Social Networks Are a National Security Puzzle Almost Impossible to Solve
When Facebook first revealed on Wednesday that hundreds of Russia-based accounts were responsible for a deluge of anti-Clinton propaganda on its site, nobody was surprised. Facebook vehemently denied the presence or effectiveness of "fake news" and propaganda on it's ad networks for months, but news agencies had long been reporting on the reach and impact of Facebook advertising, as well as it's powerful analytics algorithms allowing advertisers to target incredibly specific demographics.
But despite it's redundancy, Facebook's most recent admission serves as a much needed reminder of the danger posed by vast, largely un-policed social networking spheres of which many Americans are a part. Facebook's users particularly are easily influenced by online advertising or inaccurate claims, and it is incredibly easy for foreign and domestic actors to utilize online analytic and advertising tools to target them specifically. From a national security perspective, we should absolutely be gravely concerned about any technique that could be used to influence our citizenry, but the online world seems perilously out of reach.
Internet companies have long been struggling to synthesize effective regulation policies that respect free speech yet maintain safe, legitimate conversation.
But as everyone who has had an argument about politics knows, facts are difficult to police.
In a Facebook status shortly after the election, Mark Zuckerberg wrote:
"Identifying truth is complicated [...] I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves."
It is also a gargantuan and ridiculous endeavor for any internet company to demand complete truthfulness on their platforms, even if larger scale deception can have grave impacts. And, unfortunately, the only other effective method of regulation stems from accountability.
Back in 2002, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill required that political advertising contain a statement of ownership or approval by the candidate or organization for which it ran. This measure deterred the dissemination of wildly inappropriate or inaccurate advertising, especially because it associated a name with every advertisement that Americans saw: it made them take responsibility.
At twitter and Facebook, they have no such luxury. Both companies were originally founded as lighthearted platforms for people to share their lives with others. Neither would have predicted the ferocity of political debate their platform would inspire, or the vast impact it would have on the American electoral system. We cannot expect Facebook and Twitter to hold every user accountable for their political views, nor should we. Such a proposition is ridiculous.
Now that they hold vast influence, Facebook and Twitter are stuck between their ethical duty to reject malicious attempts to wield that influence, and their original and ongoing intent to provide casual opportunities for expression and interaction.
No online platform wants to be the arbiter of truth, yet neither do they want to host online gatherings of hate groups or provide resources for foreign governments to damage the integrity of the US electoral system.
Enforcing their terms of service can be difficult as well, and rules are often applied on a case-by case basis.
Twitter's terms of service explicitly condemn "violent threats," or "behavior that incites fear about a protected group." Does that include the President of the United States threatening nuclear action in North Korea, or announcing a ban on the continued service of transgender members of the military?
You will not see @realdonaldtrump being banned from twitter any time soon.
How to effectively, ethically, and constitutionally police our social networking platforms ultimately up to private industry. Government has little if any place in the regulation of speech (with the exception of obscenity). It is a great puzzle, but one that must be solved.
Both Facebook and twitter have expressed a willingness to employ better protective measures against the creation and use of fraudulent accounts. But when it comes to investigating the credentials of advertises, both have remained silent, likely because doing might seriously injure the growth of their revenue streams. Regulation is a difficult balance of a duty to the shareholders, and a duty to the American public.
Our current system is clearly dangerous, and nobody (save the Russians) is really happy. I do not have a solution, and neither do the social networks themselves. What is important in light of Facebook's new report, is that we do not forget the urgency of this conversation. Russian bots have been influencing elections around the world for years now, and it is high time we find an effective way to protect ourselves and our allies.