Internet bots are a touchy subject these days, especially when it comes to social media. How many of that celebrity's Twitter followers are real people, and how many are fake? Who in the comments section of that Facebook post has a genuine opinion to share, and who is just trying to send a debate into disarray?
The answer isn't always clear – and according to Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, it's that uncertainty that's likely to cause trouble in the coming years.
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Gleicher spoke on the subject of online security at the 360/OS conference in London, saying that organizations attempting to destabilize online debate – and influence the outcome of political elections – would no longer have to conceal their efforts to be successful.
At this point, with the public eye so squarely aimed at potential meddling, drawing attention to bad actors' own methods was likely to spread fear and distrust across online platforms.
According to Gleicher, that means “Not running a large network of fake accounts, but just playing on the fact that everyone thinks there are large networks of fake accounts out there" (quotes via The Guardian (opens in new tab)).
He cites an example of the US midterms elections in 2018, when someone claiming to be part of the IRA (Russia's Internet Research Agency) published a propaganda website to cause suspicion of outside interference. The website stated that "We control public debate in the US and we’ve decided who’s going to win and who’s going to lose" – with examples of the supposedly thousands of Instagram accounts they controlled.
“This technique, of preying on everyone’s fears, we expect to see a lot more of," says Gleicher. "It’s an interestingly challenging problem to deal with, because they’re forcing you to prove a negative. They’re forcing all of us to prove a negative. Prove that there wasn’t manipulation. Which is incredibly challenging.”
Issues of cybersecurity have continued to plague Facebook in the past few years. The Cambridge Analytica scandal left many social media users wary of the data they share online, and prompted a huge amount of debate around the way that our opinions can be shaped or influenced by the content shown to them by Facebook's algorithms.
The social media giant has taken steps to allay fears of its site being hijacked by outside interests – Russia-linked election ads being a prime example – such as including more transparent ads and implementing a more thorough vetting process for advertisers.
It's unclear Facebook – and other social media platforms like it – can fully protect its users from those wishing to game the systems in place. But even if they do, our own distrust of the people, platforms and voices we find online may prevent us from believing it.