OPINION: Social media blame falls squarely on us
November 3rd | Carey Restino
It never feels good to find out you have been manipulated, but this week, Americans have even more information on attempts by Russian organizations to influence the presidential election using the platform of choice of the decade; social media.
According to the New York Times, Facebook and Twitter, as well as Google's YouTube, this week disclosed that Russian-sponsored advertisements reached millions of Americans during the 2016 presidential election. What's new about this week's announcement is the disclosure that these posts, linked to the Russian company Internet Research Agency, reached far more followers than previously thought.
Though paid advertisements by the agency had already been discovered, the newly discovered content reached far more people than previously thought. Facebook found and deleted more than 170 accounts from Instagram, it said, and found some 80,000 pieces of divisive content shown to 29 million people on Facebook. Those posts were then reshared, reaching tens of millions more users. On Twitter, some 36,000 automated accounts posting 1.4 million election-related tweets have now been linked to Russia during the three months leading up to the election, the Times reported.
Had those simply been posts supporting one candidate or opposing another, they would have been far less controversial. But much of the content, Facebook said, was not focused on the candidates. Instead, it was "divisive content," focusing on the red-button issues of race, religion, gun rights and gay and transgender issues, the very issues that Americans still seem to be miles apart on.
It's hard to know how much impact these posts had on the presidential election. But the issue is less really about the election and more about how easy it is for public dialogue to be manipulated in this day and age. As the Internet continues to put an extraordinary amount of information at our fingertips, vetting the credibility of that information becomes more and more important. While posts from the Onion are obviously not "real," there is a tremendous amount of gray area when considering the source of content. How do you know what interests are promoting the news report you are reading?
Facebook managers noted that many of the advertisements did not violate the social media platform's content policies, with the exception of the fact that they weren't run by "authentic individuals." If Vladimir Putin had posted the same information from his account, the fact that he was not American would not, of course, been grounds for having the posts removed. It's less about regulating the content and more about providing transparency as to the source of the content. But figuring out how to provide that to viewers in a way that allows them to respond objectively is going to take time for social media companies to figure out.
In the meantime, Americans must come to terms with the fact that entities operating from behind a curtain pulled on the voters' strings. When you look at America today, many would say we are more divided than ever before, with very little common ground on which to build a road forward.
There have always been a wide variety of opinions and beliefs in America, but we have somehow managed to soldier on because of the belief that the common value of being American was enough of a reason not to focus on our differences. Now, that bubble seems to be fracturing. As we run around trying to yell louder than the other people in the room in order to make our own views heard, people are taking advantage of the instability. Our lack of solidarity makes America vulnerable to manipulation because it clouds our ability to think critically.
Social media hasn't done anything to help the situation. Even if you pulled the plug on all social media and the internet as a whole right now, and radio and television, while you are at it, and maybe some print publications, too, you still wouldn't solve the problem.
The problem is that we have forgotten how to educate ourselves about issues, to consider more than a sound bite here and there or a headline. And most of all, the problem is that we have forgotten what the value of unity is. Our grandparents remember, and some of our parents. But the value of setting aside individual beliefs in order to work together to accomplish great things, like quality education, creative freedoms, economic stability and a good quality of life has been lost on this generation. Perhaps we've had it too good for too long to realize what life without that national unity looks like. But we're getting a taste of it now. It's a nation full of anger, hate, fear and violence. And while we battle it out, the vultures are circling, ready divide us even further and profit any way they can from the ensuing chaos.
Pointing the finger at Facebook or Twitter would be blaming the messenger. The figure really needs to be pointed back at ourselves for taking the bait. Because united we stand, and divided we fall. And the only way we can unite is by allowing for diversity and individual opinions while moving toward common goals for the greater good of the nation.