Last week, Congress unveiled legislation that would force Facebook, Google, and other social media giants to disclose who buys online advertising, thereby closing a loophole that Russia exploited. But technical fixes and public promises to be better corporate citizens will solve only the most publicized problem.
The tougher challenge will be strengthening institutions that are vital to the functioning of democracy — specifically, civics education and local journalism. Without that, the threat to America’s democratic process will grow, resurfacing every time the country votes.
Vladimir Putin’s intelligence operatives chose wisely in mounting their social media attack. Facebook hosts nearly 80 percent of mobile social media traffic, and Google accounts for close to 90 percent of online-search-related advertising. By inundating these two platforms with automated messages from tens of thousands of bogus user accounts, Russia stoked discord along economic, racial and political lines.
Moreover, they did it cheaply. According to one analysis, with only modest ad purchases on Facebook, Russian agents gained access to a goldmine of online advertising data that enabled the “sharing” of Russia’s fake news hundreds of millions of times. At one point, an estimated 400,000 bots — software applications that run automated scripts — sent millions of fictitious political messages, which in turn generated about 20 percent of all Twitter traffic during the final month of the campaign.
It is bad enough that the technology world’s marquee names were not prepared to parry foreign meddling in America’s most important election. But the social media giants’ persistent denial of responsibility for delivering distorted and false information as news is more troubling.
Irresponsible social media moguls bear a large part of the blame, but the US also suffers from a poorly educated electorate and a news industry that has become concentrated in ever-fewer hands.
Strip away the technobabble about better algorithms, more transparency and commitment to truth, and Silicon Valley’s “fixes” dodge a simple fact; its technologies are not designed to sort truth from falsehood, check accuracy, or correct mistakes. Just the opposite — they are built to maximize clicks, shares, and “likes.”
Despite pushing to displace traditional news outlets as the world’s information platforms, social media’s moguls appear content to ignore journalism’s fundamental values, processes, and goals. It is this irresponsibility that co-sponsors of the recent advertising transparency bill are seeking to address.
Nevertheless, Russia’s success in targeting American voters with bogus news could not have succeeded were it not for the second problem — a poorly educated electorate susceptible to manipulation. The erosion of civics education in schools, the shuttering of local newspapers — and the consequent decline in the public’s understanding of issues and the political process — combine to create fertile ground for the sowing of disinformation.
In 2005, 50 percent of Americans could not correctly identify the country’s three branches of government. By 2015, that had grown to two thirds, and a staggering 32 percent could not name a single branch. This slippage is apparently age-dependent; a 2016 study of Americans with university degrees found that those over 65 know far more about how their government works than those under 34.
There is a clear correlation between democratic illiteracy and a de-emphasis on civics, government and history education in schools. In 2006, for example, a study found that only a quarter of America’s 12th graders were proficient in civics. A decade later, that had sunk below 25 percent.
Not surprisingly, overall educational quality and access to basic civics coursework have also suffered. In 2011, a think tank that ranks the 50 states on the rigor of their high schools’ US history courses gave 28 states failing grades. A 2016 survey of 1,000 liberal arts colleges found that only 18 percent required a US history or government course to earn a degree.
High school or university courses by themselves will not keep gullible voters from falling for bogus news or inflammatory disinformation. But the viral spread of fake news stories initiated by Russian agents made one thing clear — an electorate lacking a basic civics education is more likely to fall for provocations designed to inflame partisan tensions.
Changes in the news industry are increasing that risk. As internet giants siphon away advertising revenue from traditional media outlets, social media have become many people’s main source of news. Traditional news organizations, especially local newspapers, are steadily disappearing, shrinking voters’ access to information that is vital to making informed political decisions.
Since 2004, 10 percent of all small-market US newspapers have closed or merged. Of those that survive, over a third have changed ownership, concentrating the industry into fewer hands. The result has been layoffs, cost-cutting, and diminished reporting on national and local issues.
Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential election was historic, but it was also symptomatic of bigger challenges facing Americans. A population that does not fully understand its own democracy should concern not only civics teachers, but national security experts as well. The US didn’t need Putin to deliver that lesson. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” Thomas Jefferson warned, “it expects what never was and never will be.”
• Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst and Director of Public Affairs, was National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and Chief of Station in Asia.
© Project Syndicate.