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Washington and Social Media Platforms - A Tool for Propagandizing

"do Facebook, Twitter and other purveyors of social media platforms plan to weed out the type of U.S. government interference in the online world as we've seen in this posting?"

Since mid-2016, we've heard endless stories about how those sneaky Russians managed to surreptitiously invade the United States and influence the 2016 presidential election in favour of their preferred candidate, Donald Trump.  

According to a who's who of social media outlets including but not limited to Twitter and Facebook, Russians and their bots managed to convince Americans to vote for Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton who, as we know, is relatively unpopular with Vladimir Putin given her alleged interference in the Russian elections of 2011:

Thanks to Twitter's blog, we now have some idea of what Russian propaganda Tweets influenced American voters in 2016 and ended up helping Ms. Clinton lose the election:

Twitter states that they have emailed notifications to 677,775 people from the United States who either followed, retweeted or liked one of the tweets from one of the accounts that Twitter has identified as being "...potentially connected to a propaganda effort by a Russia government-linked organization known as the Internet Research Agency or IRA."  

In total, Twitter has identified 3814 IRA-linked accounts that posted 175,993 Tweets during the ten week period preceding the 2016 election with approximately 8.4 percent of those Tweets being election related.  Given that, according to Twitter's 2016 annual report, they had 319 million average Monthly Active Users (MAUs) in the fourth quarter of 2016 as shown here:

...we can see just how successful the Russians were with their measly 3814 Twitter accounts which accounts for 0.001percent of total monthly users in Q4 2016.

With this in mind and given that the Russians have allegedly created fake social media accounts to fool gullible voters, I want to take a look back in time when the United States took similar actions to convince the global village of its agenda.  Let's start with this from the Federal Business Opportunities (FedBizOpps) website from June 22, 2010:

The United States Air Force was looking for a company to develop software that would allow 50 users the ability to create 10 fake personas (aka sock puppets) each; these personas must appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and interact through various social media platforms.  

Each of these personas must appear to be legitimate and must also be culturally and geographically consistent.  Operators should be able to switch from persona to persona at the same work station.  It is believed that this contract was awarded as part of the U.S. military's Operation Earnest Voice, a tool originally designed to wage psychological warfare against Islamic terrorists.  This contract was ultimately granted to a California-based company, Ntrepid which has the following mission:

"People, Focus, and Passion describe what enables Ntrepid to make products of magnitude. With the right people, obsessive focus, and a passion for the work to be delivered, it is possible to do what others cannot."

Yes indeed.

Let's move forward in time.  Here is a look at the first two pages of House Resolution (H.R. 5730 aka the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012) from the 112th Congress which amended the United States Information and Education Exchange Act of 1948 to "...authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United Starts intended primarily for foreign audiences and for other purposes":

On the second page of the Act, you will notice that, under the Act, funds were being authorized to:

"...provide for the preparation, dissemination, and use of information intended for foreign audiences abroad about the United States, its people, and its policies, through press, publications, radio, motion pictures, the Internet, and other information media, including social media, and through information centers, instructors, and other direct or indirect means of communication." (my bold) 

While the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 only reached the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, you can see that at least some members of Congress were not adverse to using social media to influence the outside world.  In fact, this was the second attempt by members of Congress to pass this type of legislation as shown here:

In 2010, H.R. 5729 had 23 cosponsors from the House.

Let's close this posting with an excerpt from a recent posting written by Samidh Chakrabarti, Product Manager, Civil Engagement at Facebook, on the Facebook Newsroom website regarding the impact of social media on democracy:

"Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Around the US 2016 election, Russian entities set up and promoted fake Pages on Facebook to influence public sentiment — essentially using social media as an information weapon.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, we discovered that these Russian actors created 80,000 posts that reached around 126 million people in the US over a two-year period. This kind of activity goes against everything we stand for. It’s abhorrent to us that a nation-state used our platform to wage a cyberwar intended to divide society. This was a new kind of threat that we couldn’t easily predict, but we should have done better.

Now we’re making up for lost time. The Russian interference worked in part by promoting inauthentic Pages, so we’re working to make politics on Facebook more transparent. We’re making it possible to visit an advertiser’s Page and see the ads they’re currently running. We’ll soon also require organizations running election-related ads to confirm their identities so we can show viewers of their ads who exactly paid for them. Finally, we’ll archive electoral ads and make them searchable to enhance accountability."

Facebook's answer to the problem?

"If there’s one fundamental truth about social media’s impact on democracy it’s that it amplifies human intent — both good and bad. At its best, it allows us to express ourselves and take action. At its worst, it allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy.

I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t. That’s why we have a moral duty to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil and trustworthy as possible." (my bold)

This begs the question; do Facebook, Twitter and other purveyors of social media platforms plan to weed out the type of U.S. government interference in the online world as we've seen in this posting?  As we all know, it's a fine line between information, propaganda and election interference.

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