In 2016, the Russian government was able to leverage Facebook to devastating effect when it unleashed a social media propaganda campaign the likes of which the world has never seen before. Since then, Facebook has been under a microscope with regards to how it polices its platform and protects its users. The scandal with Cambridge Analytica only further served to sour relations between Facebook and its users, as well as governments and potential regulators.
However, we have since learned that it is not just Russia that is using Facebook as a means of spreading propaganda. A number of governments the world over appear to be in on the action. It is amazingly easy to create a fake social media profile, and there are virtually no checks in place to prevent fake accounts from being created. While Facebook and other platforms have no doubt gotten better at detecting these accounts once they have already been created, they still don’t have any solutions for preventing these accounts from being made in the first place.
The sheer number of fake accounts that have been identified on social media platforms is truly staggering and suggests that what we have seen is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the problem is concerned. There are likely a great many more fake accounts out there than we are currently aware of. Different state actors have different reasons for wanting to utilize Facebook and different messages that they feel the need to push. However, all appear to now be working from more or less the same playbook. This is not really surprising after seeing how effectively Russia was able to leverage social media during 2016.
Facebook has had a number of problems with middle Eastern countries running disinformation campaigns on its platform. Within the last week, Facebook has removed a number of pages, groups, and accounts that are linked to several countries in the Middle East and Africa. Facebook referred to these accounts as being part of a coordinated group responsible for inauthentic behavior on the platform.
Ultimately, the purpose of these groups is to spread disinformation and allow false messages to amplify in a seemingly organic way. While Facebook believes that the accounts it unearthed belong to three separate and unconnected networks, one of which was operating in three countries simultaneously, and another which was operating over two countries, all of them had the same goal.
These fake accounts can be used to spread any message that their controller chooses. Governments are now learning that this puts an enormous amount of power in their hands if they are willing to behave just a little bit unethically. Of course, if they are willing to behave very unethically then they have the potential to swing elections in their own countries and to sway public opinion both internationally and domestically.
Earlier this year, Hong Kong police shot a young protester while he was visible on a Facebook live stream. The incident highlights the critical role that social media is playing in the protests. It is not only being used by protesters to organize, but it is also being used to show the world what is happening, and potentially prevent another Tiananmen Square-style atrocity from occurring.
Both Facebook and Twitter have already announced that they have uncovered coordinated campaigns by many groups linked to the Chinese government who have used the platforms to spread disinformation.
The Chinese government increasingly sees the protests as a threat to its security and sovereignty. With the world’s eyes watching through the internet, a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown is an option of last resort. Instead, the Chinese government is seeking to steer the narrative in a favorable direction. Namely, it wants the world to believe that the Hong Kong protesters are rioters or terrorists intent on lawlessness, rather than human rights protesters.
Much like Russia, a number of Facebook accounts associated with anti-western disinformation campaigns originate from Iran. Facebook recently announced that it had shut down a network of Iranian accounts that were promoting Scottish independence. Facebook was able to trace these accounts back to Press TV, the Iranian state broadcaster.
Iran has also been found to have been behind a number of supposedly grassroots organizations that have organized through Facebook. In fact, Iran’s efforts to interfere in domestic US politics, and to use certain issues as wedge issues, now far outstrip those of Russia.
One thing should be clear, these tactics are very effective. The government continues to invest resources in launching social media campaigns precisely because they do produce reliable results. It should, therefore, not be much of a surprise to learn that the United States government is also engaged in its own social media campaigns.
The Department of Homeland Security recently revealed that it allowed employees to create fake social media profiles for the purposes of determining the immigration status of subjects they were investigating. Now, reporting from the Miami New Times reveals that the United States government was also going to use Facebook to target Cuba. Details of the planned operation were buried in one of the most recent congressional budget reports from the United States broadcasting board of governors.
The rest of the report goes into some detail about how social media is being utilized as a digital battleground between nation-states. And how opinions are now won and lost on social media platforms.
Despite its best efforts, this is a battle that Facebook just does not seem to be winning. While it has got better at responding to fake accounts and identifying networks of them, it still does not have any solutions for preventing these networks from being established to begin with. Now that the genie is out of the bottle and governments have seen just how powerful a tool social media can be, it seems unthinkable that in this situation won’t continue to deteriorate. Facebook has already proven itself incapable of properly safeguarding its users and their data. It seems unlikely that they have any viable long-term solutions to the issue of their platform being hijacked for propaganda.
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