In the past decade, the public experienced a growing mistrust of news sources, as the political climate of the U.S. continues to be increasingly polarized, with media sources oftentimes reflecting this polarization. 

Social media became a new way to gather news, with apps like Twitter and Facebook offering many articles and news updates, while also being easily accessible. Yet how is anyone sure what they are reading is unbiased? What other actors play a part in affecting public opinion?

Since the 2016 elections, it is common knowledge that foreign actors, such as Russia and China have participated in confusing the American public. Infiltrating social media platforms provides an easy way into the minds of U.S. civilians, and spreading misinformation can create chaos and confusion, which destabilizes the country. 

In an interview with NBC’s Richard Engel, William Evanina, former director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, discussed how the 2020 riots protesting the mail-in ballots were influenced by foreign actors fueling rumors of fraudulent ballots to confuse American people. 

“We see all three countries — Iran, China and Russia — all engaged in enhancing and exacerbating protests on the West coast,” Evanina said in the interview. “We are worried about influence of the American voter to understand where they should get real information, especially when they are voting.”

Evanina’s description of the interference suggested that the harm to the public is not physical, but it is psychological. It affected the public’s comprehension of the situation at hand, leading people to chaos and taking action without understanding they were being misled. 

When asked if Russia contributed to pro-Trump ads and if China contributed to pro-Biden ads in order to sway the election, Evanina replied that they were involved. 

“I would throw in Iran there as well. Vladimir Putin, at the end of the day wants our country to eat itself. He wants mass chaos here in the U.S. As does China, but not from an economic perspective,” Evanina said in the interview. 

Evanina explained that the reason that the infrastructure of the U.S. election is such an appealing target to foreign actors is because it plays into the pre-existing political divisions among the public in our partisan-based multi-party system. 

This leads to the question: Why can’t social media platforms stop foreign governments from infiltrating the feeds of millions of Americans? The biggest argument against this is free speech. However, how does social media distinguish free speech from misinformation that affects the democratic integrity of the election process?

In a TED talk, former CIA agent and diplomat Yaël Eisenstat spoke about her experience working as the head of Facebook’s elections integrity operations for political advertising. Eisenstat expressed her disappointment with the efficiency of the company’s efforts at guarding the American public. 

“There's no way to reward listening, to encourage civil debate and to protect people who sincerely want to ask questions in a business where optimizing engagement and user growth are the two most important metrics for success,” Eisenstat said in the TED talk. “The unfortunate reality is lies are more engaging online than truth, and salaciousness beats out wonky, fact-based reasoning in a world optimized for frictionless virality. As long as algorithms' goals are to keep us engaged, they will continue to feed us the poison that plays to our worst instincts and human weaknesses.”

Foreign actors that want to destabilize the public play into this aspect of social media, so they aim to increase engagement by tapping into anger, mistrust and the culture of fear. 

Eisenstat linked the way social media improves engagement to the way extremist groups foster support.

“The modern information environment is crystallized around profiling us and then segmenting us into more and more narrow categories to perfect this personalization process. We're then bombarded with information confirming our views, reinforcing our biases and making us feel like we belong to something,” Eisenstat said in the TED talk. “These are the same tactics we would see terrorist recruiters using on vulnerable youth, albeit in smaller, more localized ways before social media, with the ultimate goal of persuading their behavior. ”

The nature of social media is the very tool that other states use to affect national security by tapping into individual human minds in order to have a larger impact, when that individual is hundreds of thousands of people that all use social media on the daily to inform themselves of current events.

Eisenstat did not completely blame social media for the susceptibility of many to conspiracy theories, hate groups and misinformation circulated by foreign governments. However, Eisenstat said that the companies running social media could be doing a lot more to protect their users. 

“They could stop using the same personalization techniques to deliver political rhetoric that they use to sell us sneakers. They could retrain their algorithms to focus on a metric other than engagement, and they could build in guardrails to stop certain content from going viral before being reviewed,” Eisenstat said in the TED talk. “I want these companies held accountable, not for if an individual posts misinformation or extreme rhetoric, but for how their recommendation engines spread it, how their algorithms are steering people towards it and how their tools are used to target people with it.”

Eisenstat recommended that companies forego a little bit of their profit to help protect their users from the malevolence of foreign actors aiming at sparking violence and confusion.

Eisenstat’s recommendation to the public for avoiding being targeted by harmful social media posts included is to stay educated and outspoken. 

“My message to you is simple: pressure your government representatives to step up and stop ceding our public square to for-profit interests. Help educate your friends and family about how they're being manipulated online. Push yourselves to engage with people who aren't like-minded. Make this issue a priority,” Eisenstat said in the TED talk. 

In order to fight against external threats, our internal issues need to be approached as a society.

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