of us to a level never before possible. They do it because they can then provide their customers with accurate information to make their advertising more effective and efficient.
But these same tools designed that make advertising so effective are available to the Russians or any other entity, legitimate or not. The industry has done nothing to prevent these tools from being used by others that have their own agenda. They, too, can create “ad” campaigns to change popular opinion or deliver propaganda for their own advantage.
How effective are these tools? The Internet Research Agency, one of the Russian groups found to be influencing the election, spent just $46,000 on Facebook ads in the run-up to the election. That small amount allowed them to reach 150 million Americans!
Facebook and Google are belatedly making some fixes. Facebook is proposing that the accuracy of news stories be rated by readers as a way, many believe, to absolve themselves of responsibility. Facebook is discussing segregating news stories from news of our friends, and both are trying to block fake companies.
But experts don’t believe these small fixes are enough and believe much more needs to be done. As long as the industry continues to advance their tools, the situation will just get worse. That’s because Google and Facebook are built upon selling advertising and making their advertising increasingly effective. That helps the Russians and others market their own messages more effectively. They’re just selling a different set of products.
Today we’re now seeing fake news stories, some with doctored photos. But soon we’ll need to contend with technology that will make it possible to create fake videos of candidates appearing to be making fake speeches saying things they never said.