Updated 11:42 am, Thursday, November 2, 2017
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP
NEW YORK (AP) — There were signs, some say telltale signs, of Russians using social media to meddle in last year’s U.S. elections long before tech companies wised up to it. Red flags included payments in rubles for ads on hot-button, divisive issues targeted at Americans.
It wasn’t until late September, nearly a year after the elections, that Facebook disclosed that it found Russia-linked ads on its service. Twitter and Google followed.
Could Facebook and other tech giants have caught the abuse earlier?
Here’s the case for and against:
IT TOOK TOO LONG
These companies have very smart people working for them, all tasked not just with building new features but ensuring that existing ones work. Could Facebook, Google and Twitter really not foresee — and when it was actually happening, simply see — that Russian government-sponsored agents were posting from fake accounts and buying political ads using little-known payments providers?
Could they have asked themselves why a legitimate advertiser from Russia would feel the need to target Americans on issues such as gun control and race? Or promote pro- and anti-Trump protests in American cities?
Facebook has said that it focused on more traditional threats, such as hacking, early on. Then, its attention turned to fake news and propaganda, but not before CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as “pretty crazy” the idea that false news on the company’s service influenced the outcome of the elections. He later apologized, but the now-memorable quip shows the kind of self-assured attitude that often gets the company in trouble .
This spring, Facebook disclosed that foreign nation-states and non-state actors were using its service for malicious activity related to the elections. It did not directly name Russia at the time, already five months since the elections.
In a memorable, mostly one-sided exchange with top lawyers from the companies, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota offered this exasperated point: “People are buying ads on your platform with rubles. They are political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time, that’s what I hear that these platforms do. They are the most sophisticated things invented by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go like, ‘Hmmm, those data points spell out something pretty bad.'”
Jonathan Albright, director of research at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said tech companies like Facebook “didn’t act proactively.” The company’s business model is giving companies access to “real people. Albright added that Russians exploited the same “custom audiences” targeting tools that Facebook markets for political campaigns.
Combine that with the yet-unregulated online political ads space, it’s no wonder Russia sought to exploit it.
HINDSIGHT IS 20/20
Asked in a hearing this week whether they have found all evidence of Russian meddling, top lawyers for Facebook, Google and Twitter said investigations were ongoing. So, as a matter of speaking, that’s “no.”
Facebook also wouldn’t say with certainty that no other country had also misused its platforms. After all, with 5 million advertisers each month, and billions of pieces of non-paid content, how could Facebook comb through everything — especially when advertisers could mask their real identity?
Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, acknowledged that in hindsight the company should have had a “broader lens” about these issues.
But ultimately, these internet giants’ systems weren’t set up to deal with this type of “social hacking.”
While each company has spent millions to combat software hacking, spam and nefarious content such as terrorist propaganda, the idea that Russia would use social media to influence the elections simply wasn’t on the radar. Since the companies became aware, they have worked to tighten advertising rules, weed out fake news and accounts and share information with government investigators.
“Being at the forefront of technology also means being at the forefront of new legal, security, and policy challenges,” Stretch told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Our teams come to work every day to confront these challenges head on.”
It now seems easy to see the signs of Russia’s interference on social media. But consider this: Try thinking of new ways foreign entities might try to meddle in the 2020 elections. Will it be using virtual reality? Robots? Snapchat?
Stumped? Come back in three years. Hindsight is 20/20.