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A Brief History of Online Influence Operations

November 1st, 2021 16:43

The Law­fare Blog, a US nation­al secu­ri­ty pub­li­ca­tion, has pub­lished a con­cise his­to­ry of online influ­ence oper­a­tions. The report begins:

Octo­ber 28, 2021 The Wall Street Journal’s Face­book Files series resumed last week, reveal­ing that the plat­form took action against an online cam­paign to set up a new right-wing “Patri­ot Par­ty” after the Jan. 6 insur­rec­tion. Ear­li­er this month news out­lets report­ed that a num­ber of for­mer employ­ees exco­ri­at­ed the company’s con­tent mod­er­a­tion prac­tices in their depar­ture emails. And on Oct. 25, a dozen news out­lets released new sto­ries based on yet more leaked Face­book doc­u­ments. In con­gres­sion­al hear­ings on the ini­tial Face­book leak, Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal suc­cinct­ly cap­tured the tone of the pub­lic sen­ti­ment, say­ing that “Face­book and Big Tech are fac­ing a Big Tobac­co moment.” Sala­cious as these rev­e­la­tions may be, they raise a deep­er ques­tion: How can it be that soci­ety depends on whistle­blow­ers reveal­ing inter­nal stud­ies that could not pass peer review for insight into the soci­etal harms exac­er­bat­ed by multi­bil­lion-dol­lar com­pa­nies that hun­dreds of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans (and bil­lions of peo­ple around the world) use for hours every week? It’s not like the stakes are low. As America’s deeply chal­lenged vac­ci­na­tion effort so strik­ing­ly sug­gests, mis­lead­ing facts, con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and polit­i­cal dis­in­for­ma­tion cir­cu­lat­ing online could pose a clear and present dan­ger to demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety. But beyond observ­ing the coin­ci­dence of a poor pub­lic health response and wide­spread mis­in­for­ma­tion, there is very lit­tle high-reli­a­bil­i­ty research on the impact of online influ­ence cam­paigns and dis­in­for­ma­tion. So how did soci­ety get here? The arc of online influ­ence efforts—or at least the pol­i­cy dis­course around them—can be traced back to 2004, when videos post­ed by Iraqi insur­gents focused inter­na­tion­al atten­tion on online ter­ror­ist pro­pa­gan­da. Begin­ning in 2011, Rus­sia began exper­i­ment­ing with the use of social media for covert influ­ence cam­paigns abroad, shift­ing atten­tion in a new direc­tion. By ear­ly 2017, the extent of Russ­ian involve­ment in Amer­i­can social media was clear, and online dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns final­ly began to attract sus­tained atten­tion from a wide range of organizations.

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