It would be an understatement to say that Big Tech had a very bad 2018. This was the year of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai raising their right hands before Congress. It was the year that Cambridge Analytica became a household name, and the year that social media was implicated not only in data misuse and election interference, but ethnic cleansing. Perhaps above all, this was the year that Big Tech lost its luster, when Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others finally came under widespread scrutiny—from the press, politicians, and the broader public alike.
And 2018 isn’t even over yet, much to Facebook’s chagrin. The New York Times delivered another shock on Tuesday, reporting that the company gave Microsoft, Spotify, Netflix, Yahoo, and some of the other biggest tech companies in the world “more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules.” Facebook even allowed Netflix and Spotify to read its users’ private messages. On Wednesday, news broke that D.C.’s attorney general is suing Facebook over Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Despite all this, 2018 could have been an even worse year for Big Tech. The idea of reining in the Silicon Valley giants has only slowly gained momentum in Washington, and signs point to modest regulations. No one on Capitol Hill is really talking about breaking up Facebook or Google or Amazon, who are spending millions on lobbying to ensure that they have significant input in whatever Congress cooks up. And although tech companies are taking election interference more seriously, it’s believed that most of the major players—principally Russia—sat out the 2018 midterms. The post-2016 electoral system remains largely untested.
That’s fortunate, because it has become increasingly clear that the U.S. is at least as vulnerable today as it was then. While Congress and tech companies have been busy conducting autopsies of the 2016 election, they have been slow to address the problems exposed by foreign interference. Meanwhile, intelligence operatives in Russia and other countries have been developing new influence tactics. And America’s voting infrastructure remains just as antiquated as it was two years ago.
So perhaps it’s an understatement to say that the U.S. is equally vulnerable today. As bad as things were in 2016—as bad as they are now—it looks like they will only get worse.
Two new reports shared with the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Russian intelligence operatives reached millions of Facebook users between 2013 and 2017 in an effort to exploit social, racial, and political tensions. The Russian Internet Research Agency recruited unwitting “assets” to spread misinformation and targeted black Americans. “The most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specially targeted Black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing Black audiences and recruiting Black Americans as assets,” one report states. Researchers also found a vast operation designed at inflaming conflict: Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Medium, YouTube, Vine, and even Google+, among others, were all targeted by Russia.
On Tuesday, Facebook’s embattled CFO, Sheryl Sandberg, addressed the reports. “Facebook is committed to working with leading U.S. civil rights organizations to strengthen and advance civil rights on our service,” Sandberg wrote on her Facebook page. “They’ve raised a number of important concerns, and I’m grateful for their candor and guidance. We know that we need to do more: to listen, look deeper and take action to respect fundamental rights.”
As the scope of Russian involvement in the 2016 election has become clear, companies like Facebook and Twitter have taken some action, purging accounts tied to intelligence operations and investing in artificial intelligence to root out bad actors. In September, Zuckerberg posted a 3,300 word blog post on Facebook detailing the steps Facebook has taken to prevent election interference, including the promise to hire 10,000 new employees to monitor safety and security concerns. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have used enforcement as a PR operation, with large-scale content and account purges being misleadingly touted as anti-Russian efforts. But they have also disclosed influence campaigns from countries not believed to have been involved in the 2016 elections, such as China and Iran.
While lawmakers have been slow to act, the government has also taken some steps to limit interference. This past year, the Department of Homeland Security worked with state election commissions to secure voting rolls and machines. The Department of Justice and other intelligence agencies have taken a more active and public approach to monitoring social networks.
It’s likely that a number of powers will seek to influence the 2020 election, given the chaos that Russia was able to cause. In August, Facebook found a number of ongoing influence campaigns that were seeking to wreak havoc globally. “Unlike past influence operations on the social network, which largely targeted Americans, the fake accounts, pages and groups were this time also aimed at people in Latin America, Britain and the Middle East,” The New York Times reported. For all the focus on American elections, it’s clear that influence campaigns like the one undertaken in 2016 will become a factor in nearly every major election going forward, regardless of where it’s taking place. “The 2016 election was the Pearl Harbor of the social media age,” The New York Times’ Kevin Roose recently wrote, “a singular act of aggression that ushered in an era of extended conflict.”
Amid scrutiny from the U.S., influence campaigns have only grown more sophisticated. “Russia’s attacks did not stop after Trump’s election, but they have continued to evolve and adapt,” he wrote. “Russians appear to have shifted their focus away from Facebook, where a team of trained specialists now prowls for influence operations, and toward Instagram, another Facebook-owned app that has flown under the radar. The Internet Research Agency appears to have largely sat out the 2018 midterm elections, but it is likely already trying to influence the 2020 presidential election, in ways social media companies may not yet understand or be prepared for.” This may be good news for Facebook, but it just means that the efforts to influence elections have become more diffuse and diverse, and will likely be more difficult to identify and contain going forward.
Thanks in part to the fact that Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress for the past two years, the country remains woefully unprepared for further electoral influence campaigns. With Republicans focused on protecting the president—and on trivial questions, like non-existent censorship—and too many Democrats with close ties to big tech, Congress has been unable to agree on even a basic approach to regulation. Old, computerized voting machines run on outdated software that is vulnerable to hacking. Despite some efforts—notably the Honest Ads Act, which would require tech companies to disclose the identities of people paying for political ads—Congress has made no progress when it comes to requiring companies like Google and Facebook to be more transparent. But even that bill, which was sponsored by two Democrats and one Republican, has not been greeted with much enthusiasm on Capitol Hill, thanks in part to aggressive lobbying by Facebook.
The tech giants, like any corporation, are beholden to their bottom lines and will only do the bare minimum to prevent abuse. The business plan of a company like Facebook, which is dependent on monetizing user data, provides perverse incentives to do the bare minimum when it comes to protecting elections. While a Democratic House can be counted on to push for more robust enforcement and protections, Congress remains divided and the Trump administration has been unwilling to do much of anything to address the issue. We’re just months away from an influx of candidates for the Democratic nomination, which means we’re just months away from an onslaught of electoral influence operations. Time is running out.