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Social media has become a tool for influencing public opinion. (Bigstock Photo)

Social media’s greatest strength and weakness is the egalitarianism that defines it. Facebook and Twitter have given a voice to the voiceless, elevating causes like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter. But a megaphone that allows anyone to spread unfiltered information to thousands of people can also be a pretty powerful propaganda engine.

That phenomenon became international news in the 2016 election but it did not begin — nor will it end — with the election of President Donald Trump. Digital propaganda campaigns around the world have helped candidates gain an edge over opponents, and media scrutiny doesn’t seem to be slowing the trend.

A series of studies by the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project reveals coordinated social media activity aimed at influencing public opinion is pervasive around the world. Researchers discovered evidence of bots, trolls, and other malefactors in nine countries between 2015-2017. As The Guardian puts it, “social media is an international battleground for dirty politics.”

The problem is also no longer limited to big, national elections. Bots and other suspicious social media accounts were used in an apparent attempt to influence voters in Washington 45th District state Senate race, according to a report from a group of cybersecurity researchers shared with GeekWire. The activity appeared to be targetting Democrat Manka Dhingra, who nonetheless won the seat. It was the most expensive state race in Washington history, with big donations from outside interests trying to influence a race that would ultimately solidify a three-state Democratic stronghold on the West Coast.

“This is something that’s going on on a statewide level now,” said one author of the report. “It’s not just national or international, it’s also localized in a way that’s really interesting.”

Additional digging by GeekWire revealed several fake Facebook accounts impersonating Dhingra and spreading the same kind of agitprop messages we saw on Twitter.

A fake account spreads anti-Dhingra sentiment.

The spotlight on these tactics has created a watershed moment for Big Tech. Lawyers from Facebook, Google, and Twitter endured tough questioning from lawmakers about Russian election interference during a series of Congressional hearings earlier this month.

“Candidly, your companies know more about Americans in many ways than the United States government does, and the idea that you had no idea that any of this was happening strains my credibility,” said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.

California Sen. Diane Feinstein later added, “you created these platforms and now you have to be the ones to do something, or we will.”

But it still remains to be seen whether Congress really will hold these tech titans accountable — and how much cooperation we can expect from the platforms that have come to shape public discourse like never before.

Facebook’s Colin Stretch, Twitter’s Sean Edgett, and Google’s Kent Walker take oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Facebook and Twitter are beefing up staff to crack down on disinformation. During the tech hearings, they expressed confidence that they could police the problem on their platforms. At the same time, they have rallied their lobbying forces to influence the Honest Ads Act, which would hold online political advertisements to the same standards governing traditional media.

With very little Republican support in Congress, the Honest Ads Act has a long way to go before it is implemented.

The act would also only address one piece of a much broader issue if ever becomes law. Political ads on social media may become more transparent, but the Honest Ads Act doesn’t police organic content, like traditional tweets and posts. Russian government agents were able to intentionally foment discord by spreading organic, inflammatory content on these platforms, often amplifying their reach with bots.

It’s a problem that crosses borders and permeates smaller, local races, even in an off-year election. The midterms in 2018 promise to be heavily-funded and intensely competitive as Democrats make a play to flip Congress. Two years later, Trump is expected to run for a second term in an even more contentious election.

Those are fast approaching deadlines for notoriously slow federal lawmakers to act. Facebook and Twitter are accustomed to moving much faster but it remains to be seen whether they can and will meaningfully police disinformation on their platforms.

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