TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Let’s suppose young Boris and young Ivan are reporting to work on their first day of duty at the KGB Internet Ops Center outside Moscow—it’s not called the KGB anymore, but you get the idea—and the papers for these rookies are still being processed by their handlers and so a supervisor needs to assign them to desks and get them started on some busywork.
“Okay, guys,” he’s likely to say. “As soon as you get authorization on these encrypted desktops, create a couple of fake American Facebook pages and show us what you can do. Boris, you do pro–gun control, and Ivan, you do Second Amendment gun rights. Whoever gets to 30,000 followers first is the winner.”
In other words, this is the kind of stuff, in the intelligence services, that interns do.
What is it about these fake Facebook accounts that makes people so angry? How can we be spending this much of the government’s time trying to root out trolls on the other team who were just doing their jobs? Isn’t it assumed that disinformation is a more or less constant endeavor by Russia’s SVRR and at least 500 various front organizations based not only in Russia but in various embassies and other properties abroad? And isn’t it assumed that the CIA, the National Security Agency, and MI6 are all doing the same thing?
Are members of Congress so naive that they don’t understand how to disrupt a disinformation campaign? You do it with double-agent recruitment, not by spanking Mark Zuckerberg.
But they meddled in our election!
Yes, they did. They meddle in every election.
But this was fake news planted in our democracy by a foreign government!
Actually, most of it was not fake news, it was just recycled anger from organizations like Black Lives Matter and Queer Nation and the Tea Party packaged in such a way to create maximum online chaos.
But people get their news from Facebook and Google and Twitter! These were Russian agents posing as Americans!
First of all, people don’t get their news from Facebook or Google or Twitter. Those are platforms, not news agencies. They don’t have reporters or news desks. They aggregate content from news organizations, some of which are fake and some of which are real. You can set the parameters of how those platforms work, you can screen out the fake sites, or if that’s too much trouble, you can just consistently use reputable news sites and an algorithm will probably sort it out for you. Either way, let’s stop pretending that Mark Zuckerberg runs a news organization, or that he even understands the basic fundamentals of objective reporting. He obviously doesn’t or he wouldn’t be cravenly apologizing for running a platform that lets everyone participate.
And as to the “Russians posing as Americans” argument, you don’t have to pose as an American to get involved in an American election. We’ve never had any laws about who can write ads or post flyers or create political action committees. Zimbabweans can do it. Sherpas can do it. And yes, Russian citizens can do it. If they want to sign their posts “John Smith,” like adulterers checking in at the Motel Six, then that’s really no different from the pseudonyms used every day by people like James Comey, a.k.a. @formerbu on Twitter.
So let’s grow up, people. I don’t even think it’s a good idea to make Google and Facebook and Twitter go hunting for foreign agents on social media. Once those platforms are identified as arms of the American government, as opposed to private utilities operating solely for profit, how effective can they be in China or India, not to mention Myanmar? Do we expect them to take down fake sites created by the CIA to cause chaos in North Korea? If you’re truly committed to the idea of “using social media to bring the world together, not split it apart”—as all the platforms are fond of saying—then you’ll be just as aggressive toward our own intelligence services as those of the enemy.
The last estimate I saw cited 41 governments that currently spy on us, including “friendlies” who have reason to mistrust us. Do we really intend to give Google and Facebook a list of all the foreign intelligence services that we suspect of operating against us? Wouldn’t we be better off doing what the CIA does best—offer the foreign service a “gift” that turns out to be a Trojan horse? To do that, the foreign agencies need to trust the platforms.
One thing we know about Vladimir Putin is that he’s a skilled intelligence agent who operated in the most dangerous part of the world and knows the complete history of the Rote Kapelle, the original Soviet espionage unit in Western Europe. Anyone working in SVRR cyber is eventually going to show up in his office explaining the latest Russian developments in artificial intelligence, digital monocultures, feedback loops, what the “anger bots” can do, how they create shepherd accounts, sheepdog accounts, and sheep accounts, how the strategy on Facebook differs from Reddit, 4chan, Instagram, and Imgur, and how—due to recent developments—they need to relocate and rename the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg because it’s been publicly identified as the source of funding for last year’s American-election disinformation campaign.
The antidote to this is not congressional hearings and new algorithms. The antidote to this is to turn loose the National Security Agency analysts and the CIA agents and start owning the street, even when that’s the cyber-street. You do this in secret. You don’t tell anyone how you’re doing it, when you’re doing it, or what exactly you’re doing. We invented the internet, for God’s sake. We have back doors to get in there and kick ass.
And we know how to disrupt elections. Political scientist Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University estimates that the United States interfered with 81 elections between 1946 and 2000. When we funded Radio Free Europe in 1949, it had two principal objectives: (a) fight fake news, (b) meddle in elections where Communists were involved. We had just finished spending a fortune getting the Christian Democrats elected in Italy against fierce Communist opposition, and we thought we needed a more systematic way to use technology (radio) to propagandize the world. So we created RFE and then we created a CIA front called the National Committee for a Free Europe, which solicited donations from the public so that we could launder money we were funneling to RFE headquarters in Englischer Garten in Munich. (Full disclosure: I was briefly employed as a consultant to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.)
Then, in the years after that, we became quite adept at four methods of manipulating foreign elections. Most important was money. We made sure our candidate was well funded and that he had access to foreign aid that he could use to dole out favors. Second was by controlling the mass media in that country, either directly or by training locals to do it. Third was through the “black arts”—and we all know how that works. Fourth was by manipulating the vote count. We ran successful military coups in Iran, Chile, and Guatemala. One of the members of the military junta in Haiti was on our payroll for years. In the Israeli election of 1996, we poured so much hidden support into the campaign of Shimon Peres that his opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, pretty much never forgave us.