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.)