On March 7, Facebook announced a discovery. He had found 137 accounts, pages and different groups on Facebook and Instagram doing what they call "coordinated inauthentic behavior".
In other words: they were imposters, misleading people about their identity and their program. A disappointment was unmasked and the 180,000 accounts that followed at least one of the members of this network could breathe a little easier.
In a sense, this announcement marked a turning point. It was the first discovery of such a dedicated network in the UK. But in another, the only surprise was that it had taken so long to find. Similar networks handling similar forms of manipulation have been found country after country, platform after platform, worldwide.
The most visible networks in the United States during the 2016 election were the most visible, but Oxford researchers pointed out that a similar activity was taking place in 48 countries around the world . We now know that he has also arrived on the British coasts.
The examples published by Facebook show a network that is sometimes passed for individuals, sometimes groups. Some contents are similar to those discovered by Facebook in the United States: quite right, nationalists, angry, often hating minorities. There is "Politisé", a group with a big Union Jack who shares content about how homosexual Christians are intimidated by other members of the LGBT community. Another excerpt is straight out of the alt-right manual: "Being a leftist, it's easy!" He says, "if someone does not agree with you call him racist! "
Then it becomes a little more strange. The puppeteers of the network "have exploited fake accounts to launch a hate speech," said Facebook. But one of the stories demanded that the leader of the UKIP be accused of hate speech. Another dummy group called "anti-extremists of the far right". Another, "halal speech". The network was coordinated but coordinated to share totally contradictory information.
What it is not really is what the BBC and other media have described as "false news". Some of the content broadcast by the network looks like news and part is certainly wrong. But focusing on that completely misses what was happening. The purpose of this network, why it existed, was not to try to convince you and convince the rest of the UK of something you did not believe before. The goal was not to replace one belief with another. Lying was not the complete picture. No, it was smarter than that.
This network was not trying to change your mind, it was trying to confirm it. To make you even more sure of what you are right and to get angry at people who are wrong – the "leftists" of the Internet or "racists" – compared to you before. The messages were poles apart, and everything was supposed to provoke exactly the same answer: contempt. This strategy, similar to those found on Twitter in the past, consists of inhabiting both ends of the political spectrum and moving them further and further away, increasingly angry.
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It was not about changing what people thought. It was about changing what people feel, and the problems themselves have always been what worries people the most. We have seen online influence campaigns affect just about anything societies strongly disagree with: police brutality, minority rights, gun rights, transgender issues, anti-vaxx, anti-GMOs , online privacy issues and alleged corruption in government. Problems that aggravate existing social tensions. It seems that the main purpose of this network was hate speech, but that may be one of those cases. This is not false news. It was a secret online influence operation.
Who is behind? Facebook says nothing and in all likelihood he does not know it. The attribution, the real identity of the people behind these networks, is something we do not know dramatically. Identity can be easily spoofed online: whole gray markets offer services to hide where and what you are. It is almost impossible for independent researchers to determine their identity and incredibly difficult even for the tech giants.
Given the strategy involved, I bet the people hiding behind this network are those who would benefit from an increased division of the UK, which probably means a hostile state. But that could be almost any who, because the barriers to entry for this type of online influence operations are tiny. Online communities, such as those of 4Chan and Reddit, did so on behalf of Lulz; the white supremacists did it to profile themselves; Digital activists have done it to win elections. There are complete markets of misinformation on demand that no matter who, even normal individuals, can exploit.
The most interesting part of the story is that Facebook discovered it by accident. According to the BBC, he would have been surprised when he investigated a hate speech against the British Secretary of the Interior, Sajid Javid. And it's actually very often how it works.
Politicians and the media are pushing the tech giants to take action. There are just too many problems, too many people, too much data in too many languages for companies, even the size of Facebook, to approach them all at the same time. It focuses on those who are most embarrassing. This is understandable – but also disturbing.
137 accounts or groups, that sounds a lot, and 180,000, a lot of people affected, but in the world of influence online, these numbers are not just small, they are annoying. I have met different young clickbait merchants in Kosovo, with digital presences much larger than those of the network described by Facebook. Thus, although this discovery is a first, it is very, very small.
The problem of online influence has not disappeared; in fact, it has just arrived. Stop the next time you feel stung by indignation. Pause. And know that many people online are dedicated to making you feel that way.
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