October 23, 2019
IntelBrief: Social Media and the Fight Against Disinformation
Facebook recently announced that it identified and disabled Russian and Iranian disinformation campaigns operating on its platform. Under Facebook and Instagram’s rules governing ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior,’ these groups were banned from operating on these sites, respectively. China has also recently mimicked Russian disinformation tactics, with Facebook removing a number of accounts, pages and groups linked to Beijing that were being used to discredit the Hong Kong protests. In March, in what was a clear signal to the leadership in China, Facebook announced that it would not open data centers in countries that had a proven ‘track record of violating human rights like privacy and freedom of expression.’ Chinese developed apps like TikTok are growing in popularity and can now be considered a legitimate competitor to social media platforms based in Silicon Valley.
The proliferation of bots, fake accounts, and malign disinformation campaigns by state and non-state actors alike is expected to increase significantly in the run up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The Internet Research Agency (IRA) remains active in propagating false stories and creating fake profiles designed to sow doubt and confusion online and introduce divisive issues surrounding American politicians and political debates. Russia will likely be emboldened by the success it enjoyed in meddling in the 2016 United States elections and in other campaigns throughout the world. Beyond disinformation, Russia maintains among the most sophisticated cyberwarfare units in the world, and it was recently revealed that a Russian cyberespionage unit masqueraded as Iranian hackers in order to conceal their identities while operating with anonymity.
Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg announced long-awaited plans detailing some of the steps the social media giant will take to protect its users from disinformation. Perhaps most importantly, the site will provide users with more information about the posts, articles, and advertisements they see on the site. Another new feature will be that Facebook intends to alert users when individuals or groups in their networks are sharing false information. The false information will be flagged and allow users to learn more about why the information has been deemed inaccurate by independent fact checkers. However, as Zuckerberg noted in a speech just recently, Facebook will stop short of scrutinizing the veracity of ads released by politicians, in a concern over free speech and partisanship.
Still, for all of the accounts that Facebook has been able to identify and deactivate, one must wonder how many remain online and continue to operate surreptitiously and with great effect. American intelligence agencies and government institutions will be more prepared than in 2016, but the aggressive and persistent nature of some of the most sophisticated disinformation campaigns means that they will likely succeed, at least to some degree. Further, many more countries are now involved in influence operations carried out online, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and others. As the 2020 election approaches, disinformation campaigns launched by United States’ adversaries will likely focus on sensitive and divisive issues ranging from race relations to abortion to climate change.
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