Indictment: Social media firms got played by Russian agents
Friday’s election-interference indictment brought by Robert Mueller, the U.S. special counsel, underscores how thoroughly social-media companies such as Facebook and Twitter were played by Russian propagandists.
And it’s not clear if the companies have taken sufficient action to prevent something similar from happening again.
Thirteen Russians, including a businessman close to Vladimir Putin, were charged Friday in a plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media propaganda. The indictment said the Russians’ conspiracy aimed, in part, to help Republican Donald Trump and harm the prospects of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The alleged scheme was run by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm based in St. Petersburg, Russia, which used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to try to influence the White House race. The messages also sought to denigrate Trump GOP primary rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and to support Clinton’s Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders.
“I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people,” wrote one of the defendants, Irina Kaverzina, in an email to a family member obtained by investigators.
Tech companies have spent months pledging to fix their platforms ahead of the upcoming midterm elections this year, and reiterated those promises Friday. Twitter said in a Friday night statement it is “committed to addressing, mitigating, and ultimately preventing any future attempts to interfere in elections and the democratic process, and to doing so in the most transparent way possible.” Facebook thanked U.S. investigators for taking “aggressive action” and pointed out its own role in helping the investigation.
Researchers, however, noted that the companies’ business incentives don’t necessarily align with improved security and anti-hoaxing measures that might have frustrated Russian agents.
The indictment confirms earlier findings from congressional investigations that Russian agents manipulated social media to promote social division by mimicking grass-roots political activity. It also underscores that the problem wasn’t just “bots” – i.e., automated social-media accounts – but human conspirators who fine-tuned propaganda and built online relationships with American activists.