How to attack a democracy: weaponize social media



Between June 2015 and August 2017, millions of Americans were exposed to Facebook ads and posts generated by Russian operatives who sought to influence voter behavior and exploit divisions in American society on hot-button issues. A number of the ads released during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Nov. 1 reveal how the Russians used Facebook’s advertiser tools, as well as free posts, to target people by their interests, political leanings, location, age and other traits, The Washington Post reports.

Credit: Washington Post

A batch of ads (right) that Russian agents promoted on Facebook during the US election was released by the US Congress on Wednesday, after lawmakers spent two days grilling social media executives over Moscow’s political meddling, the FT adds:

The ads are stark evidence of the divisive messages Facebook says Russia sought to spread via its digital platform, targeting an eclectic group of causes from the left and right ends of the political spectrum. The ads mix grammatical errors with a keen sense of the nation’s political pressure points — and flashes of wacky creativity that are hard to ignore.

The release came as Facebook revised the number of people reached by the Kremlin-connected troll farm, called the Internet Research Agency, to at least 150m people, higher than the 126m reported earlier this week, and significantly more than it initially indicated ahead of government inquiries.

Russian efforts to interfere in last year’s presidential election amount to “an act of war”, Sen. Ben Cardin said Wednesday at an event hosted by the National Democratic Institute.

Most worryingly, Western democracies are uniquely susceptible to this form of attack, analysts Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus write for The New Republic:

The key insight of autocratic governments like Russia’s may be the recognition that democracies have a weakness: They are open societies committed to free speech and expression. That characteristic is and continues to be exploited. … When social media and information itself are weaponized, the bonds of trust in society and within institutions are undermined, and the task of assuring information integrity becomes a matter of national security.

Social media are a mechanism for capturing, manipulating and consuming attention unlike any other. That in itself means that power over those media—be it the power of ownership, of regulation or of clever hacking—is of immense political importance, The Economist notes:

Years ago Jürgen Habermas, a noted German philosopher, suggested that while the connectivity of social media might destabilise authoritarian countries, it would also erode the public sphere in democracies. James Williams, a doctoral student at Oxford University and a former Google employee, now claims that “digital technologies increasingly inhibit our ability to pursue any politics worth having.” To save democracy, he argues, “we need to reform our attention economy.”

In 1998, Russian military analyst Sergei P. Rastorguev published Philosophy of Information Warfare (right), which [argued] that one of the most effective weapons in modern conflict was information—or more accurately, disinformation, Grassegger and Krogerus add:

It is psychological manipulation, executed with targeted digital disinformation designed to weaken a country from within. “The Russian theory of war allows you to defeat the enemy without ever having to touch him,” says Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. “Estonia was an early experiment in that theory.”

Through the use of sophisticated “informational-psychological” operations, Moscow secured victory in an information battle with the West ….Notably, through disinformation and cleverly planted stories, the Jamestown Foundation adds.

Russian disinformation didn’t come to an end on Election Day, according to public policy and cybersecurity experts. It is as present as ever in the post-election landscape, they say, working to divide Americans by exploiting the country’s most contentious issues — while providing Russia cover to pursue its geopolitical interests, Frontline adds.

“They’re still active, they’re still present, they’re not waiting for the 2018 cycle to be active in American political discourse,” said James Ludes, executive director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. “The threat is bigger than the election of 2016, the threat is bigger than the election of 2018. The threat is really a more fundamental assault on liberal democracy in the West.”

Tech firms and civil society activists should collaborate on technological and media-literacy-based responses to the challenge of disinformation, the National Democratic Institute’s Frieda Arenos argues (HT: Dean Jackson at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies).

Designed to subvert democracy

The degree of [Russian] influence is impossible to gauge with precision, of course, but there is no denying the vast scale of malicious attempts by the Internet Research Agency — a Kremlin-linked troll farm — to sway US public opinion, The Financial Times notes:

Revelations on that subject in US congressional hearings this week should give pause to anyone who cares about democracy. Among these were Facebook’s acknowledgment that 150m Americans, including Instagram users, may have viewed at least one post of fake news originating with the Russian agency, which took out a total of 3,000 paid ads. …. Social media platforms on this scale, for all the good they can do, can be weaponised — in some cases by hostile state actors……. It is a matter of public interest that the big platforms become more transparent and that clearer standards are in place concerning the flagging and removal of destructive content — be it slanderous, criminal, or designed to subvert democracy.

A high-tech society results in greater vulnerability to cyber threats and greater opportunities to spread disinformation, notes Sweden’s new National Security Strategy:

Such challenges include hostile threats such as information operations and electronic attacks on sensitive information and communication systems, such as in the form of computer hacking, sabotage or espionage, including against Sweden’s total defence. They also include IT attacks to evaluate, affect or disrupt essential services as a precursor to armed conflict. IT attacks could also improperly influence the outcome of democratic elections.

“The informational underpinnings of democracy have eroded,” analyst Alexis Madrigal writes for The Atlantic, who quotes insidersadmissions that social media firms failed to appreciate the disinformation threat. 

“If you’d come to me in 2012, when the last presidential election was raging and we were cooking up ever more complicated ways to monetize Facebook data, and told me that Russian agents in the Kremlin’s employ would be buying Facebook ads to subvert American democracy, I’d have asked where your tin-foil hat was,” wrote Antonio García Martínez, who managed ad targeting for Facebook. “And yet, now we live in that otherworldly political reality.”

URLs linked to 600 Kremlin-connected Twitter accounts were spreading conspiracy theories about the Las Vegas shooting in October or blaming left-wing actors for the massacre, according to an online analysis conducted by the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

“The tech companies have certainly been evolving in how they think about their responsibilities on these issues,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“I certainly hope that they are all doing this internally,” she told NPR. “The fact that every week they continue to uncover additional ways that their platforms were exploited by the Russian networks indicates to me that whatever they’re doing internally, it’s still not quite enough.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden predicted Tuesday that Russia will likely continue its election meddling into the 2018 midterms, saying their effort to influence the 2016 presidential election was “not an isolated incident,” The Hill adds.

“Russia’s attack on our election was not an isolated incident,” Biden told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “The efforts to spew disinformation, infiltrate our networks, corrupt our political institutions, they continue and we’ll surely see this kick into full gear as we head into another critical congressional cycle in 2018,” he said.

Molly McKew, an information warfare expert, said that Russian cyber campaigns in the U.S. mimic similar efforts in Europe and the former Soviet republics. “Anything they find divisive within a society, these are issues where they tend to play. And, the logic behind it being if you can weaken the social fabric of a country or a target of any kind, that gives you a greater ability to influence the outcome or sort of have an advantage in a weakened playing field,” she said.

The question is how the West can maintain the core values of freedom of speech and the free flow of information while protecting itself from the constant presence of malevolent geopolitical actors, ask Grassegger, a German reporter and economist, and Krogerus, an editor at Das Magazin in Switzerland.

To survive in the era of information warfare, the West will have to create new, safer borders capable of withstanding cyberattacks. Blockchain technology, the underlying protocol of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, might, for example, function as a sort of digital fortress protecting the secure exchange of information online. Whatever form these defenses take, democratic countries will have to focus more resources on finding and spreading potent and reliable technologies, whether in partnership with private companies, or in government cyber labs in Estonia or the United StatesRTWT

Print Friendly, PDF & Email