Social networks’ features — not their bugs — make US democracy vulnerable
His proposals include legal standards to fight online disinformation and a cyber-security agency, separate from law enforcement
US elections are threatening to become the "World Cup of information warfare, in which US adversaries and allies battle to impose their various interests on the American electorate." This powerful statement comes from a knowledgeable source: Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos, who left the company this month.
Stamos suggested ways to avoid this dystopian future in a post for the blog Lawfare. He confessed that his "personal responsibility for the failures of 2016 continues to weigh" on him. But he hasn’t been able to strike enough distance from Facebook to admit that it’s social networks’ key features, not their security bugs, that are responsible for making US democracy and its marketplace of ideas vulnerable to dishonest, unscrupulous actors, both foreign and domestic.
His proposals include legal standards to fight online disinformation and a cyber-security agency, separate from law enforcement or the intelligence agencies, that would be focused on defending against threats. Stamos, who will teach at Stanford University in September, also wrote it is necessary to decide "how finely political influence campaigns should be allowed to divvy up the electorate, even when those campaigns are domestically run and otherwise completely legal."
He calls for quicker law enforcement, political and cyber responses to meddling. This all makes sense — up to a point.
There is no way for any censor, with or without government authority, to determine that information is false before social networks’ viral distribution mechanisms disseminate it far and wide. Unlike a professional media organisation, no one on Facebook or Twitter is legally or ethically obliged to correct false information. Nor are the platforms themselves. Besides, there’s often no single source for the disinformation — lots of entities, fake and legitimate, can spread it at the same time.
Any regulation that doesn’t change these basic rules will be unable to fend off Stamos’s vision of the evolution of American politics. Any regulation that does change these operating principles will threaten to kill off social media as we know it
Reining in disinformation
The advent of social networks has made media a free-for-all. If anyone, named or anonymous, foreign of domestic, paid or not, sane or crazy, honest or crooked can be a news source with an unlimited distribution potential, there’s no way to rein in disinformation. In this kind of marketplace, anything goes because everyone competes for attention on the same terms. That’s the great democratic appeal of social media.
It’s also what powers Stamos’s bleak vision of an infowar World Cup, in which US adversaries such as Iran, China and North Korea, domestic influence groups, along with US allies seeking to promote candidates, can use the same tricks as the Russians, whose social network campaign in the 2016 presidential election "required only basic proficiency in English, knowledge of the US political scene available to any consumer of partisan blogs, and the tenacity to exploit the social media platforms’ complicated content policies and natural desire to not censor political speech."
Stamos clearly is uneasy about the micro-targeting of political messages to specific voters. But micro-targeting is the core of social media platforms’ business models. If it’s legitimate for selling goods, why shouldn’t it be used to spread ideas? If direct political messaging were regulated but micro-targeting wasn’t, political actors would find other ways to propagate their message: books, media articles or charitable causes. That kind of regulation probably won’t be a deterrent. When Russia banned alcohol advertising on television, companies started taking out ads for mineral water with the same labels as their vodka.
Social networks are extremely efficient at spreading information within filter bubbles that exclude those who don’t belong, with economics based on slicing and dicing the audience after pressuring people to give up as much personal data as possible. Any regulation that doesn’t change these basic rules will be unable to fend off Stamos’s vision of the evolution of American politics. Any regulation that does change these operating principles will threaten to kill off social media as we know it.
Maybe that wouldn’t be the worst outcome, given the emerging links between the platforms and politically motivated violence. The transformation of social media could be the path toward a cleaner, more honestly competitive democracy, too. It’s likely too late, however, to try squeezing the toothpaste back into the tube; it’s not just the 2018 US mid-terms that it’s "too late to protect," as Stamos writes, but all elections in the social media-infested US. Unless, of course, voters eventually take matters into their own hands and learn to resist online manipulation.
• Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and/or its owners.