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Jamie Collier is a cybersecurity DPhil candidate and a research affiliate with the Cyber Studies Programme at the University of Oxford. Monica Kaminska is a DPhil candidate and previously worked on the Computational Propaganda Project at the Oxford Internet Institute.
With Facebook revealing the true extent of Russia’s information operations during the U.S. election on their platform, journalists have not held back in casting social media firms as the pantomime villain in recent election interference sagas. At the core of recent criticism is the assertion that social media firms are now serious political influencers, and crucially ones that are incapable of self-policing themselves with further regulation necessary.
Although social media platforms could always improve at preventing foreign governments from interfering in elections, the recent furor distracts from more fundamental questions on how election meddling should be confronted. Crucially, further clamping down on Facebook and Twitter is not the elixir to recent election interferences that many hope for.
The role of social media in influencing elections should not be discounted. As these platforms become increasingly prevalent, their influence on our thought processes and emotions will only increase. Yet, multiple factors affect elections, ranging from the state of the economy to healthcare provision. This makes it difficult to assess the true political impact of social media strategies and their influence on voting behavior. A number of actors compete for voters’ attention including official campaigns, political action committees, the tabloid press and far-leaning ideological websites. Russian activity therefore operates in a highly congested space, and its impact is likely to get crowded out by more influential groups. For example, tabloids possess a significant following of news-hungry potential voters, already sympathetic to a particular political stance. Likewise, official candidate campaigns have access to detailed data on prospective voters and millions of dollars to spend on digital advertising. The Trump campaign reportedly spent $90 million on Facebook, making Russia’s $100,000 ad buy look like pocket change.
Russia may be able to promote causes that coincide with Russian interests. Yet influencing those who are not already on board is increasingly difficult online given the echo chambers that exist on social media. Facebook users interact predominantly with like-minded friends, they subscribe to news outlets that coincide with their own worldview. This means there is a limited pool of swing voters that could be converted to the extremes to suit Russian interests.
Many have made the case that Russia’s real aim is not to convince others, but to exploit existing divisions within societies. Even then, it remains unclear whether social media campaigns are really that effective. Passive forms of online participation often fail to materialize into more active forms of political mobilization. Only four protesters turned up to an anti-refugee rally in Idaho organized by a Russian-backed Facebook group despite significantly higher numbers saying they were ‘interested’ online. Previous research also suggests that content on social networks is most influential when shared among close friends—strong ties trump obscure foreign-government backed campaigns.
Placing Russian-backed political social media advertising on a pedestal implies that Moscow’s approach is somehow novel. It is not. Russia, much like the United States, has used political propaganda for decades. One of the Soviet Union’s most famous campaigns was “active measures” launched during the Cold War against the election of Ronald Reagan. More recently, Russia has had a hand in political subversion in Ukraine, the Baltic States and Georgia. But while political Facebook ads might be a case of old wine in new bottles, Russian actors have been engaging in a wide range of other cyber intrusions, and it is these that merit more public attention.
If tech companies and policymakers want to address Russian election meddling, they should see Russian cyber operations as a spectrum of activity, from the relatively soft forms of interference conducted via social media, through to hacking, and even the compromise of election infrastructure (a particular concern for states that allow online voting). Instead of narrowly focusing on social media manipulation, they should focus on Russian efforts to dox and launder internal campaign emails through sites like Wikileaks. The operation against the Democratic National Committee was remarkably disruptive and effective, and similar events occurred in 2015 at the German Bundestag and Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in France earlier this year. It is these operations that have the greatest potential to directly influence an election result and damage confidence in democratic institutions, while simultaneously providing material for future influence efforts.
Bashing Facebook and Twitter do nothing to nullify the plausible deniability of election interference that Russia and influence peddlers thrive on. It is up to political campaigns, not social media platforms, to develop effective public relations strategies to counter the effects of doxing through WikiLeaks and improve their woeful cybersecurity. Likewise, governments and the media need to candidly talk about the way in which news outlets report on foreign government-backed leaks, a hugely contentious issue. Clamping down on social media firms represents an easy fix by comparison—one that does not require substantial change or compromise from within governments and political parties. While Silicon Valley will play its part in preventing future political interference, the real change must take place in Washington DC.