By Sharan Mujoo
Representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter arrived in Washington on Tuesday to testify in front of the Congress to discuss Russia’s online meddling in the US Presidential Elections last year. This would be the first of the three public hearings to be held this week at Capitol Hill.
The House and State Intelligence committees in the US have been after the consumer tech giants for a while now. Growing pressure from Congress and the public led Facebook to reveal more about the covert proliferation of Russian propaganda on Facebook. In September, the company said that it was turning over more than 3,000 ads linked to Russian sources to congressional committees probing Moscow’s influence during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Facebook story
The Facebook Chief Mark Zuckerberg was quoted saying on Facebook live “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity” He further stated that he didn’t want anyone “to use our tools to undermine democracy.”
Facebook says there are 470 accounts linked to Internet Research Agency, a Russian company. This company is known for using troll accounts on social media to post and comment on the news. It is estimated that 126 million people were served content from this company.
What Twitter and Google have to say
There was evidence from Twitter as well. According to recode, VP of Policy Colin Corwell already made a visit to Capitol Hill before the Congressional hearings were called. An excerpt from Twitter in a public statement released on 28 September on its blog said “Of the roughly 450 accounts that Facebook recently shared as a part of their review, we concluded that 22 had corresponding accounts on Twitter. All of those identified accounts had already been or immediately were suspended from Twitter for breaking our rules, most for violating our prohibitions against spam.
In addition, from those accounts, we found an additional 179 related or linked accounts and took action on the ones we found in violation of our rules. Neither the original accounts shared by Facebook nor the additionally related accounts we identified, were registered as advertisers on Twitter. However, we continue to investigate these issues and will take action on anything that violates our Terms of Service.”
The Washington Post claimed in October that Google also uncovered evidence linking its youtube and Gmail products with Russian actors. Just before this news broke out Google released a statement, “We have a set of strict ads policies including limits on political ad targeting and prohibitions on targeting based on race and religion. We are taking a deeper look to investigate attempts to abuse our systems, working with researchers and other companies, and will provide assistance to ongoing inquiries.” Google is still conducting a broad investigation to elicit more information about ads linked to Russian entities.
Uncovering fake news
The trio was invited by the Senate Intelligence Committee back in September to come and testify. This came after a series of investigations by several US Intelligence agencies since the Elections in 2016. Reports of hacking began emerging back in June last year when the Hillary Clinton email saga erupted. It would later be known as the DNC cyber attacks.
The US Intelligence agencies also concluded however that the Republican system had also been compromised. Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta’s email id was hacked and her top aide Huma Abedin’s emails became part of the FBI Investigation. The presidential nominee was accused of mishandling sensitive government data.
As the campaigns neared Election day, reports about Facebook and fake news emerged. Newsrooms and journalists started connecting the possibilities between fake news and public influence. Political ads started appearing in demographies targeting the respective majorities.
Affirming Russian intervention
In December, the CIA concluded confidently that there had been Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential elections. By January, post-Trump’s election, the FBI, NSA and the CIA concluded that the Russian government had intervened in order to pip the election in favour of Trump. In fact, James Comey, the former FBI director affirmed that he had “no doubt” that Russia interfered in the election saying that “they did it with purpose and sophistication”.
Since then a bipartisan investigation by the Senate has been taking place which seeks to dig deeper into the matter. Political advertisements have been linked to Russian rubles. With billions of users and their business models depending upon advertisements, these platforms have become tools of massive influence.
Click. Watch. Buy. Repeat.
This has huge implications on the future of governance as the democratic integrity of the world’s most powerful nation has allegedly been compromised. It is intriguing to see how technology can be used to swing power in the hands of democracy and against it as well. Thinking of the Arab Spring, another question comes to mind. Are these social media giants becoming too powerful?
What is the reason behind their ability to sway masses? More importantly, are these consumer tech giants aware of the repercussions their designs have? Increasingly complex algorithms are designed to keep users within the boundaries of their beliefs. Advertisements are served with frightening accuracy to get the desired behaviour.
Behaviours are reinforced and new habits are formed as these platforms steam ahead with more and more money. Is it possible to make people conform online? Moreover, is there a connection between behaviour online and behaviour offline? Can it be predicted? Donald Trump’s win stands to serve as an example.
Jeopardising the future?
The possibility of another Trump happening will only increase as more and more users come online. This further underlines the responsibility which comes with handling such large amounts of information. There is no doubt that more information sources will come up online in the future. With more sources will come an even more gruelling need to validate the authenticity of information.
This brings one to question the future of information technology. As the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook penetrate our lives even further, they gain the ability to extract more and more data about us. Think about Amazon echo, Google home and artificial intelligence that can stimulate you. It cannot be denied that as these companies get bigger, the more likely they are to influence us in the future. The reality of this needs to be taken with serious consideration now more than ever. For in the future, it may become a question of free will.
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