Social media — the 21st century’s strategic weapon of mass destruction
Recently, Carnegie Mellon University researchers analyzed over 200 million tweets discussing COVID-19 and related issues since January.
According to researchers, almost half of the tweets discussing the virus appear to be bots, including approximately 620 of the 1,000 most active accounts and 41 of the top 50. Further, the study indicated that the botnets and influence activities line up with the Russian and Chinese cyber warfare playbooks.
The Russians are already working to introduce chaos and distrust into our election system and daily lives.
It is critically important that we not forget that the Russians (as well as the Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians, other enemies and probably some of our allies) are not just trying to deceive and inflame conservatives; their goal is chaos and diminishment or collapse by deceiving and inflaming everyone, regardless of political affiliation. It seems they are succeeding, which is a problem for the U.S.
As a historian and a former Army officer during the 1980s, I spent a great deal of time studying the Soviet Union’s conventional and unconventional tactics. The Soviets — today the Russians — were very fond of economy of force measures afforded through asymmetrical warfare, preferring insurgency, fifth column and psychological tactics (including supporting terrorist groups around the globe and fomenting revolutions in as many small countries as possible).
Make no mistake about it, our enemies are interfering in our domestic affairs making it tempting to lay all responsibility for our current challenges at their feet. However, they are only exploiting existing fractures within our society. Destabilizing powerful enemies is the objective, but twisting the truth is one of many weapons, one that is much more effective and difficult to trace, exploiting internal weaknesses.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media are at the core of this damage. Social media platforms are extremely vulnerable. They offer distinct opportunities for hostile exploitation and are relatively untraceable — the data feedback on who responds allows for more targeted manipulation and the initial input of information takes on a self-replicating life of its own.
The purpose of social media platforms may have originally been to provide connection, and perhaps even be arbiters of truth. But over time, mounting evidence shows bad actors have used social media to nefariously manipulate its users. Politicians are also no strangers to bending the truth on social media. Twitter recently flagged President Trump’s tweets, but social media doesn’t always do its due diligence to fact-check, and false information still floods its platforms every day.
Regardless of their original design, the goal of social media companies today appears to be generating revenue, which they do through selling marketing data to whomever will pay for it. They provide their audience with a medium for connection and, in doing so, acquire all the information they can about that audience. They then sell the information, regardless of whether that paying customer has good or bad intentions.
There is no moral position as long as such companies generate marketable data — and the more inflammatory the communications, the better they can target their markets.
Posts, memes and messages are not screened to eliminate misinformation or disinformation; conservatives and progressives alike benefit from false information on social media.
One recent example is a set of posts leveled against Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with killing George Floyd. Chauvin became the subject of fake photos showing a man that looked like him wearing a “Make America Great” hat and also appearing on stage with President Trump at a rally. Needless to say the pictures went viral. Though already debunked, the fake photos served as a false narrative to fuel those on the left opposing anything Trump, and also, those opposing police brutality.
False messages are passed on because they reflect the sentiments of the person creating the post, or the sentiments they intend to incite from those who might see it. Most users are not in the habit of analyzing the information that comes across their screen. If they agree with the sentiment, they likely pass it on without taking the time to check the facts. Unfortunately — and too often — there are small untruths, frequent half-truths and outright lies in this information.
Continuing to share erroneous information is more damaging than it is helpful. It allows our opponents to argue with us about accuracy rather than the underlying issues.
Social media venues have the potential to offer unimagined connectivity, but they are vulnerable to malignant outside manipulation. If, as the Carnegie Mellon University research suggests, the all-too-often foreign generated counterfeit posts are aimed at sowing social and political division and isolation, how much more damaging will these efforts be as we approach our election season?
Since social media companies have taken a largely “laissez-faire” approach to fact-checking, each of us has an individual responsibility to verify the posts we come across. That means taking time to do the necessary research. If we do not take up this responsibility as individual users, we are doomed to follow the path of all of history’s other great world powers to the dustbin of history.
Erin Russ is a Transgender and LGBT senior advocate, consultant and community educator in Tucson, Arizona, and is Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.