01.11.2017 Author: Vladimir Platov

Social Media: Good or Evil?


In recent decades, the Internet and social networks have developed into an innovative environment for communication and value-sharing, exerting a strong influence on the government, its institutions and individual citizens.

Today, the Internet and social networks are rapidly replacing newspapers, magazines and TV, which previously served as leading information channels. The Web is a more flexible medium with more communication channels, on which people interact directly, sharing their ideas, forming connections and worldviews.

The influence of social networks on the political life of states can be considered proof of the fact that recently, social networks have become the main incentive for revolutionary manifestations, such as during the 2011 Jasmin revolution in Tunisia and in several other countries.

Recently, US President Donald Trump said that he would have probably lost the election had it not been for social media, and claimed that Twitter allows him to directly convey his genuine point of view to the public when his words are misrepresented. Trump added that another advantage of the social network is that it offers users an opportunity to deal with fake news.

Today, social networks know more about you than your friends and family. Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and many other large IT companies meticulously gather information about you and your so-called digital footprint. Their analyses are quite accurate and can reveal many of your secrets with only a little margin for error. This includes how much money you make, your hobbies and interests, your political and religious views, your marital status and sexual orientation. All this can easily be used against you.

It is no secret that in the last few years, large-scale surveillance of the population has been conducted in the UK. That is why the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) faced heavy criticism due to a possible violation of privacy laws and the fact that the abundance of data may have undermined the organization’s ability to carry out proper analysis. The human rights group Privacy International claims that it has documents, which prove that the GCHQ has been collecting information from social networks on millions of citizens for years (perhaps even decades), sharing databases with foreign intelligence and law enforcement services.

However, the main overseers of social networks are, of course, the US special services. Only the CIA monitors millions of social network users on a daily basis. Information gathering is conducted by a team of hundreds of CIA employees, known within the agency as the ‘vengeful librarians.’ They constantly analyze information from social networks in several languages to create a real-time vision of public opinion in various regions of the world and take this information into account when developing new secret CIA operations abroad.

The storage of all telephone calls and Internet correspondence of foreign citizens for the needs of US intelligence is unlimited and resides in the world’s largest data center in Bluffdale, Utah. It covers area of 100,000 square meters and so far, 2 billion dollars have been spent on its development.

Besides the CIA, the US Defense Department also carries out significant work on social network monitoring, in particular through the Advanced Media in Strategic Communication program of Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which develops special software tools and means for monitoring social media and altering user behavior. In particular, DARPA regularly conducts research to identify persuasion campaign structures, combats influence operations of potential enemies in social networks. The technical goals of DARPA programs involve the development of automated or semi-automated software tools and means for the systematic acquisition and analysis of information from social networks. With their help, it is possible to identify, itemize and track the emergence and the dissemination of ideas and concepts, targeted and misleading misinformation messages. It also helps to expose the organizers of propaganda campaigns, to identify participants and their intentions, to develop and implement measures to counteract the opponents’ influence operations. The programs developed by DARPA also allow the automated generation of content on social networks using the so-called fake accounts (also known as sock puppets or bots) to conceal genuine information about individuals who promote ‘special’ points of view and, through the creation of false propaganda sites, distract social network users who possess oppositional sentiments.

It was with the direct involvement of DARPA in recent months that the Anti-Russian campaign concerning the ‘Russian threat’ and Russia’s alleged influence on the US elections and those of other Western countries has been promoted in the US and then worldwide. The primary goal was hindering the growth of the Kremlin’s global authority and its successful participation in resolving international conflicts.

But not only national security services carefully spy on us through social networks. The American credit reporting agency Equifax found a brilliant way to collect personal data on crediting. This was done, of course, without the permission of the citizens themselves, and the information was then sold to companies that wish to lend people money. Therefore, hackers were able to steal social security numbers and other personal information about 146 million American citizens (almost half of the US population).

And this is unlikely to be the case with just Equifax.

WikiLeaks revealed that not only social networks, but also our smartphones and TVs spy on us for the Americans. And now, to enter the US territory, people have to disclose their social media accounts.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the founder of the French search engine INNOO, Luc Rubiello, spoke against the omnipresence of international Internet corporations in France. According to him, they are instruments of the US soft power and present a threat to the independence of other countries.

One can say that they have nothing to hide and that for them, the access to the personal data of their relatives is more important, or that they do not care whether or not foreigners have access to the information. But they forget that it is very difficult to rebuild one’s personal life after it has been invaded. Additionally, a future employer may have a completely different point of view on the matter and the decision to recruit an employee after a detailed acquaintance with their personal life and activities on social networks may well be negative.

One of the founding father of the Internet, Louis Pouzin, gave a very accurate description of the current situation, saying, “The United States already controls all Internet mechanisms and offers its services worldwide. We are talking about the colonial system of the XVIII century here: the resources of the colony are simply resold to it after having been processed.”

According to Michael Sandel, a Harvard political philosophy professor, “One hundred years ago, we found an opportunity to curb the unaccountable governments and staggering power of the industrial revolution. Today, we need to decide how to restrain the power of the digital revolution, which answers to no one.”

Vladimir Platov, expert specialized on the Middle East region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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