Facebook, Twitter And The Struggle To Stop Election Interference

Facebook (FB) Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg likes to say his company was designed to bring people together, but recent U.S. election interference showed it also could drive a wedge between them.

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The dark side of social media came to light after the 2016 presidential contest. Probes revealed that the social media platforms of Facebook, Twitter (TWTR) and the YouTube unit of Alphabet (GOOGL) were used to conduct misinformation campaigns by Russian state actors. Designed to create confusion and discord among U.S. voters, the moves polarized, agitated and misled.

Now, as the midterm elections near, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are spending huge amounts of time and money to stop election interference. They aim to halt operatives in Russia, China and Iran bent on disrupting U.S. elections.

But they’re probably too late, some experts believe. A slow-footed response in the U.S. after 2016 means Russia et al will continue to freely use social media platforms to sow dissent, they contend. And it’s not clear the companies believe they can control it enough to keep lawmakers from regulating the industry.

Indeed, instances of potential trouble keep popping up. This week, Facebook announced it deleted more than 800 publishers and accounts from its site for delivering political messages that violated spam policies.

Change Not Easy

“Required changes won’t be fast or easy,” Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey recently told a congressional hearing.

“We know that Russians and other bad actors are going to continue to try to abuse our platform, before the midterms, probably during the midterms, after the midterms, and around other events and elections,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said in a recent media conference call.

Alex Stamos, former head of security for Facebook, is even less merciful in his assessment of election interference.

“America’s adversaries believe that it is still both safe and effective to attack U.S. democracy using American technologies and the freedoms we cherish,” Stamos wrote in a recent blog post. “Stymied by a lack of shared understanding of what happened, the government’s sclerotic response has left the United States profoundly vulnerable to future attacks.”

Election Interference: How To Stop It?

It’s unclear what role the government — struggling itself to keep up with technology — can play to stop election meddling. While Congress has threatened social media companies with new rules, no regulatory specifics are ready for release.

Further hampering the effort is that social networks were caught off guard and slow to respond. After the election, further abuses surfaced, thus causing social networks to respond more aggressively. Only after the industry reacted did the government respond with investigations and hearings.

So for now, social media companies police themselves to tamp down election interference. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told Congress recently the company continuously searches to identify false news and fake accounts.

Sandberg said Facebook has built a force of 20,000 people devoted to the task. She estimates that 3% to 4% of its 2.3 billion monthly active users are fake.

To weed out bad actors, Facebook said it disabled 1.27 billion fake accounts from October 2017 to March 2018. Facebook excised the accounts partly with the help of artificial intelligence.

Twitter’s 10 Million Accounts

Twitter says it scours up to 10 million accounts each week, looking for misuse. Each day it stops around 500,000 bot accounts from logging in. Twitter has removed millions of fake or suspicious accounts, including bots and trolls. It uses artificial intelligence and similar tools to curtail and suppress state-sponsored misinformation campaigns.

Alphabet also has been aggressively culling its network to prevent election interference. In late August, Google deleted 58 accounts with ties to Iran from its YouTube unit and other sites.

“In recent months, we’ve detected and blocked attempts by state-sponsored actors in various countries to target political campaigns, journalists, activists, and academics located around the world,” Kent Walker, vice president for global affairs, said in a blog post.

But social media companies are caught in a quandary. Some users criticize them for allowing abusive posts, while others blast them for removing content and curtailing free speech.

Election Interference: Zuckerberg Weighs In

Zuckerberg, in a 3,000-word essay published last month, weighed in on how the Facebook platform was manipulated during the 2016 election interference. He cautioned that hackers are formidable.

Zuckerberg said Facebook hadn’t expected foreign actors to launch coordinated information operations with networks of fake accounts spreading division and misinformation.

“While we’ve made steady progress, we face sophisticated, well-funded adversaries,” he wrote. “They won’t give up, and they will keep evolving. We need to constantly improve and stay one step ahead.”

Zuckerberg said Facebook has now built systems that block millions of fake accounts every day. The company takes down the vast majority within minutes of their creation, he said.

“Like most security issues, this is an arms race. The numbers are so large because our adversaries use computers to create fake accounts in bulk,” he wrote.

Starting With A Web Brigade

The trouble began in 2015 with a well-funded Russian web brigade, called the Internet Research Agency. The group reportedly had 400 employees and was based in St. Petersburg, Russia. It used Facebook and Twitter to disseminate an onslaught of politically charged, false content in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Using fake stories, advertisements and tweets, they targeted candidates and causes. They fostered distrust in political institutions, and spread discord.

Those concerns flared when data political consultant Cambridge Analytica commandeered information from 87 million Facebook user accounts. The data mining firm got a national reputation during the 2016 elections. Its client list included the Trump presidential campaign.

As many as 126 million people saw Russian-generated propaganda, Facebook said in a Senate hearing last November.

U.S. intelligence agencies last year said they had “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the activity, which he denies.

Election Meddling Goes Viral

Some say the election interference problem has gone viral. Stamos, the former Facebook security chief, wrote an article, “How the U.S. Has Failed to Protect the 2018 Election,” for the Lawfare blog site. In it, he said the attacks by Russia set an example that other countries like Iran and China now follow.

Recent history has shown that once a large, powerful nation-state demonstrates that a technique works, others rush in. They follow up with cheaper, often more nimble versions of the same capability, he said.

“This underlines a sobering reality,” he said. “Their proven playbook is now ‘in the wild’ for anyone to use.”

The problem seems to be spreading. Before France’s presidential election in early 2017, Facebook deleted 30,000 fake accounts. It also took down “tens of thousands” of accounts before Germany’s national elections last fall.

How To Combat World Powers

Last month, all three companies scrubbed their networks of fake accounts tied to Iran’s state broadcasting arm. The disclosures widened concerns about how foreign governments are using social media to foster election interference and advance their geopolitical aims.

Christopher Porter, the chief intelligence strategist of cybersecurity company FireEye (FEYE), said his company has identified a suspected influence operation. It appears to originate from Iran and targets audiences in the U.S., U.K., Latin America and the Middle East.

World-class cyberwarfare exhibited by Russia, China and Iran also is emerging in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

“The activity we have uncovered highlights that multiple actors continue to engage in and experiment with online, social media-driven influence operations as a means of shaping political discourse,” Porter wrote in a blog post in late August. “Despite increased government attention and private-sector focus, cyberattacks are increasing along every dimension.”

Congress Threatens Facebook, Twitter

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have threatened the social media companies with regulations if they don’t halt the election meddling assault. Lawmakers want assurances the tech industry is prepared for the November midterm elections.

Facebook and Twitter have testified four times before Congress. Lawmakers grilled them on foreign interference in U.S. elections and how they plan to prevent it. They want offensive, harmful or misleading content taken down more quickly.

“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, at a hearing early last month. “Where we go from here is an open question.”

At the committee hearing, Twitter’s Dorsey and Facebook’s Sandberg maintained that they are better prepared now to combat foreign interference. But they acknowledge they need to do more work.

Facebook, Twitter Fake Accounts

“We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act,” Sandberg told the panel. “This interference was completely unacceptable and we will keep fighting.”

Dorsey referred to Twitter as a public square. He said his company also was unprepared for the problems initially faced.

“Abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots and human coordination, disinformation campaigns and divisive filter bubbles, that’s not a healthy public square,” Dorsey told the committee.

“We’ve learned about how vulnerable social media is to corruption and misuse,” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at the hearing. “The very worst examples of this are absolutely chilling and a threat to our democracy.”

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