While the first arrests are being reported as part of the investigation of Russian interference in last year’s US presidential election, today the American social media moguls (Facebook, Google and Twitter) will be questioned about the role their platforms played in swinging the election result.
Facebook recently admitted that around $100,000 has been spent on political advertising by 470 fake accounts funded from within Russia, with some arguing that the scale of the problem is probably much bigger. Either the fake activity is proving hard to track or Facebook doesn’t want to admit the gravity of the problem its platform is having with regulating its user base.
The situation for Twitter might look even worse. It has recently been established that 9-15% Titter accounts are bots, with some analysts estimating that over 50% of Twitter activity is bot-related. This does not fare well for Twitter, and is probably the reason why its statement on the issue, even though long, is quite vague. Twitter did admit identifying over 200 fake accounts related to Russian activity, however it did not state how these accounts were acting and/or whether they used political advertising. The post also used a somewhat defensive tone, shifting the focus onto other online tools such as emails and saying their content is mostly spam-based. Social platform’s statement did, however, admit that the majority of fake activity on Twitter comes out of post-Soviet states, including Russia.
As stated in Facebook’s article mentioned above, and also excellently explained in this piece, fake social media accounts very often do not seem to be aiming at promoting pro-Trump messages. Instead, they hop onto the issues polarising mainstream media and participate in public discourse often taking sides on emotionally divisive topics, including immigration, terrorism and politics (with a particular focus on the Russia-US relations). This interesting website, which tracks activity of 600 supposedly fake social media accounts operated from Russia, also confirms this theory. For example, today the most popular topics mentioned by bots on Twitter were Trump, Manhattan and Mueller among others.
Notice the kind of content sources being shared alongside the trending topics – the websites with most mentions are True Pundit, Russia Today and The Gateway Pundit. The last one is considered to be a questionable news source, known for publishing fake news and conspiracy theories.
This Russian-fuelled propaganda is not only taking place on social media with messages being disseminated by fake accounts while influencing political views; a war is also waged against all traditional media outlets. Russia Today, one of the top news sources for bots and a Russian government-affiliated mass media outlet, specialises in publishing confusing content seemingly aiming to undermine all traditional media outlets by making the media industry seem untrustworthy, unprofessional and dubious. The strategy is strikingly similar to the one carried out by President Trump and his team, calling out all major US media outlets (except Fox News owned by Rupert Murdoch) for spreading fake news.
Last year’s Stanford research highlights readers’ inability to discern fake information from genuine, concluding that the easiness of disseminating fake stories is worrying. I already found myself checking not only the news sites, but also the authors of some articles on news-like websites in order to verify whether they’re real people or not. And I still do not have a 100% certainty that the ones I’ve verified as real people are real people indeed. The chances are that, as time goes, it will only get increasingly harder to discern what and who we can trust in the online sphere, especially when forming our political views.
People use opinions of others to support their own beliefs, which means that fake news with a (sometimes barely even hidden) agenda will be increasingly used to polarise people in the way intended by the source. In Russia’s case, it doesn’t even seem to matter which way you should be polarised, as long as you are polarised.
This new-age information war will be, or already is, also waged within other landscapes – not only the political, but also economical and social. An example that comes to mind right away is the climate change debate. Its main problem is the political framing it’s confined within combined with ignorance and/or opposition towards the scientific consensus. It is easy to see how such an issue where facts are often disregarded and the discussion takes a more political angle could easily get hijacked by fake social media accounts and news sites paid for by the governments reluctant to change the status quo, coal lobby or anyone with enough money and social clout.
Soon we might find ourselves increasingly paranoid and questioning everything around us – just like in Orwell’s 1984 as some have already argued. Who will be able to tell a genuine social media account from a fake one? Or a trustworthy media outlet from a fake news factory? Or a real threat facing the planet from a bogus theory?
The governments should be doing their best to protect their people from deceitful interests and information, but the history of people in power using media to manipulate their fellow citizens is hitting a century mark now. It is even sadder, however, to think that the digital social tools that were promising a brighter democratic future for all are, while freely, being used with the purpose of dividing us, not bringing us together.
Cover photo: Jeff Blackler/Rex/Shutterstock