Robin Sears writes that social media have pioneered four new techniques -- disappearing ads, fake senders, massive targeted volumes and anonymous sponsors. Each represents a clear and present danger to democracies.
He illustrates how they work and what their implications are:
You ride the streetcar home one spring morning next year, flipping through missed messages after a frantic work day. A tweet pops up with an embedded video that immediately plays a nasty attack on Justin Trudeau, making claims about corruption. It is sent by someone you have never heard of, on behalf of an obviously fictitious organization. Irritated, you scroll back to replay it, to try to figure who sent it.
It is gone.
A few seats back on the streetcar, another Twitter target discovers something strange about a good friend’s account. Not only have her followers grown from 1,700 to 700,000, she is saying things about Jagmeet Singh that are repulsive. She texts her pal, who is appalled at this online impersonation and immediately deletes her account. She is unaware that her digital doppelganger lives on and can be cloned thousands of times with almost imperceptible tweaks to her photo or her bio.
The New York Times last week reported that the going rate to buy stolen or fabricated IDs and retweets on the dark web is little more than one dollar for 1,000 fake Twitter accounts. A dollar.
If you have thought it improbable that some tech writers have estimated that somewhere between a third and half of Trump’s 47 million claimed followers are fake, do the math. That would have cost helpful supporters not more than $25,000, less than a dinner event at Mar a Lago.
The problem is not with the technology. It's with the corruption and subversion of the technology. It's taken Facebook and Twitter awhile to catch on to what nasty users have done to their platforms. But the damage done is now quite clear:
We are naked and vulnerable, however, where two earlier stage threats to a level playing field are concerned: pre-election social media advertising by unknown third parties, and massive campaign period overspending, paid for offshore undetectably. This is not a future problem or fantasy. The U.S. campaign was a victim of these techniques, and probably others yet to be revealed by Robert Mueller.
Some countries -- like Britain and Germany -- are wrestling with antidotes to these viruses:
The Germans and the Brits are forcing the social media companies to be responsible for content on their networks, the real identity of those sponsoring it, and provably tracing the source of the payments. But these are enforcement techniques mostly useful after the fact.
In Canada, we are just waking up to the problem. And, in the United States -- where the current president benefited mightily from the subversion of a new technology -- they're still sleeping.
This is no time to sleep.
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