Social media networks don't spread propaganda, people spread propaganda (through social media networks)

; Date: Sat Nov 04 2017

Tags: Social Media Warfare

If Russia is using Social Media networks to bring down democracies around the world, doesn't that make Social Media networks a danger? Rather than blaming the perpetrator, maybe it's easier to blame their tool. Social media networks are a tool that can be used for positive, or negative, purposes. Just as they can be used positively, to spread useful information or connect like-minded people on a common mission, they can be used for negative purposes, such as to spread lies and deceit. Spreading falsehoods is nothing new, and neither is propaganda a new tool of the elites, and neither is divide-and-conquer politics. What's new is the capabilities of social media networks to automate information sharing to mass audiences. Just as a news outlet like The Economist can use social media networks to spread it's excellent reporting, others can use the same technologies to spread falsehoods.

This week has seen Facebook and Google and Twitter being hauled before Congress to answer to why they allowed Russians to interfere with the 2016 elections. See: Facebook et al admits to large-scale Russian advertising campaigns, illegal political advertising by foreigners and Social media firms under scrutiny for Russia Meddling, Facebook showed Russias adverts to 126 million people

One could easily think Social Media Networks are a grave risk to Society, as this weeks The Economist cover sugests. Is that the case?

It's like the argument that "Guns don't kill people, people kill people". As a meme, that idea has successfully forestalled action on gun violence in the USA for decades. Guns are an inanimate object incapable of killing someone until a human picks up the gun and commits the act.

In actuality, easy access to guns makes gun violence more likely.

"Social media networks don't spread propaganda, people spread propaganda"

Just because some folks use social media networks to spread lies and propaganda, does that mean social media networks are the problem? The equivalent meme might be "Social media networks don't spread propaganda, people spread propaganda". That could be just as disingenuous as the "Guns don't kill people" meme.

It's clear that many problems are being caused by propagandists spreading lies through social media networks. Numerous incidents have occurred because of fake news being used to stir folks to take actions. For example someone could concoct a story that a particular Mosque is being used to radicalize Muslims to institute Sharia Law, and you'll quickly find a bunch of guys with guns exercising their right to carry firearms outside that Mosque. Or maybe someone will take it a step further, and commit arson. This has happened multiple times across the USA.

A better known example is the Comet Pizza case. One of the right wing conspiracy nutjobs with a radio program kept claiming that Comet Pizza was a front for a child sex trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton. Someone decided to believe this nonsense, and went to that store armed with guns to "investigate" and ended up arrested after firing a few rounds inside the store.

Social media networks and artificial intelligence algorithms

If a social media network is nothing more than a dumb pipe through which we communicate with friends, how can the social media network be responsible for the lies spread using the networks?

That's the fallacy with the "Social media networks don't spread propaganda" strawman meme I gave earlier.

The social media networks are not dumb pipes. The leading edges of Artificial Intelligence research are in self-driving cars, social media network algorithms, and advertising network algorithms. The artificial intelligence algorithms driving these networks are what determines what we see in our Facebook or Twitter news feeds.

There's a principle I learned from running ( a small scale online discussion forum about electric vehicles. The more the owner of a site "edits" that site, the more responsible they are for the content.

Am I responsible if a user of my forum posts scams or other illegal content? Is Facebook responsible for the folks using Facebook (or Twitter for that matter) to post scams? You might think "no", it's the person who posted that content who's responsible for their posting. To an extent that's true, however....

The owner of a site, whether it's a small scale discussion forum or a globe-spanning network like Twitter, bears some responsibility simply by having built the network. Therefore, I monitor my discussion forum and step in when badness is occurring. Likewise, Facebook and Twitter and every other social network has a team of moderators to track abuse of their system.

Addicted to the system

Getting back to the algorithms ... Facebook/Twitter/etc algorithmically select things to show to us. Their economic incentive is finding ways to addict us into continually using their network(s). The artificial intelligence prowess, the algorithms, the design, etc, all go together to drive us all into addiction to the networks.

As The Economist's article notes - there is a constant testing of information determining which is the most addictive. They use words like "social engagement" or "social reach" but what they're measuring is how addicted the audience is to the content.

It's not just the network owner - Facebook/Twitter/etc - it's the folks who use the facilities offered by Facebook/Twitter/etc. It's possible to access back end data systems offered by the social networks, and learn gobs of demographic information about ones audience. The advertising tools and social network tools offer the means for anyone to test their "social engagement" success.

These tools are used legitimately by all kinds of organizations to help with spreading their news or products. But, it's a tool, and like all other tools can be misused for negative purposes.

One can just as easily use social network targeting tools to spread propaganda.


What do we think is the solution to this? We're entering a Brave New World full of new capabilities our forefathers could never have dreamed of in a zillion years.

You can bet your booty that of Joseph Goebbels or other propagandasts were alive today, they'd be using these social media networks in exactly the way the Russians are said to be doing.

Can you legislate that everyone can only tell the truth? I don't think so, and that'll just cause yet another round of argument over whose ideas are more truthful.

The issue is that social media networks have brought the capability of communication to a mass audience within reach of anyone. Anyone with the time to learn the methods/tools/techniques/strategies can set up Facebook pages and social media network automation tools to spread whatever message they wish. Running advertising on these networks simply requires registering with the advertising service and paying some money.

Maybe addressing the problem might involve some greater degree of control over the mass communication tools offered by social media networks.

But doesn't that solution come with its own problem? Namely -- throughout human history mass communication has been in the hands of the elites. As such, mass communication has always been used to dominate the rest of us. Finally with social media networks we all have the possibility of gaining mass communication capabilities.



About the Author(s)

( David Herron : David Herron is a writer and software engineer focusing on the wise use of technology. He is especially interested in clean energy technologies like solar power, wind power, and electric cars. David worked for nearly 30 years in Silicon Valley on software ranging from electronic mail systems, to video streaming, to the Java programming language, and has published several books on Node.js programming and electric vehicles.