Revelations how Russian propaganda used Facebook to influence US elections worrying

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“Winning hearts and minds” is one of those bizarre terms that was popularised this past century in the Vietnam war when many would have first heard it used. The phrase was originally used by a French general in then Indochina in 1895 and is used to characterise propaganda designed to convince the local population the menacing military force in their country was on their side.

How deeply and profoundly ironic then that the greatest propaganda campaign of the modern age appears to be have been run in America, against Americans using the social media that has come to dominate the world.

Facebook has told a Senate hearing into the role of Russian propaganda during last year’s US elections that 126m Americans were exposed to Russian-backed content; the very definition of fake news.

It doesn’t help that, when the Russian campaign was still fresh, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg immediately labelled unfolding revelations that fake news might have propelled the deeply flawed Donald Trump into the Oval Office as “crazy”.

What is more crazy is that Facebook was as naïve as it was and allowed such patently incorrect content to be so easily added and then shared again. The same appears to have been happening on Twitter and through Google.

But Facebook is the most worrying because of its size and reach – it now has 2bn global users – but also because 44% of Americans get their news via Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center and Knight Foundation.

Fake news – and Facebook’s inability to do anything meaningful about it – is destroying our important online democracy while spreading misinformation.

Fake news allows for an increasingly smaller online echo chamber to find news that internet users agree with, which isn’t necessarily true. It has ushered in our current era of “post-truth”.

The Atlantic – in a widely-shared article called “What Facebook Did to American Democracy” – detailed through a long list of academic papers and articles how “the potential for Facebook to have an impact on an election was clear for at least half a decade before Donald Trump was elected”.

The problem with Facebook in this regard is it shows you what you like – literally. The more you like posts from a specific friend or on a specific topic, the more of those it shows you. If you share it, this is even more valuable than a comment and then a “like” and allows Facebook to better tailor its algorithm to show you more of what you are interested in. For the purveyors of fake news it spreads the message. Hone in on what a particular community is interested in (ie anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment) and tailor your misinformation to suit those prejudices and your very targets will spread your propaganda for you.

Ironically Facebook is eating up the digital marketing spend compared to the actual media organisations who produce the real news. Some $8 out of every $10 dollars being spent online goes to Facebook and Google.

And just as ironically, the war for hearts and minds have gone against the very country that popularised the term last century. And it’s just beginning.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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