Are Tech Titans Just Tools for Russian Meddling in U.S. Politics?

February 27, 2018 - 5 minutes read

Social media platforms are powerful. There’s no denying that. Even in the early days of mobile app development, it was clear that this niche would be a dominant driving force in digital media. From influencers to marketers, it’s hard to remember a time when social media didn’t possess such a powerful ability to sway the public’s opinion.

Unfortunately, it isn’t only outgoing personalities looking to capitalize on social media’s open-forum capabilities. A new type of war is being waged through these platforms, and as new data is unveiled every day, it looks like it’s already had lasting consequences on the United States.

War of the Words

For more than a year, the U.S. general public has wondered if the 2016 presidential election was manipulated by Russian interference. The recent indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has confirmed this to be the case, and the Russian efforts appear to be bigger and more elaborate than originally perceived.

Three Russian entities and thirteen Russian nationals are coming under fire for tampering with the election process. While this act itself is a violation of criminal laws, the methodologies are different than you’d think. And though there was certainly some nefarious activity involved, for the most part, the Russian network of approximately 80 employees wasn’t just hacking its way into everything to influence the public.

The network was simply using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter almost identically to how marketers would: to efficiently deliver a message to targeted groups of people.

Search Engine Optimized Influence

Per the indictment, Russian actors used sophisticated social media strategies similar to that of a large advertising company’s. With search engine optimization, deep data analysis of metrics, IT maintenance, and automated ads, they set out to embed distrust in the public towards the U.S. political system.

Many of the tactics employed by one of the Russian entities, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), come straight from an advertising agency’s textbook. Performance metrics of posts like reach and engagement were thoroughly analyzed and optimized. In some cases, not only were posts designed to elicit emotional responses by focusing on controversial topics, but they were also promoted through the same automated ad avenues that many modern companies utilize.

Where the Russian influence greatly differed from a usual ad campaign was in their efforts to hide who they really were. Virtual private networks, stolen identities, and numerous fake accounts allowed them to keep authorities in the dark and purchase advertisements under aliases.

U.S. officials said in a recent statement, “Defendants and their co-conspirators used false U.S. personas to organize and coordinate U.S. political rallies in support of then president-elect Trump, while simultaneously using other false U.S. personas to organize and coordinate U.S. political rallies protesting the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

Shaking Silicon Valley to Its Core

Since even the advertising industry has trouble correlating ad campaigns to conversions or sales, it goes without saying that it’s been extremely difficult (if impossible) to measure and quantify the actual impact these Russian efforts had on the 2016 presidential election. Regardless, these recent headlines have been anything but good for the San Francisco developers of social media involved.

Over the past year, companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook have kept Congress up-to-date with their findings. As the estimates of people exposed to the propaganda skyrocketed into the millions, many people have begun to call for tighter regulations on these tech titans and their social media platforms.

It has left these tech companies in a tough conundrum. Of course, they’re trying to put a stop to this type of activity, but since these recent Russian efforts weren’t exactly disrupting their technology, but merely just using it, that makes it infinitely harder to enforce¬†any measures. That’s why many of these tech companies are welcoming the government’s help in this matter with open arms.

Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Policy, explains that the tech company is appreciative of the U.S. government’s “aggressive action against those who abused our service.” But he also makes it known that a lot of the legwork depends on Facebook itself: “We know we have more to do to prevent future attacks. We’re committed to staying ahead of this kind of deceptive and malevolent activity going forward.”

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