It doesn't appear to have been widely discuss in the Australian press, but in case you missed it, tech companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter have been raked over the coals recently following discoveries of ads they ran leading up to the last US presidential election.
What's concerning is that the same thing can happen here in Australia and there's very little we can do about it.
Each of the aforementioned platforms accepted money from advertisers that appear to have been located in Russia. The ads, some overtly political, some just on divisive political issues, seem to have been a deliberate attempt to create division within the USA, and and get the candidate of their preference elected.
These ads were in addition to the already much discussed "fake news" stories that have been discovered, where foreign actors published invented stories and distributed them on these social platforms where many of them went viral.
Here's one fascinating example of foreign interference.
You've probably heard about the Russians running fake stories to get Trump elected.
But did you know they have also been running plenty of "left" pages on social media, and even organising anti-Trump rallies? Here's The Hill: Link
Thousands of Americans attended a march last November organized by a Russian group that used social media to interfere in the 2016 election.
The demonstration in New York City, which took place a few days after the election, appears to be the largest and most successful known effort to date pulled off by Russian-linked groups intent on using social media platforms to influence American politics.
Sixteen thousand Facebook users said that they planned to attend a Trump protest on Nov. 12, 2016, organized by the Facebook page for BlackMattersUS, a Russian-linked group that sought to capitalize on racial tensions between black and white Americans. The event was shared with 61,000 users.
As many as 5,000 to 10,000 protesters actually convened at Manhattan's Union Square. They then marched to Trump Tower, according to media reports at the time.
The BlackMattersUS-organized rally took advantage of outrage among groups on the left following President Trump’s victory on Nov. 8 to galvanize support for its event. The group’s protest was the fourth consecutive anti-Trump rally in New York following election night, and one of many across the country.
The case above shows how easily duped people from all political persuasions can be. And how easy it is for someone in front of a computer on the other side of the world to assemble thousands of protestors and foster conflict within a community.
Facebook's legal council was recently grilled regarding this fiasco, where they reluctantly confessed they have over 5 million advertisers each month, and no way of knowing who many of their advertisers really are.
Their business model is built on automation. They simply can't afford to have a reliable human check every single advertisement, and investigate who exactly is placing the ad, before it gets published.
Similar problems have cropped up with Google, YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms. And it seems many lawmakers have had enough.
Facebook and their pals are quite nervous now. They're trying their best to reassure law makers that they won't let this happen again, without explaining how anyone can actually keep them accountable. But if they fail at their attempt to reassure legislatures, then Facebook could face a serious problem to their bottom line... namely, regulation.
While it's fascinating to see these tech companies get grilled over their incompetence in allowing a foreign state to so easily influence the American people, what isn't getting spoken about here in Australia is how easy it would be for someone to do the exact same thing here, at a much lower cost, and with even less repercussions.
Facebook (which also owns Instagram, tbh, WhatsApp, Messenger) is a US company, as is Twitter, Google (which owns YouTube, Android OS, and lots more), Snapchat, Reddit, and virtually any other tech company of note.
Australians are just as likely as Americans to get their information from one of these platforms, yet we lack the governmental levers to hold these companies accountable for what gets published for Australians to see.
If The West Australian ran a full page ad in support of Tony Abbot, and it was learned that the ad was funded by the Chinese government, or Russia, heads would roll. Heck, if the Mandurah Mail published an advertisement supporting or opposing Andrew Hastie and it was found that the ad was paid for by some random stranger overseas, there'd be hell to pay.
Facebook can get away with it though, reach way more people, and no-one would know what to do about it. Should we send them a nice letter asking them please keep Australia's interests in mind?
Any ad run in a newspaper, TV, or a magazine in Australia, is able to be viewed by anyone after it has run. Strict laws around political advertising exist for these platforms to maintain accountability. Why ads targeted to Australians using digital tools should be any different is not clear.
The Australian federal government needs to get ahead of this before it becomes an issue, and put mechanisms in place to ensure that if Facebook, Twitter, Google etc. don't want their websites and apps blocked here in Australia, they must improve the transparency with which they operate, and every advertisement that is shown to any Australian needs to be permanently archived and publicly searchable, with information on whoever paid for the advertisement also being publicly viewable.