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Facebook and Twitter get an avalanche of criticism about Russian interference

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Twitter revealed this week that a November security error exposed user data to internet addresses in China and Saudi Arabia that “may have ties to state-sponsored actors.”
(David Paul Morris / Bloomberg)
Washington Post

Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. were under attack Tuesday by an array of critics, including President Trump and civil rights leaders, triggered by revelations from two reports on the long Russian social media campaign to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The segmented messaging and disinformation targeted African Americans in particular, according to the reports for the Senate Intelligence Committee, prompting the NAACP to urge Americans to abandon the social network. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company needs to do more to advance civil rights.

Trump asserted, without evidence, that social media giants favor his political opponents by rigging their platforms against him. In a tweet Tuesday, he slammed Facebook and Twitter, as well as Google, alleging that the companies “made it much more difficult for people to join” his social media accounts.

The reports for the Senate stated that Russian interference had “clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump.”

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The reports dovetailed with other strains of criticism — including privacy breaches, human rights abuses and a deflection of corporate responsibility — in what experts said marks a critical point in the public backlash against the global social networks. They capped a tumultuous year for social media companies that appear to lurch from one scandal to the next.

“It’s no longer a drip, drip, drip,” said Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s school of media and journalism. “It’s no longer these one-off stories. It’s a fire hose. It’s a river that has really exposed the underlying vulnerabilities of democracies in particular to these disinformation and misinformation campaigns.”

The reports prepared for the Senate showed that Russian operatives vied to manipulate particular segments of the electorate, including a focus on lowering black voter turnout — a finding Sandberg said the company takes “incredibly seriously.” She said in a Facebook post that the company will work to “strengthen and advance civil rights on our service,” adding: “We know that we need to do more.”

In the wake of the reports, the NAACP announced it had returned a donation from Facebook and kicked off a weeklong protest Tuesday, called #LogOutFacebook, encouraging people to protest the company’s behavior by abandoning the Facebook social network and the company’s other platforms, Instagram and WhatsApp.

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“Facebook’s engagement with partisan firms, its targeting of political opponents, the spread of misinformation and the utilization of Facebook for propaganda promoting disingenuous portrayals of the African American community is reprehensible,” the NAACP wrote on its website.

Facebook shares rose 2.5% on Tuesday to $143.66, almost erasing their Monday loss.

Twitter’s drama continued when it revealed Monday that a November security error exposed user data — country codes of phone numbers and account status information — to internet addresses in China and Saudi Arabia that “may have ties to state-sponsored actors” who might be trying to access the accounts. No personal information was compromised, the company said in a public apology, and the problem was fixed by Nov. 16. Twitter shares plummeted 6.8% on Monday after the announcement. They rose 0.9% on Tuesday to $33.74.

A Tuesday report from Amnesty International, “Troll Patrol,” painted a stark picture of the abuse that women — especially women of color — face on the platform. A collaboration with Element AI, a global artificial intelligence software company, the study looked at millions of tweets received by nearly 800 journalists and politicians across the political spectrum in the United States and Britain in 2017. More than a million “abusive or problematic tweets” were received by women in the study — about one hateful tweet every 30 seconds. Black women were subject to the lion’s share of hate — 84% more likely to receive abusive or problematic tweets than white women, the study found. Overall, women of color were 34% more likely to be targeted by abusive tweets.

“Troll Patrol means we have the data to back up what women have long been telling us — that Twitter is a place where racism, misogyny and homophobia are allowed to flourish basically unchecked,” Milena Marin, senior advisor for tactical research at Amnesty International, wrote in a blog post about the study.

Little question remains about the power social media wields in the current landscape, easily harnessed by both individuals and state actors seeking to expand their influence — and the rampant hatred is a reflection of cultural and political tensions that have reached a boiling point. But finding ways to check the power of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is still a vague and Herculean task, Kreiss said.

“Congressional inaction has really not held anyone accountable or set clear rules or guidelines on what the public should expect from these companies,” Kreiss said. “In the absence of that, we will just continue to see the same issues.”

Shaban and Telford write for the Washington Post.

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