State of the Art: Can Facebook, or Anybody, Solve the Internet’s Misinformation Problem?

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Can Facebook, or Anybody, Solve the Internet’s Misinformation Problem?In theory, Facebook’s announcement on Tuesday that it had discovered and shut down a wide-ranging Iranian misinformation campaign should make you feel better.

The social network was slow to recognize such campaigns as threats before the 2016 presidential election, and it surely deserves some credit for what Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive, described as the company’s shift from “reactive to proactive detection” of coordinated propaganda operations.

But it was not just Iran, and not just Facebook.

YouTube also said that it had removed content linked to the Iranian campaign. So did Twitter. And Facebook said that it had also removed pages stemming from a Russian propaganda operation that was unrelated to the Iranian campaign.

And there’s more: Microsoft announced this week that it had discovered a Russian hacking campaign aimed at conservative think tanks in the United States. And on Wednesday there was news that hackers had this week tried to penetrate the Democratic National Committee’s voter database.

All that in three days. (And Facebook took down another influence campaign last month that was of uncertain origin, but might have been operated by Russians.)

Feeling better yet? Yeah, me neither.

These drip-by-drip revelations inspire something like the opposite of confidence. Find one cockroach in the kitchen and you might feel better for having caught the sucker. Find another, and then another, and pretty soon you start to wonder if you should burn your house down.

And these daily revelations of online mischief underscore the novelty of the threats we are dealing with — and how unprepared we might be to handle them.

Some of these disclosures are about actual criminal activity. But others, like the Iranian campaign, describe a more fuzzy kind of misbehavior, one that is not obviously illegal, and whose tactics amount to something that lots of people do everyday: Lying on the internet.

Given the gray area some of these activities occupy, figuring out what to make of each revelation — how to assess its potential impact and our collective capacity to respond to it — is going to be the next great task of digital society. And the task is far bigger than any of us realize now.

“The work you see now from Facebook, Microsoft and others to be more proactive is a trend that is positive — it’s part of the solution, and I would want to see that trend continue,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a think tank that has been working with Facebook on election-security issues.

But Mr. Brookie added: “Is this a solution? No, definitely not.”

A solution, he said, would involve a society-wide reckoning with the problem of the vulnerabilities that the internet has uncovered in democratic society. A solution would involve the federal government taking the lead in such an effort, which is not really happening at the moment. A solution would also involve citizens becoming far more vigilant about what they see online, how they respond to it, and the effect it has on their political lives.

And even with all that, we may not really get an actual solution. Instead, the best we might hope for is something like an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between good and bad actors online: a fight that never ends, but whose damage we can at least hope to reduce.

That’s the long game. The short game is rather more depressing.

Consider the most pressing question: How confident should you be that the coming midterm elections will be safe from hacking and propaganda operations online? The most likely answer: Nobody knows for sure, but probably not very confident.

Facebook and other tech companies are stepping up their efforts to police their sites before the midterms. But some of the threats they have spotted so far have little to do with the election. The Iranian operation, for example, has been going on for years, and to judge by some of the content posted by these Facebook pages, was not aimed squarely at American elections, but instead American policy.

In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Mr. Zuckerberg argued that Facebook has been making progress on keeping elections safe, having learned from several races around the world since the 2016.

“There was the French election, the German election, the Alabama special election, the Mexican election — and in each of these elections, our systems have been able to find a lot of fake accounts that were attempting potentially to do bad things on the system,” he said.

Each time the company finds something, Mr. Zuckerberg added, “We get better at identifying this kind of activity up front and putting barriers in place to those who would try to abuse these systems.”

His words are somewhat reassuring, but only in that they feel like the bare minimum that a company like Facebook should But

Alex Stamos, who until recently was Facebook’s chief security officer, has a dimmer view.

In an article published on Wednesday on Lawfare, a news site that covers national security, Mr. Stamos wrote that the string of attacks revealed by Facebook, Microsoft and others were evidence that “America’s adversaries believe that it is still both safe and effective to attack U.S. democracy using American technologies and the freedoms we cherish.”

The government’s failure to address these threats have left the United States “unprepared to protect the 2018 elections,” Mr. Stamos said. He outlined a set of legislative, regulatory and law enforcement steps Americans might take to secure their digital house.

If we move fast, he said, we might be able to salvage 2020.

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