Obstructionism: Google and Facebook style

The Register has a rather good report of the two investigations carried out for the Senate Intelligence Committee — and it highlights something that other reports seem to have missed — how the social media giants did their best to be, er, unhelpful.

The second Senate-commissioned report, written by Oxford University’s Internet Institute, reached the same conclusion: that the Russian campaign was large, sophisticated, and focused on Donald Trump’s election as president.

Thanks, no thanks

In this report, however, researchers also take time to criticize the response of the social networking giants to their efforts to understand what had happened: the internet titans were extremely unhelpful, even after being publicly chastised in the press and in Congress.

The worst offender may have been Google, which supplied very little information and when it did, supplied in it hard-to-search PDFs, making it difficult and time-consuming to analyze. Facebook was no better: simply refusing to hand over information and limiting what it did send to English-language pages. Even the most responsive company – Twitter – only sent the researchers shortlinks, as opposed to full URLs, making it harder to use other tools to track their impact and links across the internet.

The New Knowledge report says the same, noting that the companies also appear to have stripped meta data from the information they sent i.e. they actively tried to disrupt efforts to understand the reach and impact of Russian propaganda efforts.

In short, the two reports tell us what we already knew: that there was a large, organized Russian campaign in favor of Donald Trump; that the campaign used divisive social issues to attract people’s attention and push its messages; and the tech companies were caught completely unawares and then responded incredibly defensively when the size and scope of the propaganda campaign was revealed.

The difference from previous dossiers is that these reports are comprehensive and detailed. And they clearly identify the strategies and targets where previously much of the detail was anecdotal or intelligent conjecture. And, of course, we learned that Instagram punches above its weight, and the Russian campaign was so well resourced that it even bothered to post on Google+.

The ‘good chap’ theory of government

From the Christmas edition of The Economist:

Britain’s ramshackle constitution allows plenty of scope for such shenanigans. [Deciding not to hold an important Parliamentary vote that you are certain to lose.] Whereas every other Western democracy has codified its system of government, Britain’s constitution is a mish-mash of laws and conventions, customs and courtesies. Britain sees no need for the legalistic or (worse) European idea of writing down its constitution in one place. Instead it relies on the notion that its politicians know where the unwritten lines of the constitution lie, and do not cross them. “The British constitution is a state of mind,” says Peter Hennessy, a historian who calls this the “good chap” theory of government. “It requires a sense of restraint all round to make it work.” Yet amid Britain’s current crisis, such restraint has been lacking.

In 2018 the good-chap principle has taken a battering. Gaming the rules has become the only way for the Conservative government, which lacks an effective majority in the Commons, to cling on. Brexit has strained the hardware of Britain’s constitution, such as the civil service and the courts. But the software—the norms that govern day-to-day politics—has been infected with a virus, too. The chaps in government are less inclined to be good…

Endless infowar has arrived

The NYT’s Kevin Roose sums up the Senate’s Intelligence Committee reports about Russian weaponisation of social media:

If anything has changed since 2016, it’s that social media is no longer seen as just a useful tool for influencing elections. It’s the terrain on which our entire political culture rests, whose peaks and valleys shape our everyday discourse, and whose possibilities for exploitation are nearly endless. And until we either secure that ground or replace it entirely, we should expect many more attacks, each one in a slightly different form, and each leaving us with even more doubt that what we see online reflects reality, or something close to it.

And then this from one of the researchers who worked on the Senate report:

In official statements to Congress, tech executives have said that they found it beyond their capabilities to assess whether Russia created content intended to discourage anyone from voting. We have determined that Russia did create such content. It propagated lies about voting rules and processes, attempted to steer voters toward third-party candidates and created stories that advocated not voting.

Our analysis underscores the fact that such influence operations are not specific to one platform, one malign actor or one targeted group. This is a global problem. The consolidation of the online social ecosystem into a few major platforms means that propagandists have ready audiences; they need only blanket a handful of services to reach hundreds of millions of people. And precision targeting, made possible by a decade of gathering detailed user behavior data (in the service of selling ads), means that it is easy and inexpensive to reach any targeted group.

And here are five takeaways from the two reports:

  1. To a degree not fully appreciated, the Russian operation relentlessly targeted African-Americans.
  2. One clear Russian goal, pursued on multiple fronts, was to suppress Democratic turnout in 2016.
  3. All of the emphasis on Facebook has obscured the huge role of Instagram, as well as the Russian activity on many smaller platforms.
  4. Why are we still talking about this more than two years after the election? (Answer: because it’s still going on.)
  5. After the United States government and the social media companies exposed their operations, did the Russians stop doing this? (Answer: of course not.)