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The Mueller report indicts social networks

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In many ways, our cultural reckoning over social networks and the internet in general began at the en
 
April 18 · Issue #318 · View online
The Interface
In many ways, our cultural reckoning over social networks and the internet in general began at the end of 2016. Russia had waged information warfare against the United States during our presidential election, and Donald Trump won a surprising victory over Hillary Clinton. Much of that warfare took place on our social platforms, and while we will never be able to quantify their precise effect on the outcome, a forensic analysis of the election by one of our foremost political scientists concluded that Russia very likely delivered a victory to Trump.
Partisan rancor has prevented a serious investigation of Russian interference from taking place at the Congressional level. And so the world has waited for the next-best thing: the arrival of Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Of course, much of the anticipation stemmed from the question of whether the special counsel would find that the president had obstructed justice or committed other crimes before or after taking office. But there have also been questions about the scope of Russian’s campaign and how effectively it exploited Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites.
Today, the report arrived. It neither accused the president of committing crimes or exonerated him, though some analysts suggest that Mueller may have left Trump open to prosecution after he leaves office. Its account of Russian interference on Facebook, Twitter et al had largely been told in the special counsel’s previous indictments of Russian agents. But if the report doesn’t offer any big surprises, it once again reminds us of how vulnerable they were — and, perhaps, still are.
At first, the IRA focused its activity on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Later Tumblr and Instagram accounts were created. In the beginning, Russian trolls were only manning fake individual accounts. By 2015, however, they began creating larger groups and pages. Finally, they attempted to flex their network effect to hold real-life rallies.
According to Mueller’s report, the Facebook Groups were particularly popular. By the time Facebook deactivated them in 2017, the Russia-controlled group “United Muslims of America” had over 300,000 followers, the “Don’t Shoot Us” group had over 250,000 followers, the “Being Patriotic” Facebook group had over 200,000 followers, and the “Secured Borders” Facebook group had over 130,000 followers.
To the extent that these methods were successful, it was because they played on real social tensions here in the United States. But the Mueller report shows us once again how determined Russians were to amplify those divisions, while flogging Trump’s candidacy relentlessly — and demonizing Clinton’s. (The report also has new details about how Russia hacked the email servers of the Democratic National Committee and and the Clinton campaign, Zack Whittaker reports.)
There are few new grand conclusions to be drawn from the report. Instead there is a reminder that creating open web platforms rooted in America’s free-speech traditions, however a noble cause, has created a massive attack surfaces for authoritarians and dictators. Trending algorithms were easily gamed; inflammatory posts and misinformation got wider distribution than the truth; and the decline of democracy accelerated around the world.
And even if it’s too much to lay all that at the feet of social networks — the decline of democracy does predate them — it never stops surprising me how useful they remain to the governments that would seek to end democracy altogether.

Democracy
Facebook bans far-right groups including BNP, EDL and Britain First
Facebook teams with right-wing Daily Caller in fact-checking program
Far-Right Germans Are Using WhatsApp To Share Nazi Propaganda Stickers
How The BJP Automated Political Propaganda On WhatsApp
In the 2020 Race, What Is the Value of Social Media Stardom?
TikTok Brings Chinese-Style Censorship to America’s Tweens
Presenting search app and browser options to Android users in Europe
Elsewhere
Today, a story about Facebook’s ongoing pivot to privacy, in four parts.
Facebook says it 'unintentionally uploaded' 1.5 million people's email contacts without their consent
An EU government data watchdog is 'engaging' with Facebook after it harvested 1.5 million users’ email contacts without consent
Experts: Facebook may have broken law by harvesting 1.5m users' email contacts
Facebook says it stored millions of Instagram passwords unencrypted on its servers
Pinterest begins its first day of trading at $23.75, up 25%
Pinterest raises $1.4 billion in better-than-expected IPO
Twitter acqui-hires highlight-sharing app Highly
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel will reappear at Disrupt SF
Launches
Instagram has considered hiding the like count on people’s photos
YouTube is finally coming back to Amazon’s Fire TV devices
YouTube Premium subscribers might soon get $2 monthly to send to their favorite creators
Takes
No, YouTube Cannot Reasonably Moderate All Content On Its Platform
White Nationalism Overshadowed at Congressional Hearing on White Nationalism
And finally ...
HBO still doesn’t like Trump using Game of Thrones memes to promote himself
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and lightly redacted reports: casey@theverge.com.
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