Time for Twitter and Facebook to grow up

Twitter and Facebook must grow up

Today Twitter is being criticised for not banning the US shock jock Alex Jones. Jones had been using his Twitter feed to argue that the Sandy Hook school massacre was a put up job. Twitter suspended his account for a week, but subsequently allowed him back. This has been a bad year for social media companies. Twitter´s problems follow on from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which not only implicated Facebook in targeted political campaigning, but also revealed the extent to which Facebook monetises its users´ data.

The problem is that social media companies may be sophisticated in the way they monetise data, but they remain remarkable naïve, almost innocent, when it comes to politics and geopolitics. They continue to insist that they are neutral platforms allowing their users to build and develop their social networks. As such, they see themselves as forces for good in the world (let us briefly forget the commercial side), who are occasionally abused by bad people.

Thus, whether dealing with Cambridge Analytica or Russian troll factories, Facebook presents itself as the victim. They cannot understand that it is the very structure of their platforms, and in particular the algorithms that deliver their commercial success, that support the bad guys and shape the nature of information warfare in the 21st century.

The algorithms that drive social media are designed to ensure that users get adverts only for products or services that they are likely to buy. They are an advertiser´s dream. But they also ensure that users also only get the news that they are likely to welcome, or new friend proposals of people like them. With 70% of American adults admitting they got at least part of their news from social media in 2017, this matters. Social media companies did not invent the echo chambers in which we only talk to people like us and only listen to news and opinions that fit in with our existing prejudices, but they are reinforcing them. Russian information warfare takes advantage of this.

Information warfare

Russian information warfare does not aim at convincing western publics about the correctness of Russian policy positions. Rather it aims to destabilise and fragment western societies, including the European Union, undermining confidence in all narratives, especially government narratives. It does not want to argue for the truth of what the Russian government says, but to undermine the very concept of truth. Because it does not aim to convince (and hides behind surrogates) it does not have to be coherent. It can segment its messages for different echo chambers. Thus one Russian troll farm was producing separate fake news stories designed to appeal to both Alt-Right and Black Rights groups in the US. The social media algorithms ensure that the fake news stories arrive in the echo chambers pre-disposed to believe them.

The same social media algorithms so useful to Russian information warfare frustrate the counter efforts of western governments. Western governments (and organisations like NATO and the EU) aim to counter the fake news stories, not engage in tit for tat information warfare (at least for now). This means that their messages must be coherent and convincing. But if they depend on social media to spread them, the algorithms will ensure that the messages will reach only those already disposed to believe them. In other words, western governments and organisations reach only those who already agree with them.

There is an ongoing conflict between the west and Russia (and to some extent China and Iran) being waged in cyberspace. Russian information warfare, aimed at breaking up the political and social cohesion of western societies, is part of it. Shock jocks like Alex Jones, wittingly or not, are also part of it. Social media companies are not neutral networking platforms, but active players in geopolitical conflict. At the moment the platforms they run, and the way they run them, are facilitating information warfare.

There is no neutral space in this conflict. Social media companies must decide whose side they are on. Either they collaborate more fully with Western governments, including sharing information about their algorithms, or they risk further damage to their reputations, and progressive loss of advertising revenues. Who wants to advertise through the troll farm´s friend. Ultimately they risk Western governments using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc to respond to Moscow in kind, reducing their platforms to a wasteland of information warfare. It is time for the social media companies to grow up.

About the Author

Shaun Riordan
Shaun Riordan is Director of the Department for Diplomacy and Cyberspace in the European Institute of International Studies and a senior visiting fellow of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, “Clingendael”. He is also an independent geopolitical risk consultant. A former British diplomat, he served in New York, Taiwan, Beijing and Madrid, as well as the departments of counter-terrorism and the Eastern Adriatic in the Foreign Office. Shaun has taught at diplomatic academies in the Dominican Republic, Spain, Armenia and Bulgaria. He is the author of “Cyberdiplomacy: Managing Security and Governance Online” (Polity, 2019), “Adios a la Diplomacia” (Siglo XXI, 2005) and “The New Diplomacy” (Polity, 2003). He maintains a blog (www.shaunriordan.com) and can be followed at @shaun_riordan