As executives of Google, Facebook. and Twitter settled in for their Tuesday grilling by the US Senate Judiciary Committee, I was glad to see that the senators hadn’t invited a witness from the People’s Republic of China.
After all, the tech giants had been called in to explain their unwitting role in Russia’s extraordinary effort to influence last year’s US presidential election, and their plans to keep it from happening again. And when it comes to shielding Internet users from foreign influence, nobody does it better than the Chinese.
Of course, the US government won’t emulate the Chinese and build a great digital firewall to protect us from Russian propaganda. But that’s just about what we’d have to do to eliminate the threat. Social media was created to make the global sharing of information painless and cost-free. And Facebook et al. are designed to put hardly any limit on what kinds of information may be shared. We could change that, with software filters and human censors that could fend off illicit activities directed from beyond our borders. If the Chinese can do it, so can we.
But we wouldn’t want to, and don’t need to. The problem isn’t that we’re being bombarded by Russian propaganda. It’s that until recently we didn’t realize we were. Now the scope of the problem has been revealed. We know, for instance, that over a two-year period, up to 126 million Americans were reached by Russian messages through Facebook alone. I don’t much mind that; what bothers me is that most of those Americans had no idea they were viewing messages from the Kremlin. We need to fix that.
Start with paid ads. It’s against the law for a foreign government to spend money in an effort to affect our elections. So it’s time for Facebook, Twitter, and Google to crack down on the Russian trolls who purchased online ads on their networks. The companies could generate a public database including the identities of all advertisers. And of course they wouldn’t sell political ads to foreign entities at all. Facebook and Twitter have announced their own plans for enhanced disclosure, but the US House and Senate are working up legislation that would make it mandatory.
But paid ads are a small part of the problem. Facebook, for instance, only sold around $100,000 in ads to Russian buyers. The company estimates that these were seen by about 10 million people. But Russian operatives also posted about 80,000 messages free of charge through personal Facebook accounts and pages set up for the purpose. These messages were seen by about 29 million people, and many of these people liked and shared them, and so on and so on, until 126 million of us had gotten an eyeful.
Again, disclosure offers a defense. It would be far easier to weed out the propaganda posters if Facebook insisted on verifying the identity and location of all users. The company has always requested this information, but it’s easy to set up phony accounts. Surely Facebook could put a stop to this. With 2 billion already signed up, verifying identities would be a monstrous task. But a company with 2016 revenue of $27.6 billion can find a way.
Twitter is a tougher problem. While the company allows prominent people to get verified accounts like @realDonaldTrump, others users need never identify themselves. Many of its 330 million users prefer it that way, and would head for the exits if compelled to identify themselves. So Twitter must be more aggressive in using software to identify and stifle accounts run by foreign agents or automated software bots.
None of these measures would completely prevent Russia or other nations from serving us floods of slanted and inflammatory news stories. But so what?
Fake news wasn’t invented by Russia. Every day we’re inundated with faulty facts and biased commentaries, both foreign and domestic. Nobody seriously expects the government to protect us from it. It’s really up to us to stay informed.
Notice that the Russians aren’t emulating the Voice of America radio broadcasts that proudly blasted across the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The Russians are covering their tracks. They know Americans, perhaps better than we know ourselves. They realized that if they did their dirty work in daylight, most of us would tune it out.
So let’s live up to the Russians’ expectations. What we need from our government and the social networks isn’t censorship, but clarity. Americans will withstand Russian attacks on our democracy, as long as we can see them coming.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.