Facebook and Twitter on Tuesday were under attack from an array of critics, including the president and civil rights leaders, triggered by revelations from two reports on the long Russian social media campaign to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
The Russians’ segmented messaging and disinformation targeted African-Americans in particular, according to the reports for the Senate Intelligence Committee released Monday, prompting the NAACP to urge Americans to abandon the social network. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company needs to do more to advance civil rights.
The reports for the Senate said Russian interference had “clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party – and specifically Donald Trump.” The president asserted Tuesday morning, without evidence, that social media giants favor his political opponents by rigging their platforms against him. In a tweet, Trump slammed Facebook and Twitter, along with Google, claiming they “made it much more difficult for people to join” him.
The reports for the Senate dovetailed with other strains of criticism – including privacy breaches, human rights abuses and a deflection of corporate responsibility – in what experts said marks a critical point in the public backlash against the global social networks. They capped a tumultuous year for social media companies that appear to lurch from one scandal to the next.
“It’s no longer a drip, drip, drip,” said Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s school of media and journalism. “It’s no longer these one-off stories. It’s a fire hose. It’s a river that has really exposed the underlying vulnerabilities of democracies in particular to these disinformation and misinformation campaigns.”
The reports prepared for the Senate showed that Russian operatives vied to manipulate particular segments of the electorate, including a focus on lowering black voter turnout, a finding that Sandberg said the company takes “incredibly seriously,” according to a Facebook post. She said Facebook will work to “strengthen and advance civil rights on our service,” adding that “we know that we need to do more.”
In the wake of the reports, the NAACP announced it had returned a donation from Facebook and on Tuesday kicked off a weeklong protest, called #LogOutFacebook, encouraging people to abandon the social network, as well as its other platforms Instagram and WhatsApp, to protest the company’s behavior.
“Facebook’s engagement with partisan firms, its targeting of political opponents, the spread of misinformation and the utilization of Facebook for propaganda promoting disingenuous portrayals of the African American community is reprehensible,” the NAACP wrote on its website.
The tech giants have long pushed back against the president’s allegations of bias in favor of a political party. Twitter on Tuesday said it removes fake accounts “to prevent malicious behavior.”
“Many prominent accounts have seen follower counts drop, but the result is higher confidence that the followers they have are real, engaged people,” Twitter said in a statement. Earlier this year, Twitter suspended millions of accounts as part of a sweep to weed out bots, or automated accounts, affecting the number of followers of the most popular Twitter users including Trump.
Google declined to comment. Last week, CEO Sundar Pichai, testifying in a congressional hearing about alleged anti-conservative bias, said Google is careful to avoid political bias in its search engine and other products.
But the tech companies’ failure to protect user data – another constant theme of 2018 – reappeared, just days after Facebook disclosed that it had improperly exposed the photos of millions of users.
On Monday, Twitter said a November security error exposed user data – country codes of phone numbers and account status information – to internet addresses in China and Saudi Arabia that “may have ties to state-sponsored actors” and that might be trying to access the accounts. No personal information was compromised, the company said in a public apology, and the problem was fixed by Nov. 16. Twitter’s shares plummeted 6.8 percent Monday after the announcement.
A Tuesday report from Amnesty International, “Troll Patrol,” painted a stark picture of the abuse women – especially women of color – face on the platform. A collaboration with Element AI, a global artificial intelligence software company, the study looked at millions of tweets received by nearly 800 journalists and politicians across the political spectrum in the U.S. and Britain in 2017. More than one million “abusive or problematic tweets” were received by women in the study – about one hateful tweet every 30 seconds. Black women were subject to the lion’s share of hate – and were 84 percent more likely to receive abusive or problematic tweets than white women, the study found. Overall, women of color were 34 percent more likely to be targeted by abusive tweets.
“Troll Patrol means we have the data to back up what women have long been telling us – that Twitter is a place where racism, misogyny and homophobia are allowed to flourish basically unchecked,” Milena Marin, senior adviser for tactical research at Amnesty International, wrote in a blog post about the study.
Little question remains about the power social media wields in the current landscape, easily harnessed by both individuals and state actors seeking to expand their influence — and the rampant hatred is a reflection of cultural and political tensions that have reached a boiling point. But finding ways to check the power of platforms like Facebook and Twitter is still a vague and Herculean task, Kreiss said.
“Congressional inaction has really not held anyone accountable or set clear rules or guidelines on what the public should expect from these companies,” Kreiss said. “In the absence of that, we will just continue to see the same issues.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Hamza Shaban, Taylor Telford