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The American civic duty of facing weaponized social media

Reuters/Dado Ruvic
A 3D-printed Facebook dislike button is seen in front of displayed Russian flag in this illustration taken October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration – RC195918CEB0
  • Heather Timmons
By Heather Timmons

White House correspondent

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

America’s next election is just a year away, and the country is still picking up the pieces from the last one.

This coming week, lawyers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google will tell the US Congress, and the public, how their platforms were used by Russian accounts to spread fear, hate, and division before last November’s presidential vote. While they’re testifying in the US, what they’re saying should resonate from Europe to Africa to Asia, where local elections have been marred by foreign propaganda spread on social media.

We’re at the early stages of the US grappling with how social media may have been weaponized by a foreign government. The next step after companies try to publicly defend themselves should be the unsettling process of examining how your relatives, your neighbors, your high school classmates, and yes, even you yourself, might have been targeted or manipulated.

But there’s no way to do that. These information giants are unilaterally disappearing the evidence—pulling down whole pages and eliminating accounts linked to Russian users. When news organization have unearthed individual examples, social media companies are wiping them from the internet. Some members of Congress are pushing the companies to make these messages public, but they’re resisting.

These companies are also hoping to avoid heavy regulation, by writing new rules themselves. Twitter said this week it would stop taking advertising dollars from Russian state media, and Facebook rolled out new political ad guidelines that include identifying who they reached, and keeping an archive of federal election ads that goes back years. (That won’t include the Russian propaganda targeted to US voters in 2016, however—the archive starts now. )

Trying to eliminate the evidence of wrongdoing while strengthening rules to prevent it in the future is an understandable corporate reaction. But it doesn’t take into account how intertwined Facebook, Twitter, and Google are in voter’s lives. Americans need to be able to see for themselves what was used to try to divide us, or else it could happen again.

Our next test is coming fast—there are 34 Senate seats and all 435 in the House up for grabs in Nov. 2018.

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