Congressional Democrats declared the U.S. to be under “ongoing attack” from Russia via social media in a furious letter sent to the heads of Facebook and Twitter on Tuesday. The Silicon Valley giants, they demanded, must investigate yet another instance of possible Russian interference in American democracy and report back by Friday.
Their freakout centered on a hashtag — #ReleaseTheMemo — that third-party research suggested was being deployed by the Kremlin’s infamous army of Twitter trolls and bots to “intervene and influence our democratic process.”
Yet the fury and accusations on Capitol Hill reveal a stark truth, experts said: Over a year after the U.S. intelligence community determined Russia had indeed sought to influence the 2016 American presidential election, nobody seems to have much of an idea how to stop a similar campaign from happening again — whether by Russia or anyone else.
“Russian activity is the canary in the coal mine for a much bigger problem,” said Ben Scott, an adviser to the State Department under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for internet freedom, cybersecurity and the role of social media in public diplomacy. “The tools the Russians are using are built for advertisers, which means they are available to anyone.”
Last week Twitter began sending out messages to 677,775 people informing them they had inadvertently followed, retweeted or liked a tweet sent by a Kremlin-linked account. Facebook has said 126 million people in the U.S. may have seen at least one of the 80,000 posts produced by Russian-government-backed agents.
“I think social media companies have a much broader problem than Russia on their hands.”
But amid the soul-searching in Silicon Valley and accusations from Capitol Hill, “Memogate” and its subsequent hashtag — #ReleaseTheMemo — illustrates the complicated trade-offs between security, authenticity, and free speech involved in trying to make Twitter and Facebook safe for democracy, analysts and experts told VICE News.
“I think social media companies have a much broader problem than Russia on their hands, in that they need to decide how they want to be used,” said Olga Oliker, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.
"Russia’s current involvement in U.S. politics and media is part of long history of political powers using information to shape public opinion, both domestically and internationally,” said Karina Alexanyan, a researcher studying technology and society at Stanford University’s MediaX with a background in Russian social media. “The difference today is in the methods and tools being used — namely the internet and social media."
“A foreign government tried to influence the American election, yes, but that’s not actually that weird.”
Russia does appear to have tried to mess with the American electorate online, experts and intelligence officials agree. But now, the specter of “Russian intervention” seems to have taken on a life of its own in U.S. politics, Oliker said.
“A foreign government tried to influence the American election, yes, but that’s not actually that weird,” Oliker said. “Governments try to influence elections all the time.”
Memogate stems from a a still-classified memo written by Republican congressional staff that, supposedly, accuses the FBI of an orgy of spying.
Republican members of Congress claim the document contains damning conclusions, and are calling for it to be released — a cause first taken up in right-wing congressional and media circles, where the likes of Sean Hannity railed about the memo being “far bigger than Watergate,” without specifying exactly what’s in there.
With apparently unintended irony, Republican Congressman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania said the memo’s contents remind him of the Soviet secret police: “You think about, ‘Is this happening in America, or is this the KGB?’ That's how alarming it is.”
The hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo exploded in Republican social media circles.
But its engagement wasn’t, apparently, entirely organic. A tool set up by the German Marshall Fund called Hamilton 68, dedicated to tracking Kremlin-linked twitter accounts, registered a massive spike in the hashtag among Russian bots and trolls. That was enough to prompt the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, and the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein, to demand that social media platforms conduct an in-depth forensic examination.
“You’re looking at a fog of data and trying to pierce the fog to see the different shapes moving through it.”
Yet even the group that first registered the spike on Twitter called some of the media coverage on the phenomenon overblown, and stressed that only a fraction of the activity on Twitter could be attributed to Russian cyber bots.
“The overall context and nuance has been lost in much of the reporting,” said Bret Schafer, an analyst who works on the Hamilton 68 project. “Yes, Kremlin-oriented accounts were heavily engaged, but they likely represented a very, very small percentage of the overall engagement with the hashtag.”
In other words, the Russian government may have jumped on the #ReleaseTheMemo bandwagon, but didn’t single-handedly launch the campaign, he said.
And there's the rub. Nobody — not the government, and not the social media companies — seems to really know for sure how much activity is being directed by real individuals as opposed to Kremlin-linked propaganda, said Ben Nimmo, information defense fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who tracks Russian propaganda efforts online.
“You’re looking at a fog of data and trying to pierce the fog to see the different shapes moving through it,” Nimmo said. “But even today, the lack of clarity about what’s going on in these platforms is as bad as it was in 2015-2016. It’s still a fog bank for everybody. And I think that includes the platforms themselves.”
The sheer volume of activity on social media platforms makes it difficult for anyone, including the companies, to even know exactly what’s happening. Last June, Facebook, which employs about 20,000 people, announced it had finally grown to 2 billion user accounts worldwide.
“There’s no possible way you can have a human being policing all those accounts,” Nimmo said. “You can only do it by algorithm.”
Cover image: Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes, a California Republican, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 29, 2017. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)