Facebook, Google and Twitter have all found themselves unwitting players in Russia’s effort to disrupt and influence the 2016 election. Ironically — and in retrospect, unfortunately — these companies shared an almost utopian faith in the role of technology to improve and influence society for the better.
But in the wake of the presidential election and other developments, the narrative is shifting around the large tech companies. They’re being forced to answer tough questions about how their platforms were so widely and easily exploited (some say “weaponized”) by a foreign power with an intent to undermine the American electoral process.
We still don’t know to what extent Russian manipulation of voters’ opinions actually impacted the outcome of the election. We may never fully know whether digital ads and social media had a marginal or material impact on voters’ opinions in key states. That’s because some of the data, posts and ads have been deleted.
Last week, Facebook was accused of suppressing posts relevant to the Russian investigation. However, the company said it deleted the content in compliance with its own privacy policies. Later in the week, Twitter was found to have done something similar for much the same reasons.
According to an article appearing in Politico:
Many US investigators believe that their best hope for identifying who was behind these operations, how they collaborated with one another and their suspected links to the Kremlin lies buried within the mountains of data accumulated in recent years by Twitter …
But a substantial amount of valuable information held by Twitter is lost for good, according to the cybersecurity analysts and other current and former US officials.
Twitter’s guidelines for law enforcement say that once data is deleted, it may be unrecoverable:
Once an account has been deactivated, there is a very brief period in which we may be able to access account information, including Tweets. More information about deactivated accounts is available here. Content deleted by account holders (e.g., Tweets) is generally not available.
Reportedly, Twitter is seeking to determine what parts of the deactivated account data may be recoverable.
Fake accounts and mass manipulation by a foreign power were never contemplated by these companies in creating their policies and trying to strike a balance between the privacy interests of consumers and information needs of law enforcement.
At a minimum, the election aftermath and revelations of Russian interference should prompt soul-searching and new policies to prevent similar exploitation of these platforms in the future.
Their collective resistance to regulation is partly what made them vulnerable to outside manipulation. And without significantly fortified procedures to prevent a repeat in 2018, Washington will almost certainly intervene with new rules for political advertising.