Over the last few years, we have all had to accept that social media platforms can and will be used by nefarious actors to achieve their ends. In fact, in many cases, these nefarious actors appear to be state actors. We’ve already seen the impact that a coordinated propaganda campaign from Russia had during the 2016 US elections.
Governments around the world have also taken to using social media as a surveillance tool. Most of us don’t think twice about the information that we post to social media, but we may be more discriminating if there was a serious threat of injury or death to us and our family when we posted the wrong thing.
Russian Election Interference
Most people are at least somewhat familiar with Russia’s attempts to interfere with the United States 2016 presidential elections. However, lots of people are still light on the details regarding how exactly this was achieved. One of the most important tools at the disposal of the Russian government was fake social media profiles. From the perspective of a spy, social media makes it amazingly easy to impersonate someone else and to create new identities. After all, how many of us never do anything to verify that the people we come into contact with on social media are who they claim to be?
But while Russia’s activities have received a significant amount of press coverage and are now more or less common knowledge, the efforts of their close friends, China, to achieve similar goals have gone more or less unreported.
China Social Media Disinformation
Recently, both Facebook and Twitter announced that they had taken action to curtail the number of fake Chinese profiles on the website. These fake accounts are created and run by the Chinese government and have mostly been used to spread messages decrying the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
The use of fake social media profiles to push official government narratives onto people is a problem that has been growing in recent years, but it has now come to a head. While Twitter and Facebook have both described the Chinese efforts as being minor (there are less than 1,000 accounts involved in total), the impact they are having is a very real one. Some of the accounts are posted in English, reflecting the desire of the Chinese government to push their narrative beyond their own borders.
Both Twitter and Facebook are confident that these accounts are linked back to state actors. Both companies have talked about tracing the IP addresses back to their source but have not elaborated on exactly where they lead to.
The use of this information by the Chinese and Russian governments is nothing new, but social media has provided it with a more potent venom. The ability of just a few actors to spread a single message far and wide has grown exponentially since the advent of social media.
Unfortunately, it seems that it isn’t just authoritarian regimes that have a penchant for misusing social media as a surveillance tool.
Homeland Security Fake Social Media
Immigration policy in the United States is currently in a state of flux. What this means to immigrants heading to the United States in the long term no one knows as yet. However, among the many ideas being explored for the future of US immigration, an idea from Homeland Security has stuck out from all the others.
The department recently implemented a new policy in which it gave employees permission to create fake accounts on social media if they deemed it necessary to investigate immigration issues. For example, someone who is applying for citizenship or for a visa might be subjected to surveillance in the form of friend requests from fake accounts.
The Department of Homeland Security hopes that by doing this, it will be able to gain an insight into more private areas of people’s lives, some of which they choose to share online. This doesn’t just raise some serious civil liberties concerns; both Facebook and Twitter are quite unhappy about the new guidance as well, and it isn’t hard to understand why.
Both platforms explicitly prevent the creation of false accounts or the use of knowingly false information to create an account. Clearly, neither platform wants to be used as a hub for identity fraud or deception in general. Unfortunately, the question remains as to what exactly these social media platforms can do to prevent fake accounts from proliferating. It is not practical for them to check the identity of every user who registers for the service.
Once you add in the ongoing problem that social media platforms have with bots and automated accounts, it really makes you wonder just how many of the profiles we see on social media are actually tied to real people, and how many of them are fake. If things keep going the way they are going and social media platforms don’t come up with some kind of solution, it seems inevitable that the number of fake users will soon outstrip the number of real users on social media platforms.