Facebook, politics and foreign influence

Controversy continues to swirl over Russia's influence the last US election, particularly through Facebook and social media. But is foreign intervention really new?
Foreign-planted news stories, like those recently disclosed on Facebook, are nothing new, says historian Heidi Tworek.

It hasn't been a very good year for Facebook. The social media giant always seems to be on its back foot, as it defends itself from apparent abuses of its algorithm: from allowing neo-Nazis to be a target market for advertisers, to seeing its "Facebook Live" feature used in violent ways.

But perhaps the largest revelation several months ago, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg conceded that fake ads had been circulating on the platform, many placed by fictitious groups. Groups created, in many cases, by Russian propagandists.

The ads, as well as posts, were designed to inflame the already tense racial relations in the US, as well as spread so-called fake news.

It looks like we've entered a whole new era of disinformation. But maybe not as new as most of us think.

Heidi Tworek teaches international history at the University of British Columbia, She says that the lines between journalism, propaganda and purported espionage have long blurred, "since [modern] journalism began in the 19th century."
Heidi Tworek (UBC)

In the leadup to the Second World War, the U.S. was so concerned about Nazi-planted news stories showing up in the American media that it created special legislation to monitor them.

The legislation still exists, and is now being used to look into the alleged Russian Facebook stories, she says.

During the Cold War, stories were planted in an attempt to fan the flames of civil rights issues, for example, which is not terribly different from the attempts to exploit racial tensions in the US today, Heidi says.

But she also adds that there is little evidence that foreign attempts to highjack domestic news have been very successful.

Heidi concedes that never before has there been a platform so widely used as Facebook, on which "hundreds of millions of people spend at least an hour a day" reading.

Also, Facebook makes it much easier for anyone to create ads or plant fake news stories.

During the cold war, it took a concerted, likely government effort to get stories inserted into foreign mainstream media. Now, "teenagers in Macedonia" can create a false story that goes viral, she says.

Heidi admits it's a thorny issue to solve, and will have to involve social media platforms taking action like banning the use of bots.

Ultimately, she says, it comes down to basic media literacy - and teaching people to discern what is a credible source, and what isn't, she says.


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