Last week, the University of Southern California’s Centre on Pubic Diplomacy published a blog post by Mark Dillen titled “Battle of the Bots”. In this post, Dillen cites a recent study which found that a large majority of Tweets originating from Russia were in fact written by automated Bots who may serve two purposes: cluttering conversations or “altering search results, internet rankings, top lists and other automated tools for sorting, sharing, discovering, and consuming online content”.
This is by no means the first blog post, or study, to focus on Russian online disinformation campaigns. Communication and diplomacy scholars have been paying increasing attention to Moscow’s use of online platforms to manipulate foreign public opinion through half-truths and lies. Such studies are usually also critical of Western countries who have failed to counter Russia’s online narratives, mainly due to the limited funding of information agencies which have been neglected since the end of the Cold War.
In this blog post I focus on what I view as a specfifc subset of information dominance, that which is practiced on social media. Russia my be attempting to achieve one form of social media information dominance- ensuring that its narratives of events are the ones that take root in the minds of social media users. However, the US and its Western allies are also aiming for a form of social media information dominance– creating mass databases about online users.
In this post I explore both forms of information dominance and their impact on diplomacy.
Russian Social Media Information Dominance
Social media has for some time exceeded its original use as platforms for maintaining and creating social ties. Social media users now use these platforms in order to access information regarding the world they live in. Such information comes in various forms. For instance, a Facebook user may “Like” a newspaper following which he will receive a steady flow of articles and commentary published by that newspaper. The same user may also read the comments appearing at the end of a newspaper article. In addition, a social media user can review the comments posted by other social media users thereby gauging public sentiment on various issues. Finally, one may earn about the world through posts published by his “friends”.
In all such cases, the social aspect of social media comes into play. Yet what happens when this aspect is manipulated by a country?
Studies suggest that Russia has sought to spread disinformation on social media as it views the manipulation of foreign public opinion as a tool for waging war without employing military power. Automated social media Bots enable Russia to do just that. They create a false online public sphere thereby distorting our understanding of public sentiment. They cause us to believe that more people support certain causes than they actually do. They lead to believe that the political tides are changing. They can even lead us to support a certain policy, or view an event in a certain light, given our desire to belong to a majority. At its extreme, disinformation on social media can cause a spiral of silence in which the majority thinks it is a minority. Such spirals can, in turn, lead to civil unrest as social protest movements believe that the tipping point in their struggle has arrived.
It is the example of spirals of silence that exemplifies social media infromation dominance.
Thus far I have dealt with the impact of disinformation on social media at the national level. Yet diplomacy is a two level game involving the national and the international. How does social media disinformation impact the practice of diplomacy?
Recent years have seen the migration of MFAs to social networking sites. As part of this migration, diplomats have been urged by their MFAs to monitor, and evaluate, social media discourse. Such evaluation is supposed to offer insight into public opinion and gauge public sentiment. As such, social media discourse is viewed as a valuable resource in foreign policy analysis and formulation. For instance, many have argued that it was MFAs’ unawareness of the importance of social media that let them to be surprised by the intensity and result of the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir square. As one British diplomat famously asked- would we have been more prepared for the Arab spring had we been monitoring #Tahrir?
Yet what would have happened if many of the Tweets bearing the Tahrir hashtag were actually automated Tweets published by Russian Bots? Diplomats may have deduced that the social protest movement in Egypt was much bigger than it actually is. MFAs may have recommended that their nations abandon Egyptian President Mubarak given a flawed evaluation of his staying power. This, in turn, might have actually weakened Mubarak forcing him out of office yet under false assumptions.
The plot continuous to thicken when nations attempt to analyse how they are viewed by foreign populations. It is quite possible that the US embassy in Kabul has deduced that America’s is viewed locally as a militaristic empire not because of what people actually believe, but because what Russian Bots are writing online en masse. This in turn may influence a wide array of US policies ranging from from its support of a certain government to a shift in regional focus.
Finally, Russian Bots may even sway elections which have both national and international ramifications. A recent estimate states that’s some 40% of all social media content written during the last Israeli elections originated from Bots. Such Bots may have caused people to believe that the Israeli right wing was about to lose the elections. For some, this was a sign to stay at home and not bother voting for the left. For others it was a sign not to abandon ship.
One can only imagine the impact Russian Bots can have on upcoming elections and referendums in Europe such as Brexit.
US Social Media Information Dominance
Thus study of disinformation often focuses on Moscow. Yet Washington is also attempting to gain social media information dominance albeit of a different form.
As of 2016, the American social network Facebook has 1.65 billion registered users throughout the world. WhatsApp, a messaging application that is owned by Facebook, connects another one billion people while Instagram, which is also owned by Facebook, has some 400 million global users. Likewise, Twitter, which is based in the US, connects 500 million users while the American Snapchat has 100 million daily users. American companies do not run the social media world, they own it out right. Subsequently, they own one of the largest human database ever to be amassed.
Social media companies know our likes and dis-likes, our political and sexual orientation, our work habits, our closest friends, our eating habits, drinking habits, sleeping patterns and even frequency of using a toilet. This database can predict our likelihood of voting for a certain party, the kind of romantic relationships we are likely to develop, the possibility of our getting married, our ability to cope with stress, the likelihood of us being dedicated employees, our likelihood to commit a crime and even the possibility of our joining of a terror group.
The existence of such a database may not be so daunting if it was not owned entirley by American companies and if the American government did not have an affinity for abusing this database. As Edward Snowden and recent deliberation in the Court of Justice of the European Union revealed, the US National Security Agency directly tapped into Facebook to extract data on users from all over the world as did its British peer GCHQ.
Ironically, both GCHQ and the NSA now operate social media accounts.
Other American social media sites may have also provided information on their users following secret subpoena issued by secret courts established in the US after 9/11. And while some US laws are meant to protect American citizens from such espionage, no such laws protect the citizens of foreign countries.
US companies have established another form of social media information dominance that is manipulated and abused by the US government. And this form of social media information dominance is just as problematic as the Russian one. For through this database, the US government may spy on Israeli, Turkish, British, and French citizens. More importantly, the US government may use such information to predict financial and political processes which impact its foreign policy. Here again the link between social media information dominance and diplomacy is made apparent.
Yet there is another important issue which relates to the fact that MFAs, embassies and diplomats the world over all use American social media sites, and messaging apps, in their practice of digital diplomacy. What is to prevent the US government from accessing chats between a group of diplomats on Facebook? Or to read direct messages sent on Twitter between two negotiators at a summit? Or to read the messages of a WhatsApp group of Ambassadors in Geneva? After all, before escaping to Russia, Edward Snowedn was based in Geneva, the capital of multi-lateral negotiations. The US govenment may even use the social media database to obtain private information on high ranking foreign diplomats and world leaders (e.g., Anglea Merkel).
Contending with Social Media Information Dominance
My argument in this post is that both Russia and the US are attempting to gain a form of social media information dominance. Moreover, I argue that both forms present challenges for the practice of digital diplomacy. Awareness to these challenges is not enough. Practicing digital diplomacy should also entail formulating digital policy, be it in regard to the false content spread by Russian Bots or the need to secure the privacy of global social media users, including diplomats.