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Can Facebook and Twitter Thwart Foreign Meddling in the 2018 Mid-Term Elections

By: Matt Schuster, Graduate Student

For over a year now, we’ve been inundated with news on how the Russians used social media to ‘influence’ American voters in the 2016 Presidential election. Now, with recent indictments brought by the justice department, it appears that meddling from outside actors is undeniable. In his Fortune article ‘How Russians Used Social Media to Boost the Trump Campaign, According to Robert Mueller's Indictment’, David Z Morris writes “the Mueller indictment echoes subsequent findings that masses of false or misleading social media activity was engineered by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, as part of a plan to “defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit” beginning as early as 2014.” (Fortune, February 17, 2018)

With Russian meddling confirmed, the conversation needs to move quickly from “how did this happen?” to “what can be done to prevent it from happening again. As the dust is still settling from one of the most contentious and unconventional Presidential elections in U.S. history, the 2018 Mid-Term elections are fast upon us; the question are we any more prepared than we were in 2016? Facebook have vowed to prevent meddling in future elections, announcing among other steps, that any ads related to the elections will have to be confirmed via a code mailed to them. In an article for The Verge, Justin Sullivan quotes Facebook’s announcement which states “If you run an ad mentioning a candidate, we are going to mail you a postcard and you will have to use that code to prove you are in the United States”. The Facebook announcement goes on to acknowledge that this will not fix the problem outright, “but is just one step Facebook is taking to prevent foreign nationals from spending money under fake cover to influence US politics.”(The Verge, February 17,2018)

On March 7, Facebook and Associated Press announced a partnership in which the ladder “will fact-check national, state and local election-related stories on Facebook, supplying related AP news stories that debunk misinformation, validate a story as true, or provide additional background and context.” (AP, March 7, 2018)

Twitter recently announced that there may have been up to 50,000 Russian bots, those accounts that are run by automated programs, and not human beings. In response to a recent purge of suspected ‘fake accounts’, Twitter released a statement saying "As part of our ongoing work in safety, we identify suspicious account behaviors that indicate automated activity or violations of our policies around having multiple accounts, or abuse,"(USA Today, February 21, 2018)

The mitigation steps taken by the social media giants is comforting, but is it enough? The US government has been slow to place any regulation on the social media platforms and have not made great strides in protecting the U.S. from cyber-attacks in future elections. In a Vice News article, Alex Thompson states “Paid political advertising on social media will go almost entirely unregulated during the 2018 midterm elections, despite the presence of “dark money” advertising on Facebook and Twitter in 2016 and revelations that the Kremlin-aligned Russians used paid social media advertising to meddle in U.S. elections.” (Vice News, March 9,2008) Thompson goes on to explain that the FEC (Federal Elections Commission) have not been able to agree on a policy that would demand more visibility into who is buying on-line advertising, and treat these new digital platforms similarly to TV and Radio.

As we are only eight months out from the next major U.S. elections, it is likely that Russia, and maybe other outside powers, will meddle and seemingly influence results. The sitting administration has only just acknowledged the Russian’s meddling in the last election, but now blame the previous administration for not preventing the attacks. With no political policies in place, and a sitting President who seems to almost welcome the foreign assistance, we will need to rely on Facebook and Twitter to prevent widespread attacks on this election and our democracy as a whole.