For months, Facebook has admitted that “bad actors” – mainly Russian – have used fake accounts on its platforms to prey on the social and political fault lines in American society toward one simple end: inflame discourse, sow division, and drive people apart.
On Tuesday, the social media giant took an extraordinary step to mend those fault lines. It began to notify as many as 290,000 users who had visited a few dozen pages and accounts shut down for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” about the malicious targeting campaign.
One “inauthentic” Facebook account, for example, tried to drive people to an anti-rightist protest. Another promoted the elimination of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) – a hot topic among Democrats. The particular cause did not matter. The point was to incite hatred, prejudice, or extremism.
When it comes to sowing discord, of course, Americans can be their own worst enemy. But the move by Facebook represents a new type of whole-of-society effort to end this foreign “meddling” beyond what the government and technology companies are already doing. Media consumers themselves can be enlisted and trained to guard their consumption habits against such organized disinformation.
The Facebook notifications about “bad actors” could be the start of regular alerts by all social media advising users not to be taken in by subtle lies or by efforts to exploit democracy’s openness to amplify hot-button issues. When people are made aware of how some posts and ads are designed to create cynicism toward institutions or challenge the idea of truth, they can be more active in discerning what they find online. Facebook says it is also rolling out an online tool that will allow users to find out if they liked or followed a fake Russian account.
Like other tech giants, Facebook is working with Congress and federal security agencies to bring transparency to these attempts to weaken democracy. So far, lawmakers are very bipartisan in trying to end the threat. “Exposure of foreign influence operations ultimately may be one of the best ways to counter them,” says Adam Hickey of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
The new front line in this effort are media consumers. With help from Facebook and others, they can learn to discern “inauthentic” activists and protect themselves from manipulation. Despite the many issues that divide them, Americans can find some unity in not widening their fault lines.