Major technology company executives have a date before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday to discuss how they became fake news conduits prior to the 2016 election.
Russian operatives and Eastern European “entrepreneurs” — as well as unscrupulous Americans — used Facebook, Google and its sister YouTube, and Twitter to transmit fake news for political or personal gain.
Unlike editors in mainstream media trying to ferret out falsehoods, the technology companies, who assumed algorithms would police the purveyors of propaganda, were in denial or eager to profit at the expense of democracy.
They also had a daunting task identifying fake accounts. Facebook has two billion users and Twitter 328 million.
Facebook now is removing one million accounts per day, including those that tried to influence elections in France and Germany. Twitter doesn’t require real names and allows “bots” to send waves of messages.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose disdain for Hillary Clinton is well documented, has speculated that “free-spirited” hackers just awakened in a good mood one day to join “the fight against those who say bad things about Russia.”
A Russian site, buyaccs.com, sells pre-existing Facebook and Twitter accounts. In 2014, Rachel Usedom, an unsuspecting California engineer, found her Twitter account renamed “#ClintonCurruption” to promote Russian attacks on her candidacy.
The Russians also were intent on sowing discord among Americans, which they are doing in 27 other countries as well, according to USA Today. They are interested in furthering “tribal” divisions, stoking fears about race, religion, immigration and Second Amendment rights with sites like “Blacktivist,” “Secured Borders” and “Being Patriotic.”
The small Macedonia city of Veles got in the act, too, a cottage industry built on pro-Trump fake news sites such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co and USADailyPolitics.com. They contributed fake stories such as the pope endorsing Trump and Mike Pence saying Michelle Obama is the “most vulgar first lady we’ve ever had.”
According to BuzzFeed, the sites could generate $5,000 per month. The average Macedonian made $371.
Wired Magazine reported that Boris, a Veles student, reaped $16,000 from two pro-Trump websites from August to November 2017. His Bernie Sanders site failed. “They don’t believe anything,” he said. “The post must have proof for them to believe it.”
Through Google and YouTube’s AdSense, content creators get a 45-55 split of advertising revenue, which is based on every thousand views of a webpage or video. Links from Facebook boost those views.
Beqa Latsabidze, a student in the Republic of Georgia, made $6,000 in one month from his pro-Trump site, departed.co, hitting the jackpot with a story, “The Mexican government announced they will close their borders to Americans in the event that Donald Trump is elected President of the United States.” BuzzFeed determined it was the third-most trafficked fake story on Facebook from May to July.
After the Russian military intelligence known as the GRU created the DCLeaks site with its hacked treasure trove of Democratic Party information, the New York Times reported the nonexistent Katherine Fulton, another Russian invention, wrote on Facebook, “Hey truth seekers! Who can tell me who are #DCLeaks? Some kind of Wikileaks? You should visit their website, it contains confidential information about our leaders such as Hillary Clinton, and others.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had dismissed fake news on Facebook as “a pretty crazy idea.” But in September, Facebook admitted 3,300 political ads worth $100,000 with 10 million views were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm,” along with 470 fraudulent accounts.
Zuckerberg then announced changes in Facebook’s political advertising to create transparency and limit propaganda and hate.
Twitter appears even more oblivious.
@TEN_GOP was a Russian creation purporting to represent the Tennessee Republican Party while specializing in fake stories. It had 136,000 followers, according to BuzzFeed. Twitter suspended it 10 months after the real GOP complained.
“We cannot distinguish whether every single Tweet from every person is truthful or not,” Twitter has stated. “We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth.”
Until last month, YouTube carried Russia Today, aka RT, which it once praised for its “authentic” content instead of “agendas or propaganda,” according to the New York Times. Its 2.2 million subscribers trail only CNN on YouTube.
RT, which U.S. intelligence agencies consider the “principal international propaganda outlet” for the Kremlin, trafficked in anti-Clinton stories, real and fabricated.
President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.”
We are engaged in an information war with a foreign power. The best defense to protect our democracy is a discerning electorate, not a gullible one. For their part, technology companies must deploy all means possible to protect against the infiltration of fake information for propaganda and divisive purposes.