The U.S. indictment handed down against three Russian companies and 13 individuals shows starkly how ill-prepared the tech giants were for the type of aggressive influence campaign the Russians allegedly mounted.
have more than 100,000 employees and $150 billion in annual revenue combined. But a group of fewer than 100 Russian provocateurs armed with social-media savvy and widely available technological tools was able to manipulate the companies’ platforms to sow discord for years, according to the indictment.
The indictment shows that “there are lots of levers that get pulled in social media for the sake of manipulation, and a lot of those levers aren’t even known by the companies themselves,” said
an Oxford University research associate who has studied propaganda efforts on social-media platforms.
The indictment, secured by special counsel
as part of his investigation into Russian meddling, documented an unprecedented manipulation campaign targeting Facebook, its Instagram platform, Google’s YouTube video site and Twitter. Starting in 2014, the Russians built an influence operation that drew followers to bogus accounts that spread disinformation, organized demonstrations, and even paid a U.S. resident to dress up like
in a prison uniform at a West Palm Beach, Fla., rally, according to the indictment.
While much of the attention around the Russian manipulation has focused on its efforts to stoke divisions ahead the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it is clear that it has continued since then. The Wall Street Journal reported in October that some of the Russian-backed accounts continued to post divisive messages at least as recently as this past August.
In a Twitter post after the indictment was made public Friday,
Facebook’s head of advertising, said the Internet Research Agency—the St. Petersburg, Russia, company that allegedly coordinated the social-media campaigns—spent more money on Facebook advertising after the 2016 election.
On Saturday, President
referred to other comments by Mr. Goldman which disputed the effectiveness of fake ads placed during the election as support of his position that he received no benefit from the Russian meddling.
U.S. officials also are bracing for more Russian efforts ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Last week,
the Trump administration’s top intelligence official, warned that the elections remain vulnerable to Russian interference.
Since they began in September disclosing evidence of the Russian manipulation, the tech firms have all said they are taking steps to stop such activity. Facebook has pledged to hire 10,000 new security employees and is working with other companies and the federal government to address the problem. The company says it will verify political advertisers and is testing a tool in Canada that will identify Facebook advertisers. It plans to roll that out in the U.S. this summer. Facebook is “taking aggressive steps to prevent this sort of meddling in the future,” Mr. Goldman said in a post on Twitter.
Twitter hasn’t said whether it expects to hire more employees to combat manipulation, but the company has improved its internal analysis tools over the past year, according to people familiar with the effort. The company has used machine-learning algorithms to address some of the thorniest challenges facing its platform in the past, such as terrorism on its social network. The firm plans to improve lines of communication with political parties ahead of the fall election, Twitter said in a January blog post. It also will require advertisers to disclose what account is behind advertising and who is paying for it, Twitter has said.
YouTube didn’t respond to requests for comment Saturday. In November, Google’s General Counsel
said the company found limited influence activity on its platforms during the 2016 election, and pledged to increase transparency over advertising and to work with officials to fight disinformation.
Outside researchers say the companies haven’t released enough details about their anti-influence efforts to determine whether they will work.
professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, believes Twitter and YouTube, which allow anonymous accounts, will have a bigger problem detecting and blocking nefarious or manipulative accounts than Facebook. Twitter allows automated programs—called bots—to send messages via its platform. These bots can be manipulated to make topics or people appear to be popular when they aren’t, researchers say.
Facebook has its own problems, said Oxford’s Mr. Woolley. “Facebook has become so big in such a short period of time that it’s become extremely hard for them to track, if not prevent, all of the propaganda that occurs on their platform,” he said.
Mr. Woolley would like the social-media-platform companies to open up more of their data to him and other researchers so that public gets a clearer view of the manipulation and how it affects public opinion.
Another problem facing the technology companies is the Byzantine nature of today’s online advertising. Third-party companies often sell many of the ads that appear on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, making it harder for these companies to verify the identity of the advertisers on their sites.
It isn’t yet clear if the technology companies will put the effort required into solving Russia’s manipulation problem, but a solution is possible, said
a Harvard University professor who has studied the role of deceptive advertising in technology.
“We put a man on the moon, and we’ve got cars that drive themselves,” he said. “I do believe that we can build Business processes supported by software that identify ads that demand further review.”
Source : WSJ