New reports produced for Senate investigators reveal alarming new details concerning Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The reports, drawn up by cybersecurity firms, offer the most extensive look yet at Russia’s online influence. I discussed the findings with CNET Senior Producer Dan Patterson, the following is an edited transcript of our interview.
Dan: The reports indicate that a larger volume of content was created by Russian operatives at the IRA across a broader spectrum of websites including Pinterest, Microsoft’s Hotmail email service, as well as Google’s Gmail service.
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Karen: When it comes to the future of social media, this is really putting things into question especially as we look forward to the next election cycle.
Dan: Well, the future of social media is still fairly bright, but maybe the halcyon days of feeling warm and fuzzy about social networking might be behind us. Look, even as interest in Facebook’s big blue app declines, interest in Facebook’s Instagram service continues to increase, especially with younger people. Social media is ripe for influence campaign content because it is all about brand advertising, being able to put a message in front of a highly refined micro-targeted audience and it works for both advertisers and apparently foreign operatives who look to interfere with not just elections here in the United States but around the world. Of course Russia is very adept at influence campaigns, but so is Iran, so is China, and countries like Myanmar who have oppressed minority groups.
Karen: While you’re on that, talk a little bit about who was targeted. Because they were trying to get people just not to vote, but to be disinterested in the process. Talk a little bit about that and about some of the groups that were targeted.
Dan: Some of the groups that were targeted by Russian operatives and the IRA included African-Americans, Latinos, gay men, and other minorities here in the United States. And the purpose was to repress the vote by showing content that was negative against then candidate Hillary Clinton and supportive of President Donald Trump. And of course we saw the metrics of the turnout in 2016. African-American vote was the lowest in 20 years. So if there isn’t a direct correlation, there certainly seems to be some connection between the influence campaign content and GOTV, that’s Get Out The Vote efforts by grassroots organizations that are generally pretty effective at getting groups like African-Americans to vote for particular candidates.
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Karen: When it comes to the platforms themselves, Facebook and Twitter, what are they saying, how are they reacting to this and are they promising things to be better in the future?
Dan: Well, these companies routinely say, “Hey, look, oops, we didn’t realize that this content was so widespread. We’re doing certain measures to protect user data.” This has kind of been a drip, drip, drip of bad news all year for social media firms like Facebook and Twitter. So the real takeaway here for consumers and for businesses is that nobody hosts gigabytes of content for free. And you’ve heard this before, but it’s worth repeating, that if you’re not paying for the service, for a free service, then you are the product and your data is being bought and sold and sometimes marketed to you, content is being marketed to you in ways that may have ulterior motives.