I spent an hour the other day reading Robert Mueller’s 37-page indictment of the Russian troll farm that spread disinformation during the 2016 election. It is stunning. You must hand it to the Russians: They know Americans better than we know ourselves. They exploited our tribal politics, our utter lack of discernment when judging the validity of information, our freedoms and our rank stupidity. A sizeable number of people actually believed, for instance, that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a suburban D.C. pizza joint. One fool from Salisbury even showed up with a weapon to free the kids. Think about that.
Mostly, the Russians exploited our rights to free speech and our social-media networks, primarily Twitter and Facebook. They are mentioned dozens of times in the indictment. Russian trolls created fake identities and groups to spread disinformation. Dozens were employed 24 hours a day to comment on tweets and Facebook posts. They posted more than 80 million false comments on Facebook. They then relied on our willingness to believe almost anything that reinforces our biases. Millions of Americans became unwitting Russian stooges by spreading these lies on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. In that way, a preposterous story about a child sex ring in a pizza parlor goes viral and, in so doing, achieves a level of truthfulness.
And, yet, Facebook and Twitter have done nothing meaningful in response. Facebook officials have said it’s not their job to judge the truthfulness of what appears in your news feed, but they’ve given you the opportunity to do so. What could possibly go wrong by allowing users to rank the value of the “news” they receive in their feeds?
Facebook has also altered the algorithm behind its news feed so content created by a user’s Facebook friends is more prominent than posts from businesses, mainstream media outlets and other major pages. So instead of news from legitimate sources you’ll see the link from your buddy to a fake source created by the Russians. The echo chamber remains.
I assume this all about money. It usually is. To create traffic and support advertising rates, Facebook’s business model relies on virality over truth. To make serious changes, such as deleting obviously fake accounts or tracking the origins of news posts, would probably cost users and result in lower ad revenue.
Without serious reform, Facebook and Twitter remain threats to our democracy because every national election will now be subject to foreign manipulation. Once candidates get the hang of it, even school board races won’t be safe.
Facebook and Twitter, I know, will have to be forced to make the needed reforms. I also know that the president and the politicians who control Congress won’t do it. They benefit from Russia’s ongoing attack on our democracy and Facebook’s smugness and lack of transparency.
It will be up to us.
Twitter was easy. I rarely use it. I cancelled my account today.
Facebook will be more difficult. I use it frequently to keep up with friends and family, communicate with constituents here in Swansboro and post random thoughts about this, that or the other. I plan to start a web or blog site and gradually direct my Facebook friends there. In a couple of months, I’ll take down the Facebook site. I’ll lose followers, but so be it. I’ll only post town business on Facebook until then.
If enough of us take this action, Facebook will be forced to change its business model or go bankrupt. I hold no hope that will happen, however. As someone who spent a lifetime as a journalist trying to discern the truth as best I could, this all irks the hell out me. If all this action does is make me feel better about myself and remain true to my profession, I guess that’s good enough