Below is an archived edition of Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly email newsletter. This edition was published on 09/17/2017. Members of Factual Democracy Project have access to past editions. Subscribe to Ctrl Alt Right Delete

What the Zuck?

It’s been an interesting year watching Americans wrestle with the reality that Russia interfered in our elections, and used powerful American-born social media platforms to manipulate us. Facebook plays such an active role in many of our lives. It’s how we keep in touch with people, express ourselves, and consume news and information. Given how integrated social media now is in the fabric of our lives, it’s unsettling to realize just how extensively these platforms have been weaponized. It’s even more unsettling to imagine foreign governments using social media to manipulate us. No one likes to admit that they were duped, that they’re capable of being duped. Which is likely why Russian interference in our election hasn’t really sunk in. Even when we see the evidence, it can be hard to accept that we were victims of a successful attack.

But the evidence is impossible to ignore. A Russian firm purchased at least $150,000 of Facebook ads targeted at American voters. The same firm ran troll accounts on Twitter that praised Trump and demonized #BlackLivesMatter. Russia attempted to move Trump supporters up the ladder of engagement by creating anti-immigrant rally events on U.S. soil. The same group produced pro-secessionist Facebook content in Texas for months leading up to Election Day. If you want a full picture of just how extensive Russian social manipulation is, Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda report has a lengthy case study outlining what happened. It’s a sobering read.

America was duped. Bigly. It’s still happening.

Much of the outrage is directed at Silicon Valley, most notably Facebook and Twitter. There are calls for Facebook and Twitter to testify before Congress about Russian interference. Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said that what we know about Russian interference might be only the “tip of the iceberg.” It’s also rumored that the Mueller probe has a “red hot focus” on social media. Twitter founder Evan Williams copped to social media being part of the problem in a BBC radio interview this week, saying that, “The much bigger issue is not Donald Trump using Twitter that got him elected, even if he says so; it is the quality of the information we consume that is reinforcing dangerous beliefs and isolating people and limiting people’s open-mindedness and respect for truth.”

Tech companies have a lot to answer for. Consumers are pissed and I hope both Congress and citizens keep up the pressure. But I’m also hopeful that with all this new information, we can have a broader conversation about internet weaponization.

Three things we need more discussion/awareness of:

  • Social media weaponization is a global problem. That Computational Propaganda case study on America I referenced earlier is one of nine. They worked up equally extensive reports on ChinaRussiaPolandBrazilCanadaGermanyUkraine, and Taiwan. Elections in Germany are a couple of weeks away and the far right (and let’s be honest, the Kremlin) are using the same tactics as they did in America last year.
  • Russia didn’t invent racism, misogyny, or any other prejudice. They’re simply tapping into things that already exist in our culture and amplifying them. Even if we were able to end computational propaganda, that won’t make people less bigoted. Our prejudices are a weakness that are being exploited. As Shireen Mitchell said on my bots call this week “There’s so much conversation where folks want to say that virtual is different from real life and they don’t understand the connections between the two.  And until we figure that out, or we accept that reality, then this will continue to happen and most voters won’t even know they’ve been pushed into certain misconceptions.”
  • Russia isn’t pro-Trump. The goal isn’t to prop up one political party over another. As Jonathon Morgan said on my bots call earlier this week (quoted in the NY Times) “This is more about destabilizing democracy and pitting us against each other to limit the influence of the United States on the world stage.” Social media weaponization in America is a non-partisan issue that masks as a partisan one. But eventually, the shoe might be on the other foot. What information they’re spreading matters a hell of a lot less than the fact that they can do it at all.

Digital literacy needs to be a priority. We’ve spent the past year trying to fact-check our way out of this problem, and as a Yale study reminded us this week, it doesn’t generally work. I’d love to see civil society groups expand media literacy to include digital literacy. Everyone needs a working understanding of social media weaponization: what it is, who’s doing it, how easy it can be, and what tech companies and governments are–and aren’t

–doing to stop it. For all the time Americans spend on social media, we don’t have nearly enough information about how what we see got there in the first place.

Read on Medium


ICYMI

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Coda

Thanks to everyone who participated in our Bots & Computational Propaganda call this week. We had 121 people call in. Read a summary of our call here. A recording of the call will be made available to members next week. Our next call is on Tuesday, September 26 at 1 PM EDT.

Conspiracy Theories & Right Wing Media

Join us for an exploration of conspiracy theories: why people believe them, how the far right employs them as a communication tactic, strategies for countering them, and what to do if you or your organization become part of an Internet conspiracy theory.

Tickets to the call available here.

You can see the complete schedule of calls at the Factual Democracy Project website.

That’s it for this week. Thanks as always to Nicole Belle for copy editing.