Having manually studied and reported on fake Twitter accounts for nearly two years, I am struck by how little attention fake social media accounts have received by mainstream media as well as the United States government. While the accounts themselves are fake, their power and impact are quite real—as the UK Commission’s “Investigation into the Use of Data Analytics” (Final Report, PDF) helped us to understand.
The lack of attention is particularly concerning given that the UK has made their investigation reports available to the public. Additionally, we’ve been warned by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who announced that the cyber-war against America (in large part via social media) has not stopped. It hasn’t even slowed. On the contrary, Wray said that the cyber-war has continued “virtually unabated.”
With fake social media accounts at the heart of the cyber-war against us, why haven’t we stopped them?
The Cyber-War Disconnect
There is a disconnect in how people view cyber-war from physical war. War is typically in person, combative, and deadly. Cyber-war is different. Nobody is dodging a bullet from a fake account. Instead, the damage caused by cyber-war is inductive, making it difficult to connect the dots between what appear to be individual, fake accounts spewing hate and the real-world damage they cause en masse.
And make no mistake. The fake accounts are psychological warfare on a mass scale. This is what intelligence agencies and government officials are really talking about when they say that Russia obtained our private data and has been micro-targeting us. Once Russia had the data, all they had to do was collate it and add a few algorithms. Then, “bam!”—they knew the “sweet spot” to manipulate you. Yes, you. And your neighbor. And the rest of the millions of people exposed to them on social media.
If you think that sounds absurd, consider this:
It’s impossible to be on social media without encountering fake accounts and the power they have to promote and amplify nefarious messaging. There are hundreds of millions of fake accounts on Twitter alone. Those hundreds of millions of accounts work together to amplify specific messages, giving the messages a facade of popularity. And that popularity is something that can (and does) attract real users. This is how the fake accounts have become socially disruptive—and even dangerous.
Some of the real-world damage fake accounts have created and helped to foment includes:
> Influencing World-wide Elections
> Measles Outbreaks
> Rise of White Supremacy
Fake Social Media Accounts Influence World-wide Elections
While the Mueller Report (PDF) made it clear that Russia used fake accounts on social media to help impact the 2016 United States elections in favor of Donald Trump, the United States is not the only country that the fake accounts have continuously targeted. Brazil, Israel, Africa, England, and India are just a few of the other countries whose elections have been impacted by fake social media accounts.
Fake Social Media Accounts Promote Terrorism
Terrorists have long used social media to promote their ideologies as well as their violence. And they have not been shy about using fake accounts to amplify their messaging.
Fake Social Media Accounts Incite Riots
Fake accounts have also been used to incite and encourage violent protests—worldwide. From the Catalonian referendum to France’s Yellow Vest protests, fake accounts spread disinformation, used inflammatory messages to sow deep divisions, and doggedly fueled the rising outrage.
Fake Social Media Accounts Spawned a Measles Outbreak
A new wave of fake anti-vaxxer accounts have moved Twitter to “redirect” anti-vax searches to a government website that gives information debunking anti-vaxxer myths. This new wave is alarming because it has happened before—and people died as a result of the amplified messaging of such accounts.
Fake Social Media Accounts Amplify Anti-Semitism
Democracy is at Stake (no hyperbole necessary)
Social Media platforms like Twitter claim to be doing the best they can to deal with the fake accounts. However, the continued, real-world damage conceived and spread from fake social media accounts clearly demonstrates the lackluster efforts by the platforms.
Aside from a few Congressional hearings with platform CEOs, the United States government has also done next-to-nothing to stop the cyber-attack on social media platforms.
The United States is paying a heavy price for the interference of fake accounts already. But the problem is bigger than just us; it’s world-wide. It is, effectively, World War III. And if we don’t intervene to stop the fake accounts quickly, democracy as we know it will be dead. But, don’t take my word for it.
We need to wrap our heads around the severity of the cyber-war and then we must act—quickly. Democracy everywhere depends upon it.
Written by Virginia Murr
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