Barack Obama was right. Russia is a pariah for good reasons, and all the worse for ‘having nothing that other countries want.’
Recent news of extensive Russian infiltration of American social media sites is hardly a surprise. We have known for some time that a country that has retreated from its once-blossoming democracy has been interested in sowing discord in ours. Authoritarian regimes tend to be lazy. It seems to have been easy to ‘play’ American social media to confuse and divide Americans. On the available evidence recently released in two Senate Intelligence Committee reports, the Putin government decided it would do its best to use hostile and divisive information to undermine the Clinton campaign in favor of Donald Trump’s. As is increasingly apparent, the President has an indecent soft spot for Russian money and power. By contrast, the former Secretary of State was always far more critical of Russian ambitions generally, and the annexation of Crimea in particular.
To be sure, it requires a selective memory for any American to criticize others for meddling in the politics of a foreign nation. We used to make it a habit in Latin America and sometimes the old Soviet Union. Even so, it’s a stunning act of hubris when the leader of a government that can’t even decide if they will tolerate rap music decides American elections are fair game. Russians exploited our personal and media freedoms to disperse bogus opinions that were ostensibly from Americans, many apparently aimed at alienating African American voters.
It’s an understatement to note that Russia looks desperate and weak to enforce authoritarianism values at home while exploiting the freedoms of other nations. Barack Obama was right. Russia is a pariah for good reasons and, to paraphrase him: all the worse for ‘having nothing that other countries want.’
The tech sector has always been slow to see the effects of their technologies on the lives of their users.
Aside from possible complicity for our own President, what makes all of this news of Russian interference worse is compelling evidence that major social media giants suppressed awareness of these planted ads, opinions and news stories. According to the Senate reports, a Kremlin-backed group uploaded over ten million tweets to Americans, 1100 videos and over 30 million Facebook posts. All appeared to be coming from Americans.
Facebook is an especially egregious case. Born as the plaything of privileged kids luxuriating in their own narcissism, the fast-growing company expanded under the thrall of being another tech money machine. It’s leaders failed to notice or did not care that Facebook was fast becoming a new kind of agora: a digital version of the town square cherished long ago by early Greek democracies. Along with Google, Youtube, Twitter and Instagram, it prospered on the illusion that it was functioning as just a “personal” form of media. It was meant to make it possible to observe others’ best versions of themselves. Yet the problem with this orientation was that their leaders were slow to notice that their house was on fire. They were abetting a colossal fraud on the American public. Apparently the self-presentation mirror is too alluring to be bothered by bigger ideas like fairness and democracy.
Social media executives tend to see themselves as being in the ‘common carrier’ business, providing channels but not content. Instead, we must begin to insist that they view themselves using the higher standards that apply to content providers. Perhaps they merit less regulation than broadcasters. But the days of making connections without noticing the social havoc they can create need to be over.
The tech sector has always been slow to see how the aggregation of people over time and space would have important consequences for the soundness of our Republic. Too many have been neither interested or motivated to function as corporate citizens, in the full sense of that phrase. As hapless tools of Russian disinformation, they have become a drag on the nation, doing too little too late to protect America’s fragile open society.