A LESSON learned from Russia’s use of disinformation and weaponized social media in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign is how it can be both invidious and insinuating, creeping up where it is least expected. Millions of people saw the Russian posts — and did not know they were written in a nondescript office building in St. Petersburg. So it is welcome news that Twitter and Facebook this week took the initiative against Chinese accounts that appeared to be part of a deliberate, state-backed campaign to discredit the Hong Kong protest movement.
Back in the halcyon days of social media, platforms did not want to be policemen. They claimed to be platforms, not nannies. They relied on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which stated: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This is a pillar of freedom on the Internet and meant the platforms could not be held liable for posts from third parties. That opened the door to a cornucopia of opinions everywhere — and to malign operations by extreme political movements and authoritarian governments.
Russia tested online disinformation in Ukraine in 2014, then launched a wider campaign to sow disorder in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Later, Twitter found 3,814 accounts controlled by the Internet Research Agency in Russia; Facebook identified 470 IRA-controlled accounts that collectively created 80,000 posts between January 2015 and August 2017, reaching as many as 126 million people.
Now, China appears to be emulating the Russia example. Twitter and Facebook are blocked inside China but have a substantial presence in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory and a hub of information and commerce that has been convulsed by protests this summer over the extent of China’s domination. China, through state media and a phalanx of fake individual accounts, flooded this open zone with posts sharply critical of the protest movement. Twitter said it found “a significant state-backed information operation” and suspended 936 accounts. It also preemptively disabled a “larger, spammy network” of some 200,000 accounts created after the first suspensions but not yet substantially active. “Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service,” Twitter said, adding that it would decline ads from state-controlled Chinese media. Facebook took down a smaller number of accounts and did not go after the state-run media.
These decisions cannot have been easy, but they point to a more cautious, mature attitude toward information warfare. No longer can platforms just throw up their hands and say “not our responsibility.” The underlying values of freedom must be preserved, but to protect that freedom, rules are necessary. This is uncharted territory, but at least Twitter and Facebook have their eyes open. Other services, including Google, the owner of YouTube, ought to quickly follow their example on Hong Kong.