When Russian agents sought to disrupt the 2016 U.S. Election, they didn’t have to be sneaky — they came in through the front door.
“The scandal of Russian disinformation on the internet does not depend on the Russians using some tricky new technology,” New America senior adviser Ben Scott said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “They’re using the fundamentally normative tools of the digital advertising industry, that are at the center of business.”
Scott, along with New America fellow Dipayan Ghosh, spoke to Swisher about a new policy paper they co-wrote and recently published, “Digital Deceit: The Technologies Behind Precision Propaganda on the Internet.” In it, they argue that there is a “fundamental flaw” in the digital ecosystem that makes advertising-supported platforms vulnerable to being manipulated by bad actors of all sorts.
“There is an implicit alignment in the interests of the large internet platforms and the advertiser,” Ghosh said. “That is all fair and well. But when that advertiser becomes malevolent, has a nefarious motivation like a disinformation agent, we need to segregate that shared goal between the internet platform and the advertiser. That means we need to figure out who those disinformation agents are.”
On the new podcast, Ghosh and Scott explained that they’re hoping “Digital Deceit” will be the starting point for action, a goal not often pursued by the authors of think tank white papers. Rather than treating 2016 as an isolated incident, it should be seen as the first of many volleys in the digital propaganda wars to come.
“Even if we slam the door on the Russians and they were unable to use social media to affect elections again, we haven’t stopped the problem of disinformation,” Scott said. “Disinformation is endemic to internet communications. How do we account for that, what’s going on, how does it work, what are we going to do about it?”
“Our goal was literally to lay out the mechanics of how disinformation operations work,” he added. “It’s not just, ‘The Russian agents woke up one morning and bought some ads on Facebook.’ We wanted to systematically identify all the players in the market, describe what tools they use and to make the point that these are the standard tools of the digital advertising industry.”
Historically, consumers have been willing to trade away their privacy to tech companies “for very little,” the authors said. But now, with some members of Congress sounding the alarm and regulators in Europe preparing to enforce general data privacy laws, those companies may have to be more reactive.
“As their users aren’t complaining, they don’t believe they have a problem,” Scott said. “That’s what’s different about this moment: We are now in a political context where people are realizing, ‘Wow! Something fundamental has shifted.’ We are divided in a way we haven’t been in generations. We live in different media environments with different sets of facts. How did that happen and how can we begin to undo it?”
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.