Facebook and other social media networks are taking steps to make sure their platforms don’t become tools for foreign governments spreading “fake news” stories.
Experts consider the threat level high for these platforms to be used by foreign governments or other entities seeking to influence millions because of their extensive reach and ability to disseminate both malignant links and propaganda.
Concerns are particularly high about Russian actors using the platforms, due to recent reports that Russia sought to influence the 2016 elections.
Although they haven’t singled out Russia as the source of false information spreading across their platforms, Facebook and Google have been taking steps to combat hoaxes that distribute through mediums they control.
In December, Google rolled out a set of features and updates that allow users to flag potentially false stories as “disputed,” triggering a review for validity by independent organizations. Facebook also recently updated its algorithms to preemptively spot potential fake stories.
Google has adjusted its news rankings to prioritize known sites over less established ones in an effort to keep false stories from prominent display. The company has also banned publishers with a track record of spreading false information.
“It is a problem for social media companies to manage [fake news],” said Mike Horning, a communications professor at Virginia Tech who focuses on the intersection of politics and news reporting. “What is the line between fake news and partisan spin?”
“I think that adds a layer to social media that these companies didn’t anticipate,” Horning added.
Although Russia’s influence over the 2016 elections is still unclear, what is clear is that the country has used social media in attempts to spread false information.
In 2014, a petition on Whitehouse.gov calling for Alaska’s return to Russian governance garnered national attention when it accrued tens of thousands of signatures. Researchers at War on the Rocks determined that thousands of Russian-language bots were pumping out links to the petition on Twitter. The Twitter campaign helped the petition gain traction online.
Russian attempts to manipulate U.S. users through social media have gotten more insidious.
A March counterintelligence report described Russians sending tweets containing malware to 10,000 Twitter users at the Department of Defense. If users clicked links in the messages, they were redirected to a Russian server that allowed hackers to take over the user’s phone or computer along with their Twitter account.
Twitter declined to comment when asked if the platform was taking any steps to prevent foreign actors from using Twitter to distribute malware. The San Francisco-based company did however say that it was working to mitigate the effects of propaganda and false information distributed across its website.
“Our algorithms currently work to detect when Twitter accounts are attempting to manipulate Twitter’s Trends through inorganic activity, and then automatically adjust,” according to Twitter. Trends are one of the ways the platform surfaces top news or conversations for users.
Facebook says that it also has been working to make sure that its platform does not become a vehicle for malevolent actors to artificially influence users. Facebook noted in a recent report that it removed thousands of fake accounts in advance of the recent French and British elections.
Facebook also noted that it is taking steps to keep bots, which falsely amplify some types of information and content, off its platform. Experts have said that these types of bots on social media are often used by foreign actors as tools to manipulate trending topics and put misleading or incorrect information in front of real people.
The company stressed that it has not found evidence that Russia or other countries compromised Facebook accounts.
Some experts worry that technology companies cannot completely police their platforms on their own.
“It would be unreasonable for anyone to expect a social media company to try to monitor foreign governments alone,” Horning said. “They don’t have the expertise or intelligence or the assets in their company to do that.”
“There’s also going to be an additional cost burden,” he added.
Facebook, Google and Twitter did not comment on whether they are coordinating with U.S. intelligence agencies. In their report though, Facebook did note that they are “cooperating with government cybersecurity agencies looking to harden their officials’ and candidate’s social media activity against external attacks.”
Experts caution that despite social media’s companies best efforts, threats still loom precisely because of the power of these platforms. The Russian government, in particular, has grown savvy about their uses.
The Russian government “employs the state-to-people and people-to-people approaches on social media and the internet, directly engaging U.S. and European audiences ripe for an anti-American message,” Clint Watts, who has testified before Congress on these issues, wrote in a November report along with fellow social media analysts Andrew Weisburd and J.M. Berger.
U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed Russia attempted to meddle in American politics in 2016. The Russian government has repeatedly denied culpability.
“Trump isn’t the end of Russia’s social media and hacking campaign against America, but merely the beginning,” Watts, Weisburd and Berger warned.