A Brief History of Online Influence Operations

from Lawfare

The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series resumed last week, revealing that the platform took action against an online campaign to set up a new right-wing “Patriot Party” after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Earlier this month news outlets reported that a number of former employees excoriated the company’s content moderation practices in their departure emails. And on Oct. 25, a dozen news outlets released new stories based on yet more leaked Facebook documents. In congressional hearings on the initial Facebook leak, Sen. Richard Blumenthal succinctly captured the tone of the public sentiment, saying that “Facebook and Big Tech are facing a Big Tobacco moment.”

Salacious as these revelations may be, they raise a deeper question: How can it be that society depends on whistleblowers revealing internal studies that could not pass peer review for insight into the societal harms exacerbated by multibillion-dollar companies that hundreds of millions of Americans (and billions of people around the world) use for hours every week? 

It’s not like the stakes are low. As America’s deeply challenged vaccination effort so strikingly suggests, misleading facts, conspiracy theories and political disinformation circulating online could pose a clear and present danger to democratic society. But beyond observing the coincidence of a poor public health response and widespread misinformation, there is very little high-reliability research on the impact of online influence campaigns and disinformation.

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2 Comments

  1. An important point that the article highlights is, “The European Commission developed a code of practice on discrimination with several of the major platforms. And a range of organizations including private firms, academic research groups, and non-governmental organizations began publishing case studies of online disinformation efforts. And then in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and countries around the world were deluged with content that could clearly be labeled disinformation.” This really brings into question how ethical can companies be when it comes to publishing information to people that can be misleading and cause major distress or concern to the people. Especially with the internet becoming a part of our everyday lives it is easy to be influenced by the amount of media there is. Furthermore, this brings into question how much should we rely on technology? Is it worth having all of these additions to make life more convenient? Because then certain events like the ones stated in this article happen an example of this by the article are how terrorist groups use media and the internet to spread fear rapidly. This works because almost everyone has access to some sort of news outlet or internet. Not only that the article goes on to state how the internet has been basically weaponized by other organizations that don’t have to be explicitly titled as bad. This all goes to show how much influence the Internet has on society and to speak truthfully technology like this still is pretty new considering how much people fall for these instances of fear and etc. The internet can be quite intimidating too because it is impossible to be MIA as well since nothing can truly be hidden if some type of internet is present in the vicinity. Also, it is almost undeniable that media has an influence during important events like the Presidential election considering how there were numerous protests and hate that were going around the Internet because of lack of reliable information and an abundant amount of misinformation. That is why transparency is really important and is starting to become almost ideal for some companies which attract a lot of attention and make the company image look good to the public as well. So much is changing and progressing it is sometimes difficult to keep up with because there is still so much that needs to be learned when it comes to the internet, especially for younger generations that are growing directly into this new age of technology.

  2. Since bursting onto the international scene in 2004, online influence operations have grown to be a major threat to society. The term online influence operations refers to efforts, made by an organization, to persuade people to join their cause, often using propaganda, disinformation and fear tactics to drive home their point. This threat first made mainstream news in the early 2000’s when videos posted by Iraqi insurgents focused international attention on online terrorist propaganda. Terrorist organizations in Iraq and throughout the middle east began using the internet as an effective way to recruit, spread ideas and share knowledge. During this period, the number of terrorist organization websites increased from fewer than 100 in 2000 to more than 4,800 by 2007. The increase in the number of these websites, run by organizations such as the Taliban, al-Shabab and al-Qaeda, can largely be attributed to the rise of social media, as they continued to increase and develop their presence on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Terrorist groups’ use of the internet generated fear amongst those who believed it could be used as an effective tool for radicalizing people without making physical contact. While the internet did enable terrorist groups to cast a wider net and familiarize individuals across the globe with their views, it ultimately proved ineffective at generating sustained terrorist activity.
    It wasn’t until the next decade that online influence operations really began to assert itself as a major threat to society. Nation-states, such as Russia, began weaponizing the internet to promote disinformation to sway public opinion. This was particularly evident in 2012, during the Syrian civil war, as members on all sides consistently posted fake videos in attempts to discredit their opponent. Social media was littered with pro-government activists presenting their views and coordinating hacking with Twitter activism to discredit organizations reporting on government human rights abuses, with help from Russia. Russia’s participation in online influence operations was also evident during the Ukranian Revolution, where they combined military aggression with traditional propaganda and social media campaigns to shape perceptions of the conflict and weaken public resolution within Ukraine.
    In 2016, Russia turned its attention to the U.S., as it began it’s online information campaign targeted at the presidential election. The Russian influence operation represented an unprecedented level of direct interference in U.S. politics by a foreign power, deploying tactics such as using social media to stoke tension on hot-button political issues, hack-and-leak operations targeting the Democratic National Committee, and efforts to break into the voting systems of multiple states. The events of the 2016 election opened the door for a number of online influence issues in the U.S., with “Fake News” being one of the top issues. These issues only intensified as the effects of Covid-19 began to take over the world. The internet was flooded with false narratives such as the virus originating from bat soup or as a bioweapon, and preventative measures such as injecting cleaning products or using animal medicines. This immense accumulation of false information caused the World Health Organization to create the term “infodemic” to describe the scale and speed with which disinformation surrounding the pandemic spread. Currently, many countries and global organizations are moving to create widespread legislature to combat the spread of disinformation. Moving forward, lawmakers will have a difficult time combating disinformation, as it requires a delicate balance between censoring fake news and preserving freedom of speech.

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