Facebook unfriends the Russians

Facebook unfriends the Russians
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Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Facebook won't remove doctored Pelosi video | Trump denies knowledge of fake Pelosi videos | Controversy over new Assange charges | House Democrats seek bipartisan group on net neutrality On The Money: Conservative blocks disaster relief bill | Trade high on agenda as Trump heads to Japan | Boeing reportedly faces SEC probe over 737 Max | Study finds CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay Zuckerberg met with Winklevoss twins about Facebook developing cryptocurrency: report MORE sat in his Harvard dorm room back in 2003, kinda buzzed, and dreamed up a way to use the internet to connect a bunch of goofy undergrads in largely unimportant ways.  Killer idea, dude. The rest is hundreds of billions of dollars of history. But Zuckerberg probably never imagined that his baby eventually would provide a cool new tool for the world’s spies.

And yet, on Tuesday, Facebook announced that it had uncovered a “coordinated political influence campaign” that used “inauthentic accounts and pages” over the past year to stir the pot on a number of lightning rod issues on both the left and right. Our politicians, who are usually actively engaged in their own brand of coordinated political influence campaigns, were quick to speculate that the Russians were behind it and that they must still be trying to influence our elections.

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The politicos are likely correct on the first point, and not so much on the second. The methods revealed by Facebook this week track with those exposed by the FBI’s investigation and special counsel’s indictment of 13 Russians earlier this year. The Russians, among all of our hostile adversaries, are the most practiced at, and dedicated to, what’s called “active measures” in the intelligence world. It’s a euphemism for political propaganda designed primarily to sow discord and division among the American people.  The Russians have been at it for a very, very long time.

 

Division and discord within our country is the first and traditional Russian goal, not necessarily swaying an election — despite the fainting spells of the political class since 2016. If the Russians want to pick winners and losers in the upcoming midterm elections, then a few dozen fake social media pages written in stilted English and buried among the gazillion other posts and tweets out there probably aren’t going to move the needle.  

It’s also important to keep in mind that Russian or other hostile intelligence service manipulation of social media, although troublesome, is not the main threat we face from these bad actors. In fact, it’s down the list a fair bit. Frankly, it’s been disproportionately amplified by politicians worriedly clutching their seats. Of far greater concern and potential harmful impact is the progress made by Russia and one or two other countries toward direct interference with our power grid. Our Intelligence Community has been warning of this for several years now. Yet, congressional attention to this truly substantial threat seems paltry by comparison.

That said, Russian — or any hostile intelligence service — exploitation of social media platforms is a legitimate counterintelligence concern and the FBI is prudent to monitor and investigate the trend lines. Facebook is to be commended for its proactive stance this week. It’s good citizenship. They are a legitimate business, providing a legitimate service, and they are no more at fault for nefarious use of their platform than Verizon is for cell phone usage by drug dealers. Facebook often finds itself in no-win arguments accused of arbitrary censorship on the one hand and failure to police fake news on the other. Had he gotten a glimpse of all this back in his dorm room, Mr. Z would’ve reached for another beer.

FBI counterintelligence officials are hopefully focused on where all of this is headed.  Current efforts by the Russians to exploit social media still have training wheels attached.   Their impact so far is arguably negligible, but they’re learning and, encouraged by the semi-hysterical reaction to their modest efforts to date, they aren’t going to give up. The potential for real havoc is within sight. Social media platforms and the internet they ride on have breathed new life into the world of espionage. The risk and cost of deploying spies overseas have been greatly reduced now that fruitful intelligence operations can be carried out from a bland cubicle well inside the motherland.

It’s encouraging to see cooperation between the FBI and Facebook when it comes to hostile foreign attacks against the American people and their rightful access to truthful, trusted information. Truth should never be a casualty. Trust is the currency of our way of life. Even ideas born in a dorm room long ago can one day find themselves in a noble fight.  

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and the first principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.