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We need online civility as nation recovers from Russian influence

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Our nation remains acutely vulnerable to online social media manipulation, both from foreign actors like Russia, and nationalists at home intent on undermining our civil discourse. This past week, Facebook, as well as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took important independent steps toward improving our national information resiliency. The president may find benefit from sowing domestic discord and ignoring Moscow’s attack against our democracy, but the rest of us must rally behind a whole of nation effort to improve our digital literacy. Government, industry and consumers all have important roles to play.

The two actions are not game changers by themselves, but they do two important things. The Senate Democratic report, “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security,” provides at least some federal government framework for addressing the threat, notes steps allies are making, and offers ones we should take. Facebook, for its part, announced last Thursday that it is making major changes to its news feed to improve the veracity of what people see on their screens.

{mosads}This is another concrete step in Facebook’s deep pivot toward social responsibility. Chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg acknowledges that the changes may lead to people spending less time on his platform, but that the time spent on Facebook will be qualitatively more reliable and conducive to more national cohesion. Less conspiracy theory and fake news, and more verified information help all of us be smarter citizens. It also helps secure Facebook’s long-term viability as a safe, reliable place for information.

Two months earlier, Facebook announced it would allow users to check whether any articles or information they “liked” or forwarded were in fact fake injects by Russia’s active measures manipulative content generators, like the Internet Research Agency that reached an estimated 130 million users from 2015 to 2017. This kind of transparency is essential to national resiliency and improves digital critical thinking for those willing to make the effort.

The Democratic member Senate Foreign Relations Committee report highlights the stakes and important steps our democratic allies in Europe are taking to counter Russian information operations. The European policy steps are intended to inform and educate people that a foreign state, in this case Russia, is taking active measures to interfere in their democratic process and promote social fissures. An important theme in the actions is the centrality of government leaders acknowledging what is taking place and that the public must be discerning about what it sees and hears in social media.

National leadership is essential for girding the populace. Political parties in Germany have even agreed to not use bots or paid trolls in their election campaigns. Another under-discussed step in the United States that Nordic nations are making is putting more public education emphasis on online literacy and critical thinking. None of us should accept something to be true because one source says it is, but all of us should be armed with the tools to evaluate sources of information, and whether there is malevolent and manipulative intent behind the reporting.

This, of course, contrasts sharply with the actions of our president who seems to believe his personal and political advantage in actively discrediting our government and free speech institutions outweigh the national interest. Expecting all Americans to spend the time carefully researching the credibility of what is pushed to their screens is not realistic or attainable. We can become better consumers of information, but providers must take responsibility for curating willful fiction from actual news.

Facebook’s announcement is an important acknowledgement by the world’s largest and most influential content platform that commingling advertising and paid for promoted stories in its news feed is dangerous. Long gone are the days when tabloid reporting was contained in tabloids and national newspapers disaggregated advertisements from content. Too often newspapers, journals and media platforms are commingling content and advertisements, with the paid stories meant to look like regular reporting. We have a long way to go in reversing this trend, even if doing so means fewer advertising dollars. Interestingly, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper now asks for small donations at the end of articles, so it can be a viable and trustworthy source of free information less reliant on sponsored content.

The recent steps taken by parts of our government and by the world’s largest digital content provider are small relative to the scope of the challenge. But they do highlight some essential principles that must be advanced if we are to be a stronger, information resilient nation. First, government action highlighting the threat is essential for there being a climate conducive to solutions. We need our government to proactively speak to the threat and encourage all of us to be smart consumers of information.

Second, content providers are vital to making us more digitally discerning. Moving from click driven content determinations to models that better promote a range of reporting is necessary and, in the longer-term, good for the bottom line. Third, more of us must be willing to invest in trusted information. If we want clean, vetted, trusted journalism than we are going to have to pay for it. Business models that rely on the commingling of sponsored content designed to fool us into believing it is the same as the news articles on the same site is dangerous. The bright line needs to be restored.

Finally, we must take ownership of our digital literacy and critical thinking. We will be suspect to Russian active measures designed to discredit our system of government and social cohesion only if we fail to recognize it as the dangerous threat it really is to our democracy.

Todd M. Rosenblum is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center of the Atlantic Council. He was previously a senior official at the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is a former staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Tags Ben Cardin Democracy Facebook Mark Zuckerberg Politics Russia Technology

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