Social Media and Tech guru Robert McNamee has written an essay about social media called “How to Fix Facebook– Before it Fixe Us.” He focused on the use of bots that are being used to create fake hype to push various agendas and affect elections. He warns about the dangers of allowing such bots to change the narrative of a democratic society.
The essay reads, to me, more like further groundwork to justify government intervention for the good of the whole. Rather than focus on educating people to think more critically and learn to separate the bots from the humans, the ‘fake news’ from the ‘real,’ Mcnamee (and others like him) is taking us down is one in which the state keeps us safe from our own stupidity, nevermind the fact that the state is “us,” so if we’re stupid, well, so is the state.
Our final hypothesis was that 2016 was just the beginning. Without immediate and aggressive action from Washington, bad actors of all kinds would be able to use Facebook and other platforms to manipulate the American electorate in future elections.
These were just hypotheses, but the people we met in Washington heard us out. Thanks to the hard work of journalists and investigators, virtually all of these hypotheses would be confirmed over the ensuing six weeks. Almost every day brought new revelations of how Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other platforms had been manipulated by the Russians.
We now know, for instance, that the Russians indeed exploited topics like Black Lives Matter and white nativism to promote fear and distrust, and that this had the benefit of laying the groundwork for the most divisive presidential candidate in history, Donald Trump. The Russians appear to have invested heavily in weakening the candidacy of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary by promoting emotionally charged content to supporters of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, as well as to likely Clinton supporters who might be discouraged from voting. Once the nominations were set, the Russians continued to undermine Clinton with social media targeted at likely Democratic voters. We also have evidence now that Russia used its social media tactics to manipulate the Brexit vote. A team of researchers reported in November, for instance, that more than 150,000 Russian-language Twitter accounts posted pro-Leave messages in the run-up to the referendum.
The week before our return visit to Washington in mid-September, we woke up to some surprising news. The group that had been helping us in Washington, the Open Markets team at the think tank New America, had been advocating forcefully for anti-monopoly regulation of internet platforms, including Google. It turns out that Eric Schmidt, an executive at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is a major New America donor. The think tank cut Open Markets loose. The story line basically read, “Anti-monopoly group fired by liberal think tank due to pressure from monopolist.” (New America disputes this interpretation, maintaining that the group was let go because of a lack of collegiality on the part of its leader, Barry Lynn, who writes often for this magazine.) Getting fired was the best possible evidence of the need for their work, and funders immediately put the team back in business as the Open Markets Institute. Tristan and I joined their advisory board.
Our second trip to Capitol Hill was surreal. This time, we had three jam-packed days of meetings. Everyone we met was already focused on our issues and looking for guidance about how to proceed. We brought with us a new member of the team, Renee DiResta, an expert in how conspiracy theories spread on the internet. Renee described how bad actors plant a rumor on sites like 4chan and Reddit, leverage the disenchanted people on those sites to create buzz, build phony news sites with “press” versions of the rumor, push the story onto Twitter to attract the real media, then blow up the story for the masses on Facebook. It was sophisticated hacker technique, but not expensive. We hypothesized that the Russians were able to manipulate tens of millions of American voters for a sum less than it would take to buy an F-35 fighter jet.
In Washington, we learned we could help policymakers and their staff members understand the inner workings of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. They needed to get up to speed quickly, and our team was happy to help.
If you choose to read the whole essay, what you will discover is that Mcnamee is decidedly focused on alleged bots that advocate for “right” or “conservative” issues or candidates, as if the state itself has not deployed bots, as if the “left” has not also deployed bots. Mcnamee is shocked the right wants to use the state to destroy the progressive power center in Facebook, Twitter, and Google, but more than eager to attempt to use the state to destroy the right’s counter to the power that his side, the ‘left’ deploys.