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Of bots and trolls — and can they bring down a government?

Were the two biggest political shocks of 2016 — the election of Donald Trump in the US, and the British decision to leave the EU — influenced by nefarious online activity by Russia? Could automated bots and troll farms be a serious and credible threat to governments worldwide? Can social media be a tool to bring down governments, create social discord, encourage racism and destabilize even an entire continent?
This is what Russia and others are accused of. Russian President Vladimir Putin was keen to push for Brexit as a means to weaken the EU, and clearly preferred Trump over his rivals. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have identified 419 Twitter accounts operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency and targeting UK politics, sending more than 45,000 messages in just 48 hours.
British Prime Minister Theresa May issued her most direct warning about Russian actions in a speech on Nov. 13. She accused Moscow of “seeking to weaponize information, deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.”
Automated bots that generate tweets and Facebook posts mimicking human behavior are used in myriad ways. Twitter is trying to shut them down, and the company claims it closes 3.2 million suspicious accounts every week. Russia has also used denial-of-service attacks and ransomware, as have countries such as North Korea and China.
Experts are also concerned that Russia may have exploited software from Kaspersky Lab, a leading cyber-security company, to gain sensitive information, something the company denies.
Moscow is in the dock. May was forthright, saying: “I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing, and you will not succeed because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.”
Moscow is accused of hacking into the German Parliament and the Danish Defense Ministry. The Spanish prime minister claims that half the Twitter accounts that pushed for Catalonian independence were Russian. Trump dismisses all of this, not least Russian interference in his own election. He said after meeting Putin: “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe, I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.” Not many others do.

For a long time, world leaders have slammed social media companies for enabling extremism and terrorism. It is about time they feel equal pressure to do more to prevent the undermining of the international order and global stability.

Chris Doyle

Trump is more interested in hammering traditional media as “fake news,” except on the rare occasions it agrees with him. It is time he focuses on the real fake news, not the fake fake news.
Can anything be done? Any election process can now be a target. How can electoral systems and the integrity of votes be protected? As it stands, the US midterm elections in 2018 would be vulnerable, something that perhaps will not bother Trump as long as Russia appears to favor him winning.
It is not just elections. Social media can be used to target any society, undermining social cohesion and sowing division. The Internet is often depicted in utopian terms as a force for good and a tremendous step forward in human progress. But it is, and will remain, a tool to be used for good or evil. As much as it has helped connect and educate, it has also helped spread pornography, crime, drugs, terrorism and pernicious ideologies.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are US-created social media behemoths turned against America and its allies. For a long time, leaders have slammed them for enabling extremism and terrorism. It is about time they feel equal pressure to do more to prevent the undermining of the international order and global stability.
Russia and other states have worked out an effective tool of war, a 21st-century upgrade of what was termed even pre-Cold War as “active measures.” In the past, the Soviet Union paid millions for such measures, for example funding the peace movement against the Vietnam War. Online action seems an even better-value option, so far from backing off, it is hard to see why they would not escalate, given what they have achieved.
Just how much these efforts did alter elections is debatable, but what if next time the tweets and posts are amplified by a factor of 10 or 20? The question remains: Who or what will stop them, not least with the White House in complete denial?
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech