Social media manipulation is a major problem in urgent need of robust discussion
An op-ed by the president of the right-wing human rights group Freedom House, published in the New York Times Monday (12/11/17)—later boosted by New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker—warned of the menace of “commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites and propaganda,” and their negative effects on democracy. Missing from its analysis was any account of how the government that funds their organization—86 percent of Freedom House’s budget comes from the US government, primarily the State Department and USAID—uses social media to stir unrest and undermine governments worldwide.
What the reader was left with was a very selective, curated impression that online social media manipulation is something done exclusively by brown and black people and those dastardly Slavs. The column condemns “surreptitious techniques pioneered in Moscow and Beijing to use the internet to drown out dissent and undermine free elections,” going on to cite online skullduggery in the Philippines, Kenya, Turkey, Mexico and Iran.
Missing from the piece by Freedom House’s Michael Abramowitz is any mention—much less discussion—of numerous reports detailing online manipulation by US and allied governments and Western PR firms.
No mention of the Defense Department’s $100 million program Operation Earnest Voice software that “creates fake online identities to spread pro-American propaganda.” No mention of the US Air Force’s 2010 solicitation of “persona management” software designed to create hundreds of sock puppets, “replete with background, history, supporting details and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent.” No mention of USAID (the same government agency, incidentally, that funds Freedom House) secretly creating an entire social media platform to “stir unrest” in Cuba. No mention of the US State Department’s newly-created $160 million Global Engagement Center, targeting English-language audiences with unattributed Facebookvideos combating, in part, “Russia propaganda.”
Nor was there mention of the UK’s “team of Facebook warriors,” “skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.” Or reference to the half-dozen reports of Israeli troll farms promoting pro-Israel propaganda online.
Though the op-ed had a particular focus on “governing parties” using covert online tools to “inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves”—warning that this “devastating new threat to democracy” is used to “undermine elections, political debate and virtually every other aspect of governing”—there was no acknowledgement of the fact that the Hillary Clinton campaign spent $1 million in the 2016 primary to promote its candidate using unattributed social media personas. Nor was there mention of a torrent of pro-Trump bots that infected the 2016 campaign on social media.
None of this merits mention, much less investigation. Instead, the piece primarily consists of little insight or larger discussion as to the scope of the problem. “The United States and other democracies” are positioned as the victims of online manipulation, never its author. Amidst platitudes about “the future of democracy” and “malevolent actors,” the West’s place as noble defenders of Real Information online is simply taken for granted, with, by implication, their ideological satellites—like Freedom House—as neutral arbiters of what is and isn’t propaganda, never practitioners of propaganda themselves.
The US Department of Defense admitted in 2011 that it runs fake social media accounts in Farsi; the vast majority of Farsi speakers live in Iran. What were these accounts doing? Did they influence any elections there? Does Freedom House ask the question, much less attempt to answer it? Of course not; Iran can only be guilty of “[manipulating] discussions…on social media,” never the victim of it.
Should the New York Times have disclosed that the author of a piece about government propaganda runs a group overwhelmingly funded by the US government? The reader could theoretically do research on their own time to find out who backs the benign-sounding “Freedom House” (who doesn’t love freedom?), but this is a fairly tall order for the average media consumer, doubly so when one considers the whole point of the piece is criticizing unattributed propaganda.
Also missing from Freedom House’s cartoon narrative of Good Western Democracies vs. Bad Governments in the Global South is the issue of sophistication. One of the reasons groups like Freedom House know about clandestine attempts by these governments and affiliated parties to influence online messaging is they’re mostly bad at it. Hacky, easily identifiable bots, sloppy knock-off websites, transparent “fake news.” The software solicited by the US Air Force in 2010, which would allow each user to control up to ten social media personas at once “without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries,” would presumably be much more difficult to detect.
Social media manipulation is a major problem in urgent need of robust discussion. But outlets like the New York Times—and others, such as Buzzfeed—that focus only on attempts by Official US Enemies, and never direct any criticism inwards, aren’t concerned with having an earnest discussion of the problem. They are, instead, using the specter of online manipulation to smear those in bad standing with the US State Department while deflecting any conversation about what the most powerful country in the history of the world may be up to online.
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