Responses to the Advent of Geopolitical Cyberwarfare
By CRISTIAN ZARAGOZA | November 21, 2017
Within the past couple weeks, tech giants Twitter, Google, and Facebook met with the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the US government’s growing concern over foreign entities’ activity on these platforms. The concern stems from Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election in which Facebook estimates as many 126 million users were exposed to 80,000 Kremlin-linked online posts. Facebook has traced as many as 3,000 ads to the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA). This news adds to ongoing concerns about Russian meddling in the election with the Russian military-backed hacking of the DNC’s servers. The latter was a prominent issue late in the elections that negatively impacted Clinton’s campaign. Many question how this cyber activity impacts the American public beyond our virtual experiences. The effects of Russian cyberwar have spilled over into American streets.
Kremlin-led cyber activity has been traced to fake accounts promoting divisive content intended to stir up existing political divides. An example of this activity is the IRA’s control over a fake black activist page on Facebook, which posted videos of police brutality accompanied by descriptions to incite the black community to form negative images towards American law enforcement. In addition, IRA activity has been linked to the creation and promotion of real-world protests that took advantage of anti-Trump sentiment immediately following the election. One such event motivated as many as 5,000 to 10,00 protesters to march from Union Square to Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Although the issue of police brutality along racial lines and anti-Trump sentiments are not new to the country’s political discourse, the Kremlin-backed agency’s attempt to further foment these divides reveals their less-than benign intentions. By promoting these events and creating ads to further the political divide, the Kremlin hijacked these social platforms and weaponized them against the US. Thus, the effect goes beyond merely instigating trouble on a post’s comment section. The effect is manifest in the real world and presents a threat to US domestic stability. This issue presents US politics’ vulnerability to the malicious use of social media platforms.
Russia’s capacity to influence political discourse and electoral outcomes is a grave concern for US officials as well. In the meeting between the general counsels of the tech giants and legislators, Senators expressed great frustration with the tech companies’ reluctance to approach the issue in a way that the Senators deem sufficient. Senator Feinstein (D-CA), who represents California’s Silicon Valley and its tech community in the Senate, emphasized the importance of addressing such concerns:
“What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.”
Here, Senator Feinstein reveals how critical this concern is to the overall geopolitical standing of the US. Its vulnerability to outside influence, especially a geopolitical rival, threatens to undermine the stability and unity of the US. By successfully sowing discord and intense tension in the political discourse, Russia weakens the position of the US government by diverting attention and resources to restabilization of the domestic arena. A polarized domestic arena can disrupt a unified drive to achieve US foreign policy objectives. Thus, US government officials want tech giants to take aggressive, concrete steps to curb further misuses and abuses of their platforms which negatively affect US interests and stability.
In the hearings between the tech companies and Senators, US officials offered potential next steps. The officials advocated for the formal institution of transparency in the ads’ appearance on the social platforms. This move would result in the implementation of rules that resemble existing restrictions and regulations on political ads on TV and the radio. As a result, ads on Facebook and other platforms would have to disclose who funded the ad. Other proposals from officials included the prohibition of ad sales from entities that use rubles to complete transactions. Other officials, who were not present at the committee hearing, proposed a more overtly vengeful approach to remediating the issue. Senator McConnell (R-KY) advocated for these tech giants to make amends with US law enforcement by weaponizing the platforms against Russia in retaliation.
Yet, these tech companies have been wary in their responses and reluctant to take drastic steps. Facebook, for example, is unsure of how to respond to the issue. The tech company does not want to set a precedent of silencing speech from non-US entities on the social network, as this could potentially be used against other groups in the future. The content of ads is a non-issue for Facebook as it does not believe foreign entities violated their terms in that context. However, Facebook is concerned with foreign-entities’ misrepresentation of themselves as American users on the site. If it was transparent, Facebook would have no recourse to condemn and restrict its online activity. Instead, Facebook has proposed to hire additional screeners to comb through ad purchases for the presence of fake accounts.
Google is taking a similar approach in its refusal to take drastic action against accounts deemed as tools of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, such as Russia Today (RT), which the US intelligence community considers Russia’s top propaganda diffusing platform. However, Google has deactivated accounts associated with uploading divisive ads and posts that were later shared on YouTube. Google has proposed an additional step towards transparency by issuing an annual report about who is buying political ads and how much they are spending. Twitter has responded more aggressively by implementing a more robust screening process, like Facebook promises, but it has also shut down RT’s and Sputnik (another Kremlin-backed news/propaganda organization). Thus, there is some degree of response by the tech community on the issue, but these tech giants can do more to increase transparency in who promotes these ads.
It will be interesting to see how the US government and tech giants will interact to cooperatively quell the vulnerabilities to the abuse of social media platforms. With the advent of cyber warfare as a key element in the geopolitical realm, this issue will become increasingly important. The integrity of elections, the security of American institutions, and our position as near-hegemonic in the international arena are at stake if we do not find a solution soon.