After Facebook, it's Twitter's turn to put its foot down
MANILA, Philippines – In late April, Facebook came out with a white paper detailing how certain actors are using its platform to shape information, public knowledge, opinion, and sentiment.
One of the most important statements in that paper was the admission that governments were in on it. Governments and political candidates know the power of online platforms and that, with a little hocus-pocus, can turn it into a tool serving their agenda and goals. (Read: Facebook says gov'ts exploited its platform to manipulate opinion)
Facebook came up with a neat umbrella term for these cunning, insidious tricks: "Information Operations." These are organized propaganda campaigns that make effective use of the massive reach of online platforms such as social networks and the lightning speed at which information is delivered on these. You can read Facebook's white paper here.
One recent example of these operations are the French elections. Then-hopeful and now French President-elect Emmanuel Macron was the target of an information leak, the Macron Hack, released just before the elections took place. The leak spread on Twitter and Facebook like a bomb explosion, fast, furious, over before you know it. Read: Macron blasts huge hacking attack just before French vote)
Macron won, foiling the objective of those behind what is essentially a hit-and-run info-ops sortie.
The timing of the leak demonstrates how agile information operations could be. It could be a long-term campaign to whittle away at the reputation of a political target; or, as the Macron Hack showed, a quick strike to turn the tide in favor of a losing political opponent.
Facebook, in their paper, said that the speed at which information spreads on social networks is one reason why propagandists use such platforms; a few weeks after the paper's publication, the world is given a demonstration – and at a historical turning point for a country, no less.
Information operations are shaping the world. And the world is being shaped by information that's not good, honest information at all times, obviously. It's information that has "authentic material" mixed in with "fake documents" as some analysts have described the Macron dump in a Reuters piece – a description that could very well be the definition of the whole of the internet.
Part of the onus is on an individual's ability to discern and their level of media literacy.
Another part is on the social media platforms themselves. Facebook took concrete action in April when it cracked down on 30,000 fake accounts in France, deleting those with a high posting volume and large followings. It has also said that it is using AI to identify more types of abuse, which is now able to detect "repeated posting of the same content or abberations in the volume of content creation."
Twitter has been more nonchalant.
A study by the University of Southern California (USC) and Indiana University published in March 2017 revealed that up to 15% of all Twitter accounts are bots. Fifteen percent translates to about 48 million accounts, as per the estimates made during the publication of the study.
These bots made their presence felt during the Macron Hack. New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth said that 5% of #MacronGate users account for 40% of the all the tweets under the hashtag. The concentration of tweets coming from such a small percentage of accounts implies a bot network being used to amplify #MacronGate. These are the "false amplifiers" that Facebook labeled in its paper: a swarm of fake accounts making noise for a certain purpose, in the process drowning out opposing voices.
Perlroth, further implying bot use in the case, cited that the most prolific of these tweeted 1,668 times in 24 hours, faster than one tweet per minute – without any sleep.
As Recode notes, Twitter may "have been caught off guard with what is obviously a bot attack," despite recent statements and actions from Facebook, despite the university study, and despite its own admission earlier in the year that 8.5% of all the Twitter accounts exhibited bot behavior, as reported by CNBC.
Twitter hasn't said anything significant about #MacronGate or the general bot problem in recent months. When one media outfit asked, all the social network did was point to their policies that prohibit automated posting for trending topics and the creation of multiple accounts sharing the same posts.
The darned bots appear to have disregarded Twitter's rules and policies.
Twitter, in late April, also didn't respond to tech publication ZDNet's inquiry about the growing number of bots on the platform.
We reached out to Facebook for their thoughts on the Macron leak but they declined to comment. Twitter declined to comment as well.
The current lack of a satisfying answer leaves one to wonder: Is Twitter ignoring the problem, hoping it goes away? Facebook had its "media-company-tech-company" dilemma in 2016 but has since been more accepting of the role they need play given the current landscape.
Facebook has been active during national elections around the globe. Just this week, it said it deleted thousands of fake accounts in the UK in the run-up to their June elections, also running newspaper ads on how to spot fake news and implementing new technologies identifying fake account behavior. It has also run the said ads in Germany and France.
Twitter, for its part, used its time to replace their default "egg" profile photo with a human silhouette because of the former's association with anonymous abuse.(Read: Twitter drops default 'egg' profile photo, replaces it with human silhouette)
Twitter hasn't been able to turn the kind of profit it expected when ot went public in 2013. The proliferation of fake accounts and bots on the system – and the company's seeming lack of an action plan about these – certainly won't help it attract or keep users.
Facebook proposed a "whole-of-society" approach to fight information operations. That fight invariably includes Twitter, home to more than 300 million users – most of them, actual people.
Put 'em up, Twitter. – Rappler.com