So, what is the impact of the findings of the huge indictments against thirteen Russians over fraudulent use of social media to sow political discontent and affect the 2016 elections?
Let’s start with a copy of the indictment, which is available on Politico.
One of the most glaring problems is count 41. Identities of real US citizens were used to open social media accounts, paypal, and various vehicles for subsequent “propaganda” efforts. I have not heard a lot of stories of people’s credit being ruined by this – I say this while noting at the same time the damage from the Equifax hack seems to have gotten worse, and there could be a connection.
In 2016, a fake Facebook account was opened in my name, but it was caught quickly by a friend and closed before any content was posted. This has not happened to me on Twitter. That’s one reason why the Twitter verification issue can matter – but it is hard to get if you are not an “established celebrity”. When I opened Instagram in 2014, I found a dummy account already there, with no content. I had to close it to open my legitimate account. I do not use Snapchat, but it’s possible an account could exist that I don’t know about. It’s easy to imagine the possibility of an ordinary person’s being “framed” by a crime associated with this whole effort, although I haven’t heard that this has actually happened in conjunction with the Russian problem. Still, for a particular individual it could cause an existential crisis.
I also note that I don’t normally run “other people’s campaigns” with my own social media pages, but I have to come back to that again. Still, I suppose this could have happened.
Let’s move on to the whole issue of fake news, ads bought by fake companies, fake social media groups, and even the organizing of rallies and protests. I generally don’t go to “rallies” unless I really know they are reputable. I work alone rather than reporting through a group – which is itself a double-edged assertion.
My own Facebook feed comes from a balanced mix of sources. I did not see a large volume of material from the sorts of groups mentioned in the indictment. But because I blog myself, I go to many different news sources on my own, regardless of what social media feeds me.
It may seem odd that manipulating the news to affect an election is a crime (if done by a foreign agent). Normally fake news may subsume a civil libel risk, but domestically it is not usually a criminal matter. But here has been legal controversy before over whether bloggers can “unfairly” affect elections of positive coverage of a candidate is viewed as a barter-like contribution (See Pingback on June 12, 2017 post).
And there is also the question about citizen journalism (the “Fifth” v. “Fourth” estate problem) and how much integrity it has. In democratic countries, citizen journalism can add richness and nuance to policy debates and tone down hyper-partisanship and tribalism. This seems at odds with the idea that in other sectors of the public, amateur journalism seems driven by tribal sources, increasing divisions, and this is what the Russians exploited.
There is a tendency for intellectual “elites” who don’t spend a lot of time in social contact with others unlike themselves, not to care what others “beneath them” believe. They may not notice if enemies are manipulating other bases of voters. That also seems to have happened here. (I actually recall shortly after my William and Mary expulsion in 1961, my father warning me, “Sometimes you really do have to worry about what other people think about you, whether true or not.”)
In general our free speech tradition has believed that an unfiltered firehose of information (or of “condemnation”, as the “dooce” site says) is a good check on politicians. Authoritarian societies, however, see a lot of speech as “gratuitous” and as exacerbating social tensions over otherwise unavoidable inequality; hence the “skin in the game” problem.
I can remember, when I worked as a substitute teacher, than in social studies classes sometimes the jids had newspaper assignments (the Washington Post and New York Times always provided free copies). Some of the kids would make paper airplanes out of newsprint on articles about radical Islam – they didn’t have a clue. I can remember in my own history class in high school we had pop quizzes on current events (this was before Kennedy was elected). In government class, we had to memorize the names of some of our local representatives and officials, so that we understood where activism could start.
That leads me to a proposal. Social media – most of all, Facebook, should consider taking on the newspaper paywall problem (which is partly driven by business model problems and ad blockers). Facebook could set up a subsidiary company to offer bundled digital subscriptions, so that users are encouraged to look at news in credible and professionally managed newspapers, which would have a reason to see participation (in bundles) as a sign of their credibility. My own resume, with experience in billing systems and especially consolidated billing, ought to make me a fit to work on an effort like this. Of course, Zuckerberg could see this as a distraction from his desire to see people reach out to each other more in personal matters in creative ways that used to be viewed as over the top by earlier generations (like mine).
I wanted to note that the way I manage my blogging and book publishing seems at odds or in conflict with my participating publicly in political or narrow-issue lobbying campaigns (right now, gun control, for example) organized by others over an urgent people-centered need. (This gets bad with the “you even join us or you’re against us” meme – especially directed at independent speakers.) Indeed, I can see if there were too many “of Me”, organizing could he harder. I’ve never been a member of a union; as an adult without a family, I used to brag that I could lowball others in the workplace to keep a job if I had to. I can say that, at any particular time, focusing on just one issue will protect or help one set of people but sometimes make it harder to help others later as the “speech capital” is expended on one issue. I do not approve of political hostage taking (as with DACA), but issues are always multiply connected, and simple solutions won’t solve problems completely.
Note this New York Times op-ed: The Russians wanted to get caught, to teach us a lesson about gratuitous speech.
(Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2018 at 8 PM EST)