Leading tech executives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for a second day of testimony as senators from both sides of the aisle took the companies to task for allegedly failing to defuse Russia’s attempt to sway American voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election with propaganda campaigns.
“What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber-warfare,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.”
Sen. Feinstein’s acknowledgement that this may be the beginning of cyber warfare is a very important one to make and reflects that cyberattacks can have very real consequences.
Russia and other state actors have been able to use non-traditional media platforms to influence Americans for two reasons:
1. There appears to be a general lack of trust when it comes to the traditional media
2. Social media marketing / propaganda can create an echo chamber that feeds itself
Propaganda produced by Russian spies may look very similar to political opinions from valid American organization. This line blurring is intentional. The Russians know what they are doing. “Hacking” is the latest form of espionage, and what’s being discussed on Capitol Hill this week is just the latest in a long list of Russian efforts to gain an advantage over the United States.
Because of these blurred lines, tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter may not be in the best position to police themselves alone. The intelligence community (our spy hunters) are best able to police social media. Facebook and Twitter should work closely with the U.S. intelligence community to:
- Remove Russian (and other state-actor) propaganda from social media feeds
- Hunt spies that prey on gullible social media consumers
- Locate and neutralize terrorists that use social media platforms as recruiting tools
Some media have reported that Facebook and Twitter are hiring individuals with U.S. security clearances. This may be in an effort to give these organizations a seat at the table during classified government efforts to stamp out Russian disruption. This may also be so Facebook and Twitter can establish their own in-house counterintelligence operations.
The most important thing to consider is that this conversation does not, and should not, end this week on Capitol Hill. Nor should we be looking to place the blame on any single organization. The ability to sniff out and neutralize spies will take a concerted effort from multiple organizations. As soon as we acknowledge that cyberattacks can have real-world consequences, as Sen. Feinstein has done, the closer we will be to shutting the door to future propaganda campaigns.