In 1984, I co-wrote The Electronic Link, one of the first books about online communications. Only two of that book’s 258 pages were dedicated to security, and there was nothing about privacy or online safety. Nor was there a word about the danger of a foreign power using this technology to influence a U.S. election or an international network using it to recruit terrorists to commit deadly crimes.
Fast forward to Oct. 31. While many of us were getting ready to celebrate Halloween, senators on Capitol Hill were engaged in something far scarier – a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online. The morning session consisted of testimony from representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter, mostly on the Russian issue. The afternoon session featured anti-terrorism experts, one of whom began, “Islamic State has used popular social media and file-sharing sites to wage the most aggressive and effective global recruitment and incitement campaign of any terrorist group in history.”
A day later, the Senate and House intelligence committees once again grilled executives of those three tech companies on their role in Russian interference.
As Tuesday’s hearing was taking place in Washington, a horrific scene was unfolding in New York where a terrorist who, according to initial reports, may have been radicalized online, drove a rental truck through a bike path, killing eight and injuring 12. While it’s too early to be sure what role the internet may have had in this horrific attack, anyone who was listening to Tuesday afternoon’s Senate hearing knows that the internet is playing a significant role in recruiting, radicalizing and training terrorists around the world.
As someone who has been using and writing about online technology for decades, I watched these hearing with interest and, frankly, a bit of regret. I take no credit or blame for inventing the internet, but I’ve been a strong supporter of online communications since the days of home-based computer bulletin boards and early stand-alone online services like The Source, CompuServe, Prodigy, Genie and AOL. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I began to understand the potential downside of this technology. In 1994 I wrote Child Safety on the Information Highway, one of the first publications to warn parents about potential dangers to children. I later went on to launch SafeKids.com and ConnectSafely.org to try to help teach people to use this technology more safely.
ConnectSafely.org receives support from all three companies that testified in those hearings, along with other tech companies, and I serve on the safety advisory boards of those companies. I say this partially as an ethical disclosure, but also because these affiliations have given me a chance to learn a bit about what these companies are trying to do to make their platforms safer. I know they really take these issues seriously, but I also know that they haven’t always delivered on that commitment and agree with members of Congress who argue that there is more they can do.
While in retrospect it’s obvious that foreign actors would use social media to influence U.S. public opinion, it would have been hard to predict the extent — such as those 29 million Facebook posts from Russian operatives that may have reached as many as 146 million Americans.
Preventing such threats on platforms with billions of posts requires sophisticated software, thousands of support personnel and a user base committed to “see something, say something.” While I’m not making excuses for tech companies, I suspect that some of the necessary algorithms to identify these posts and ads may not have been in place until relatively recently.
Some of those posts and ads were –- on their face — ludicrous and, to me at least, obviously false. It doesn’t take an enormous amount of critical thinking skills to question that veracity of reports that Hillary Clinton and her senior campaign staff were operating a child-sex trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza restaurant, yet this lie was widely circulated and shared, prompting one person to show up at that restaurant with an assault rifle.
I’m still bullish about the internet – it’s fundamentally changed the way we acquire knowledge and improved our lives in countless ways, but like any technology we need to make sure it’s safe.
While I worry about over-regulation — especially when it comes to speech – it’s hard to argue against those in Congress who say that online companies need to be held accountable and it’s time for tech companies to start working with policy makers to craft laws that protect users while also protecting free speech and innovation.
It’s also time for us all to redouble our efforts towards media literacy for children and adults so that we all learn how to recognize “fake news” and incendiary posts and do what we can to stop them and avoid sharing them. By coincidence, we’re about to celebrate Media Literacy Week (Nov. 6th through 10th), which is as good a time as any to think about what we can all do to encourage ourselves and fellow citizens to do a better job evaluating the media we encounter.