Law in the Internet Society

Is Facebook a Threat to National Security?

-- By LouisEnriquezSarano - 22 Nov 2020

Facebook and other behavior-capture firms (BCFs) have become a weapon used by malign actors—Russia most prominently—to attack American democracy. Facebook makes money by aggregating its users’ behavior (on Facebook but also across the net) and using that behavioral data to (1) keep users on the platform by presenting them with content tailored to appeal to them and (2) present them with “targeted” advertisements. Because Facebook makes money when its users interact with ads, it wants to keep users on Facebook for as long as possible. And because people are attracted to extreme and divisive content, Facebook presents its users with such content to keep them on the platform. Russia famously spread false and divisive content on Facebook for the express purposes of electing Donald Trump and weakening the the United States. It is clear that Facebook was not a passive victim in this project; by spreading the Russian content Facebook kept its users online and maximized the number of ads they viewed.

This threat is woefully asymmetrical—those seeking to destabilize the US are quasi-invulnerable to reciprocal counterattacks because they have few intact democratic institutions to target and are already flooding their net with disinformation and propaganda. Thus, the US cannot induce Russia to stop its efforts by starting American troll farms. Instead, we must protect ourselves by passing legislation that prohibits BCFs from using aggregated behavioral data to present their users with content that will keep them engaged. Doing so would not limit the quantity of disinformation on the web but would necessarily inhibit its power since it would not be systematically presented to individuals pre-disposed to believing it.

The Call is Coming from Inside the House

Alarm surrounding China’s projection of global technological power, embodied in debates about Tik Tok and Huawei, signals growing awareness of the power of aggregated behavioral data. But few commentators have connected the dots: if Tik Tok is a threat, then so is Facebook. The problem is not Tik Tok’s behavioral aggregation as such, but its ability to use that data to influence Americans. Facebook data can do that too, thus our adversaries need only master our own BCF platforms to attack American democracy.

Facebook’s business model is well adapted to Russia’s (et al.’s) goals. As one internal Facebook report put it: “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” The logical progression is simple: (1) people are attracted to divisive content; (2) Russia publishes false and divisive content on Facebook to destabilize American democracy; (3) Facebook uses the behavioral data it aggregates to feed people this content, which will keep their attention on Facebook; and (4) advertisers pay for this attention. It’s a symbiotic relationship: when Russia publishes divisive and false content on Facebook it is leveraging the platform while providing it with a direct benefit.

This feedback cycle is readily observable. Russia, in its campaign to destabilize American democracy, actively supported Donald Trump’s candidacy by spreading misinformation on Facebook. At the 2020 election cycle’s zenith, the FBI warned that other actors were engaged in similar activities. Extremist political ideologies often go hand in hand with viral misiniformation—and Facebook not only "provid[es] a platform to QAnon [(a viral network of extreme conspiracy theories)] groups … [but also] actively recommend[s] them to users who may not otherwise have been exposed to them." As many as 64% of online extremist groups’ members join only after Facebook actively recommends the group. The QAnon conspiracy has been promoted by Russian organizations and has been tied to several violent crimes. Recently, this symbiosis has been used by Trump himself in an attempt to undue the 2020 election.

Facebook and other BCFs are therefore a threat to American democracy and national security. Public opinion drives voting and political engagement, and public opinion is increasingly shaped by media consumed primarily on BCF platforms. Thus, our adversaries are able to influence and distort public opinion to weaken American democracy and power.

The Asymmetry of Destabilization Warfare

Behavioral aggregation is not the nuclear arms race; there is no mutually assured destruction because we have no equivalent target. Our opponents have already dismantled and coopted their democratic institutions. If Russia thought its social media was under attack it could simply shut it down or overwhelming its own public forums with propaganda-spouting trolls. So, unless the US is willing to start its own troll farms to combat misinformation attacks the only viable defense is to dismantle the BCF business model.

How to Deweaponize the Net

To deweaponize the net BCFs must be forbidden by law from aggregating behavioral surplus and using it to target their users with content and advertising. As long as that business model remains in place, the BCFs’ profits are tied to their ability to influence people and thus their power to distort public opinion will only grow. This same profit-motive ensures that the BCFs will never truly police the content on their platforms, despite whatever fig leaves they may publicly adopt. Only legislative intervention can end this destructive cycle. Despite having no direct effect on individuals’ capacity to create divisive misinformation, such a law would necessarily reduce its power by eliminating its primary vector: the BCF algorithms which target particular users with the misinformation most likely to appeal to them.

The intrusion of “national security” into discussions on the vitality of the public forum is worrisome but likely inevitable. Moreover, those who are less inclined to support laws protecting individual privacy as such may be more supportive of reining in the BCFs in the name of national security. Privacy advocates would therefore do well to address the issue head on and use it to protect individual privacy while they still can.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2021 - 05:39:09 - LouisEnriquezSarano
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