While scrolling through an endless droll of cat memes, re-posts and selfies, there is something more sinister at play. An invisible force of covert spies and foreign agents using this seemingly innocent platform to ensnare unsuspecting victims.
What do these spies and agents want? To spread misinformation.
In light of the decision by Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, to ban all political ads on the platform last week, there has been an ongoing game of tug of war as to what responsibility Silicon Valley holds. Since the breakout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2017, the integrity of these companies has fallen into serious doubt.
Dorsey argues that it is irresponsible to let nefarious enterprises abuse social media. In opposition, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has kept his stance that these kinds of crackdowns can limit free speech.
Who is right?
Both tech giants implement completely different philosophies. Twitter encourages anonymity and pseudonyms, while Facebook requires all users to register their real name in an effort to make the platform safer. Despite the controversies this policy has long spurred, it hasn’t done a very good job at keeping Facebook safe.
Social media platforms, Facebook in particular, have become battlegrounds of misinformation to damage elections, promote falsehoods and stir social unrest. Dorsey’s call to remove political ads, while a step in the right direction, is not enough to justify any moral high ground he may claim.
Banning political ads in it self, does not solve the root issue. Foreign agents and governments are weaponizing this technology against everyday people. Eliminating the financial incentive is just the beginning.
Being pro-free speech should not be a controversial stance. It is essential for a functioning democracy. As such, democracy is messy. If everyone is entitled to their opinion, regardless of whether right or wrong, there will always be ambiguities.
Unfortunately, this ongoing debate is one of those ambiguities that needs to be handled with the nuance that neither tech company is capable of taking on.
Facebook’s policy has repeatedly stated that “just being false doesn’t violate community standards.” Meanwhile, a 2018 study done by “Science” magazine found that fake news on Twitter outperformed verifiable stories and claimed a wider audience at a faster rate.
“We must redesign our information ecosystem in the 21st century…to reduce the spread of fake news and to reduce the underlying pathologies it has revealed,” wrote a group of political scientists and scholars in an essay published in “Science.”
This is the hole in Silicon Valley. Facebook and Twitter have stated that content promoting violence or hate speech violates their guidelines. Yet, by weaponizing truth, falsehoods are turning into bombs. People meaning harm against the integrity of this country’s democracy, are using misinformation as their weapon.
On Facebook and Instagram, 3,000 advertisements, memes, fake accounts, hashtags and posts appeared to have been created by Americans, were actually designed by Russian intelligence. Between 2015 to 2017, more than 11 million American users saw this trove of content on their feeds. The actual content of these advertisements varies greatly from both leftist to far-right extremes. However, each was designed to sway American opinion and create division.
While some may be assured that this will not happen again in 2020, evidence extracted by Politico from Twitter and other sites points to Russia cracking their knuckles for a second round.
Steven Hall, a retired chief from the CIA, said in an interview with the Guardian that, “Russia would be remiss to not try again, given how successful they were in 2016.”
Other countries have suffered the consequences of similar campaigns. The 2016 Brexit vote in the UK and the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar were significantly fueled by misinformation on Facebook and across other platforms.
Social media being used in nefarious ways is no accident. The proof of Facebook’s vulnerability is already plain. While they have made efforts to secure their platform, Zuckerberg’s stance on political ads gives little confidence he’s taking the issue seriously.
It’s not just political ads Silicon Valley has to re-evaluate. Their creation could very well morph into a Frankenstein monster that none could envision, as social media becomes the battleground of the 21st century.
Author Bruce D. Berkowitz’s 2010 novel, “The New Face of War,” argues that innovations in technology and computers will become major weapons in future wars. Coupled with complex international laws and globalization, the conventional tactics using artillery and weaponry to wipe out enemies, will become obsolete.
Berkowitz is one of many who can foresee this technology turning against its creators. It’s now a war of ideas and social media has become the frontline. As governments struggle to regulate this new frontier, it is left in the unprepared hands of Silicon Valley.
This is the new reality of conflict in the 21st century. Unless Silicon Valley can take a stand, America’s democracy could be overthrown with memes and re-posts.
This argument does not advocate individual censorship, nor does it mean asserting a strict set of beliefs that companies deem true. Everyone has the right to express what they choose. Yet, it is Silicon Valley’s responsibility to uphold the democratic values they claim to be founded on.
Whether they wanted to or not, these tech companies have become the gatekeepers of information. No social media company can be responsible for the individual opinions of their millions of users. However, it does mean taking responsibility for the information that they filter through their platform.
Jack Dorsey has made the first step in taking this responsibility, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to how far Silicon Valley needs to go.