After Russian-linked ads, put social media under the microscope

 The problem may seem insurmountable. But the truth is that many of the same technologies that have made it easier for foreign governments to covertly interfere in American elections can be used to create more transparency and accountability in American elections.

 By Ian Vandewalker and Lawrence Norden, Opinion Contributors, The Hill
September 26, 2017

After Russian-linked ads, put social media under the microscope
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What happens to American democracy when we don’t know who is behind political advertisements and messages? When not only the speakers, but even advertisements and political messages themselves, are hidden from most voters and the press?

Reformers have long argued that this kind of secrecy is a threat to democracy, giving wealthy special interests an ability to gain corrupt favor with politicians. The 2016 election revealed another peril. Foreign interference in American elections through secret, targeted and misleading messages and campaign advertisements in social media threatens the long-standing principle of popular sovereignty through democratic self-determination — the idea that the American people are the rulers of our own political order.

The problem may seem insurmountable. But the truth is that many of the same technologies that have made it easier for foreign governments to covertly interfere in American elections can be used to create more transparency and accountability in American elections.

Let’s start by naming the problem, or at least one aspect of it. We recently learned that Facebook shared the contents of ads linked to Russian agents that ran during the presidential election with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

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This follows Facebook’s public revelation this month that it discovered as much as $150,000 worth of ads touching on politics that were purchased in 2015 and 2016 by fake accounts, many associated with a notorious Russian troll farm where agents of Moscow disseminate propaganda through fake social media profiles. Facebook maintains it can’t publicly share the ads due to its privacy policy.

The revelations about Russian ads on Facebook have called attention to “dark posts,” ads that are seen only by a finely targeted demographic. These allow politicians, special interests and foreign powers to say different things to different audiences, including potentially using inflammatory or discriminatory rhetoric with groups expected to be receptive. Journalists never get the chance to fact check or inform the public more widely. Voters can’t hold leaders accountable or weigh the credibility of the information based on its original source.

Our response to this new problem, partly made easier by the growth of social media, must be multi-faceted.

First, we must change American law to keep up with changes in technology. American law has long thrown up obstacles to meddling from abroad, from the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause to the ban on election spending by foreign nationals first enacted in 1966. But this is no longer sufficient.

Political activity online should be subject to similar transparency rules as those for TV and radio, meaning that spending on sham issue ads that mention a candidate in the weeks immediately before an election must be disclosed. And we should improve campaign finance disclosure rules to eliminate “dark money” spending by groups that hide their donors.

Policymakers should consider recent proposals that would require platforms to keep a repository of political ads that’s accessible by the public. And laws should be strengthened to clarify that foreign nationals are banned from placing the kind of sham issue ads that the 2002 McCain-Feingold law regulates, no matter what medium they appear in.

Second, we need to expand our capacity for digital forensics to identify and publicize major propaganda operations in as close as possible to real-time. This would allow certain messages to be flagged as originating from foreign sources, and profiles speaking for other governments could be “named and shamed.” The federal government should task a specific agency with digital forensics, and data should be shared with relevant agencies across federal, state, and local governments, as well as civil society and the press. Efforts along these lines have already begun.

Data from digital forensics can also be used by the social media platforms in their efforts to eliminate fake profiles, like the user pretending to be a dad from Pennsylvania that was eliminated as part of Facebook’s crackdown on Russian activity. In addition, lawmakers should consider requiring automated accounts, or “bots,” to identify themselves as non-human.

Finally, whether the threat is from foreign propaganda, domestic fake news, or urban legends, Americans’ media literacy needs improvement. The skills to tell trustworthy sources from suspicious ones should be taught at all educational levels, as some school systems have already started doing.

The media industry can help in this effort by coming together to create a reliability indicator for new sources. A system with widespread participation, where reliability scores are based on transparent and easily understood factors, would likely quickly become an indispensable tool. An authoritative rating could blunt the power of both fake news and the knee-jerk use of the label “fake news” to dismiss unwelcome facts.

These proposals are just a start, but will bring greater openness to American elections and help protect our democracy from foreign meddling. Psychological research shows that warning audiences at or before the time they first hear propaganda is one of the most effective responses to that propaganda.

Over the longer term, government and experts from across society must work together to continue building up our defenses to foreign influence online — an ever-changing threat will require that we keep innovating.

Ian Vandewalker serves as senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where he works on voting rights and campaign finance reform.

Lawrence Norden is the deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.


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  1. So, the Democrats begin a new McCarthy era in which Russia is blamed for everything from climate change to Hillary’s lost election, and now Facebook is jumping on the bandwagon. This pathetic article just pushes the lie further with its underlying assumptions of Russian interference – and it’s all based on the kind of “evidence” that would sink a high school research paper.

    Following the links provided in this article to the Facebook page discussing the claim that the Russians bought ads, we note the consistent use of weasel words – words meant to imply guilt, but in fact, only reveal lack of definite evidence:

    Alex Stamos, Facebook Chief Security Officer, states:
    “Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.”

    – Note the key phrase: “likely operated out of Russia.” “Likely” is a weasel word.

    He states further:
    “In this latest review, we also looked for ads that might have originated in Russia — even those with very weak signals of a connection and not associated with any known organized effort. This was a broad search, including, for instance, ads bought from accounts with US IP addresses but with the language set to Russian — even though they didn’t necessarily violate any policy or law.”

    —Again, the key phrase: “the language set to Russian.” Evidence based on computerized language set to Russian, which can be done on anyone’s computer, is no evidence at all.

    Colin Stretch, Facebook General Counsel, states:
    “Two weeks ago, we announced we had found more than 3,000 ads addressing social and political issues that ran in the US between 2015 and 2017 and that appear to have come from accounts associated with a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency.”

    —Again, note the well-worn word: “appear.” So the ads only “appear” to have come from a Rusian entity.

    Unfortunately, Facebook and the Deep State apparachiks who are pulling its strings insist on pursuing the “Russians interfered in our elections” strategy despite any credible evidence, and even though it doesn’t seem to be returning the desired results. It only makes both war parties seem desperate, and makes thinking Americans ask, “What are they trying to cover up.”

    Frankly, I’m less concerned about foreign powers interfering in our elections – in part because those elections are already rigged and manipulated by corporate money – and more concerned with how foreign powers interfere with our foreign policy AFTER the elections. The regime change wars we are currently fighting in several countries are not the sole products of the US government, but have been heavily pushed by the Israelis and the Saudis. That’s the kind of interference we should be exposing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent insights from Medusa above. I will only add the following similar to that of a smart commenter under the NYT’s article twisting itself in knots over this nonsense just to tell Hillary (warhawk) losers what they want to hear, given the paltry amount of FB ads in question: “If these Russians’ $100,000 worth of FB ads actually swung the election for Trump in a campaign where the candidates spent 1000 times that (i.e. in the billions), mostly on their own worthless ads, then these Russians would be such incredible political geniuses, that both Republican and Democrat Parties will be trying to hire them.”


  3. Dreamer9177 · ·

    Reblogged this on Dreamer9177's Blog.


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