One could almost pity the executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter as they were grilled on Capitol Hill earlier this week by senators upset about Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election via the posting of cleverly worded propaganda ads and messages on social media sites.
After all, how do you detect – let alone stop – a small group of determined foreign nationals manipulating and taking advantage of what’s supposed to be open, free-flowing Internet platforms idealistically designed to allow billions of people across the globe to voice their thoughts on everything from world politics to the type off pigeons in Trafalgar Square?
Of course, the Facebook, Google and Twitter executives at the Senate hearing earlier this week bowed their heads, expressed remorse and vowed to do better in combating the threat of foreign interference in our democratic elections.
But the question is: Can they do better? Is it possible? Remember: Facebook alone acknowledges that it received only about $100,000 in paid ads by those it later learned were tied to various Russian groups, but those ads were still seen by about 10 million people, according to media reports.
When you include free Facebook messages posted on bogus accounts taken out by Russians – and the corresponding “like” endorsements by almost countless readers – the number of people exposed to manipulative Russian antics ballooned to about 126 million, Facebook admits, according to media reports.
Now think about it: A swing of only 100,000 votes or less in last year’s presidential election could have put Hillary Clinton in the White House, not Donald Trump. So you get the picture. It doesn’t take much on social media to effectively “interfere” in a presidential election.
In addition to these disturbing numbers is the fact that many of these fake ads and messages were cleverly written, deliberately appealing to the dogmatic extremes on both the left and right and their pre-conceived prejudices and notions about political issues. The goal of the Russians, it seems, was to simply stir up as much fear, anger and confusion among voters as possible.
At this point, you might be thinking that I don’t believe much can be done about Russia’s cynical attempt to sway voters and wreak electoral havoc via social media. I do admit this: The task is daunting. But we can take steps to at least reduce the scope and impact of these social-media shenanigans – without unacceptable government censorship and onerous new rules.
Here are some ideas:
― Facebook, Twitter, Google and other online companies can do a better job in trying to verify the identity of those buying ads and weeding out foreigners who are improperly and, in some cases, illegally trying to sway elections. Indeed, Facebook has already said it plans to hire more employees for such ad-screening purposes.
― The three Internet giants and others can also do a better job of verifying the identities of those opening new social-media accounts – with the same goals in mind of weeding out the anonymous, mischievous and malevolent types out there.
― The media – yes, the old-fashioned newspapers, newscasters, magazines and more modern-day bloggers – can do a better job of identifying phony social-media ads, posts and sites and call them out. Many media outlets already have fact checkers and others reviewing the accuracy of paid political TV and other media ads. They should devote more time and effort on social-media accuracy as well.
― Some government agencies – such as the Federal Election Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and federal and state prosecutors – can step up efforts to enforce current laws and rules on the books related to campaign finances, fraud and other illegal infractions.
― Last but not least, individual voters have to be on guard against being manipulated by inaccurate and sometimes inflammatory posts by others. This is a huge challenge. Still, voters should be encouraged to think twice before passing along unsubstantiated, oftentimes salacious pieces of information that turn out to be misinformation spread by foreign meddlers.
I’m tempted to add another category: encouraging President Trump to stop denouncing reports and opinions he merely disagrees with as “fake news.” He’s not helping matters by dismissing so many things with these broad-brush “fake news” denunciations, but I’m probably wasting time by thinking the president might actually stop this practice.
The bottom line is that we can’t, in this digital social media age, completely eliminate foreign interference in our elections, no more than we can stop run-of-the-mill demagogues from appealing to biases and emotions.
But we can blunt their attempts at manipulation by common-sense corporate, media, government and individual citizen actions, exposing untruths and speaking truths when we can. Ultimately, the struggle to get to the truth is what free speech and freedom is all about.
Neal A. Hartman is a senior lecturer specializing in communications at the MIT Sloan School of Management.