Protecting Russian Propaganda: Dangers of Trump’s War against Social Media

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You can find the original article in the newspaper “Europeyskaya Pravda“.

Last week was marked by spiraling escalation of the stand-off between Donald Trump and social media. This time the conflict went beyond insults and it now risks spilling over to the legal field. 

President of the USA signed an executive order regulating social media. 

Such a step, due to its obviously populist nature, will undeniably gain support from a large number of users. 

Still, a closer look demonstrates that this decision actually opens a Pandora box, diminishing the role of fact-checkers and gives the go-ahead for coordinated disinformation in social media.

Is Anything Allowed? 

Relationship between Trump and media has a long and complicated history.

Back in his time, calling renown media akin to CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABS News and other fake news Trump expended the circle of his media enemies, drawing in the social media that, in his opinion, “silence the conservative voices”. 

Here it’s worthwhile to note that the 2016 victory of Trump himself was unlikely without the social media. Still, back then neither Twitter, nor Facebook took regulatory steps that are practiced now. 

A couple of days before the order was signed, Twitter marked two presidential tweets, signifying the information they contain needs to be checked. It’s an unprecedented measure, for which fact-checkers and experts on countering disinformation have been working for years. 

Trump was enraged by the step and immediately declared war on social media, announcing that he will find a way to punish them all. And he did. 

Executive order signed by Trump will make it possible to amend the bill adopted back in 1990-ies. 

According to it, since social media operators are “platforms” or “forums”, but not traditional outlets, they bear no responsibility for the content posted by users. 

Nevertheless, – and it is extremely important – they at the same time have legislative protection when blocking posts that have been recognized as obscene, violent or “otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected”.

This important detail enabled social media to start a fight against disinformation, blocking specific posts and dubious accounts. 

Trump’s order suggests revoking this immunity if the network blocks messages, labels them with warnings or marks them at its own discretion – thus, according to Trump, demonstrating its “unchecked power”.

If beforehand private companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube could establish their own rules and standards (as The New York Times columnist Kevin Roose justly noted, this is similar to restaurants that may prohibit entrance to inadequately dressed people), now the new order will force social media to think hard before checking a post, which, in its turn, opens substantial possibilities for influence operations.  

Social Media of Hybrid Operations

Why does it matter? 

To understand the level of potential threat, we should rewind a little and take a look at the part social media played in spreading disinformation. For instance, in Ukraine.

In 2014 we observed Kremlin’s disinformatory operations in social media on the unprecedented scale, targeting events in Ukraine. It is now difficult to establish what price we as society had to pay for our gullibility and absence of coherent policy towards disinformation on behalf of social media. 

The goal behind these operations may vary.

In our case it was more or less understandable. To reach its strategic goals it was (and still is) important for Kremlin to bring Ukrainians up against each other in a turmoil of an actual civil war so as to demonstrate to the world the country’s governmental incapacity to deal with internal challenges.  

In 2014-2016 social media became a battleground of Russian-Ukrainian war. The impressive role of these platforms was later discovered in regard to events in other countries, in particular, those in the Middle East and Northern Africa. 

Nevertheless, social media leadership has not, for a long time, been eager to take action against the mayhem under their very nose, as it was often skillfully played out by professionals at the direct service of Kremlin. 

For a long time those who fought against disinformation in all its forms and those responsible for social media policies have been living in two parallel worlds. 

Then we had a stroke of luck. In 2016, following each other, the start of Brexit and presidential elections in the USA took place.

In both cases Russians used a tactic they have honed with Ukrainians – polarizing specific groups via social media.

After lengthy inquiries and admitting the role of Russian intelligence in electoral meddling, social media were forced to face their own responsibility. 

This is how a new era started, in which professionals that have been working on the issue for a long time and called for action were suddenly heard.

Facebook and Twitter representatives all of a sudden became frequent guests at specialized conferences. There they first had to listen to an infinite amount of complaints, which subsequently deepened their understanding of the problem and ultimately resulted in the change of specific policies. 

Freedom of Speech or Chaos?

Absence of the clearly established rules is among the main complaints social media have to face. In particular, which criteria do they use when banning one type of content, but ignoring the other as controversial as it may be. 

This results in conspiracy theories and distrust towards the companies. 

If, according to Mark Zuckerberg, they “should not be the arbiter of truth”, this option could at least be left to those who are involved in professional fact-checking. 

One of the promising examples is a recent start of cooperation between Facebook and Ukrainian organization StopFake. The latter checks information and, if there is unreliability, sends evidence to Facebook, after which the post might be marked respectively. 

Obviously, checking posts en masse is extremely difficult (if at all possible), but it at the very least allows establishing sources of false information with the largest number of followers. 

These changes are far from perfect, however, they are incomparable to the chaos that has reigned supreme on these platforms until recently. 

Deeper analysis showed that disinformation campaigns do not exclusively target geopolitical issues of importance, but all areas of our lives: vaccination, animal rights, space industry, racial issues or pandemics – as now.

Sooner or later any of these topics may evolve into an actual conflict. This is why blocking bots and their entire networks was met with unquestionable enthusiasm on behalf of the experts. These measures do not yet match the scale on which malign actors carry out their activities, but it was perceived as a good start. 

Freedom of speech should not be confused with chaos. 

Russia was obviously livid and, having traditionally accused the Western world of Russophobia, transferred part of its resources to propaganda in more suitable messengers – Viber and Telegram (in the countries where they are most popular).

After years of hard work and even occasional impromptu compromises between both sides, this new order risks to take us back from where we started.

It is surprising that this decision would originate in a country that has directly suffered from propaganda campaigns in social media. Even if President Trump does not think so, considering he has won the elections, it still puts institutional capability of the USA on a line. 

This step is aimed at protecting not the citizens of the United States, but, first and foremost, Donald Trump himself. 

* * * * *

Social media find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea. On one side they have those who share populist belief that any kind of censorship should be impossible on the platforms, and they have American President himself on their team. On the other side are those who have been for years monitoring the dangers behind utter mayhem on social platforms – and understand just how broad are the possibilities for interference opened by it. 

There is no doubt that the voices of those who have electoral interests will be the loudest and the most effective in this choir.

It will, therefore, be difficult for social media to protect their users’ right to reliable information. 

Liubov Tsybulska, Head of Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group at Ukraine Crisis Media Center