Disinformation campaign, using false and misleading messages, has been an old technique practiced by countries against each other during peace time as well as war period. But it has become a “dirty” word since last US Presidential elections, which were allegedly manipulated and influenced by Russian cyber operations on social networks.
Not a day passed in the last two years without a new report detailing Russian interference in favor of Donald Trump coming to power. The reports point to state-sponsored widespread campaigns from Russia targeting American voters. While there is merit in these allegations, the US and its Western allies have taken the campaign against Russia to new heights accusing it of interference in every election held or due in Europe.
This has only exacerbated the panic levels in the run-up to the US mid-term elections. Executive orders were issued reversing Obama administration’s restrictions and giving free hand to security agencies to launch offensive operations against any foreign country that is seen meddling in American election process.
Pressure was mounted from both the Executive and the Congress on social network companies, particularly the Facebook, to take measures to prevent their platforms from being misused by Russia and other countries.
A day before the mid-term elections, Facebook dismantled 115 Facebook and Instagram accounts following a tip off the previous night from FBI. 30 of these accounts were on Facebook and 85 on Instagram. On the day of the polling itself, the social network said it had removed misleading information that suggested Republicans vote on Tuesday and Democrats on Wednesday.
Facebook said it had also identified and removed a new influence network that had originated in Iran. The company took down more than 82 pages, groups and accounts, including 30 Facebook pages, 33 Instagram accounts and three Facebook groups. While these disinformation accounts were not directly linked to the Iranian government, several of them were associated with Iranian state media and pushed opinions aligned with pro-government positions.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has described battling the influence campaigns as an “arms race.”
The midterm elections, however, did not throw any major surprises. Democrats regained the House while Republicans improved their strength in the Senate, as projected. US security officials and social media firms said that they did not see any significant foreign interference in the elections. A study by Washington Post in fact suggests that during the current election, it was American political activists peddling disinformation and hate speech, rather than Russians.
The Western campaign against this Russian interference has not deterred but encouraged other countries to follow suit with their own tailored messages on social media against their adversaries. “The Russian playbook is out in the open,” Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat of Virginia, stated.
Iran, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar have all joined the game. Many of them are actually being assisted by American and Israeli companies, which see it as a very lucrative business.
The New York Times says that the Myanmar military’s FB posts incited genocide. Myanmar military were the prime operatives behind a systematic campaign on Facebook targeting the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group. The Social network has a huge following of about 20 million users in the country, NYT report said.
Facebook has admitted its guilt. It has not done enough to prevent its platform from being used to spread hate and cause harm in Myanmar during the violence against Rohingyas last year. Following an internal investigation, FB removed about 64,000 pieces of content and 18 accounts associated with military personnel.
Twitter announced in September suspension of 284 accounts with ties to Iran alleging a “coordinated manipulation”. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in his tweet, questioned the network for shutting the accounts of real Iranians, TV presenters and students for supposedly being part of an `influence op’, while not touching the actual bots operating from Tirana, the Albanian capital, to prop up `regime change’ propaganda spewed out of DC.
Iranian media have accused the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and exiled opposition groups, including the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, which has some members based in Albania, of being behind the social media campaigns calling for regime change in Tehran. Iranian regime have often blocked Twitter and Telegram on national security grounds. The latter has about 40 million users in the country.
Twitter suspended a network of suspected bots mid-October that pushed pro-Saudi Arabia talking points about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. NBC News provided details of accounts that tweeted and retweeted the same pro-Saudi government tweets at the same time.
Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, which tracks online misinformation, said the way the bots operated allowed them to “fly under the radar,” highlighting how the groups behind Twitter bots have adapted to evade bans. “They’re posting the same stuff at the same time repeatedly — that’s a botnet,” Nimmo said.
A similar cyber influence battle is raging between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Qatar on the other. They were aided by western and Israeli technological companies. The recent legal battle between an American lobbyist and Qatar at a California court offered glimpses of this cyber warfare. Elliott Boridy accused Qatar government of “hacking his accounts, stealing his emails and distributing them to US media and other outlets through lobbyists and PR firms.” Besides him and his wife, he identified as many as 1200 other people, including senior officials, from the US, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Syria, as targets.
Such psychological warfare campaigns have been an accepted norm of inter-state relations, both during peace time and war period, but the emergence of social network platforms has brought revolutionary changes in all four components of the campaign, namely the source, content, speed and target audience.
Earlier, it was only the governments and their agents who have initiated such campaigns as only they had financial and media access. Now, everyone and anyone can launch a campaign, which could reach millions of people in a fraction of a second, with devastating effect. Even small incidents in a localized scenario had fanned into a communal violence across the country. Terror groups like Islamic State and Al Qaida have used social networks to create massive support around the world.
Countries like India are highly vulnerable for manipulation as the country is in perpetual poll mode with elections taking place either for local bodies or provincial legislature at any given time. The social networks have massive following in the country due to spread of digitalization. An American Professor referred to a report suggesting Google’s role in influencing Indian elections in 2014 by manipulating its algorithms in favour of a right-wing candidate. Dr. Mike Sosteric, Associate Professor of Sociology, Athabasca University, quoted the study by the National Academy of Sciences in his blog posting on theconversation.com.
Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and Instagram will not do any self-regulation as that would affect their profits. Whenever they take action, they do so only against select groups and countries that too on a tip off from western security agencies. When it comes to China, they bend backwards to follow Beijing’s diktats. The need therefore is regulation. And regulation by an UN body of neutral experts, funded by social networks and Silicon Valley corporations, only can infuse confidence.