What a difference a year makes. This time last year, Twitter pooh-poohed any suggestion that Russian agents ran accounts on its platform for purposes of subverting the US election. A month ago, it was forced to eat its words, owning up to maybe just a few paltry 201. Last week, in the course of a Congressional grilling, that estimate ticked upward a magnitude to more than 2,700. Facebook, too, upped the ante, admitting that Russian-backed content may have reached not 10 million users, as previously claimed, but 126 million. Some of this, as analysis of the @TEN_GOP Twitter account suggests, was influential. But did it influence the election? That is the $64,000 question. Or, given how much Donald Trump appears to be profiting from his election as US president, perhaps the $64m question. Not to be outdone, the UK may, finally, be asking some of the same questions. A petition politely asking the UK government to “investigate covert foreign interference in the EU referendum” was cancelled earlier this year when the general election was called. Now it is back and has hit 10,000 signatures, an official (written) response is required. 100,000 signatures means the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.
Attempts at targeted influence were not restricted to US and UK votes. The same techniques appear to have been deployed during French and German elections.
These latest admissions add massively to previous concerns that, whatever covert interference took place, financiers with deep pockets were hard at work influencing the outcomes of national elections using advanced data mining techniques and targeted online messaging.
None of the above are great for democracy. All suggest that the influence of social media has already proven malign. Yet this focus on the indirect threat, from tactics designed to swing individual voting may be missing a much bigger issue. That is, the threat from partisan campaigners and hackers to subvert the voting process directly, making the outcome of future elections at best dubious, and, whatever the outcome, destroying the legitimacy of those elections.