Last October, with just a few weeks to go for the US presidential election, I pointed out something strange about Donald Trump’s campaign. At a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump had read out a leaked email he claimed was from Hillary Clinton’s confidant Sidney Blumenthal, which suggested that the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died, could have been prevented by Clinton, then secretary of state. The crowd lapped it up.
In fact, as I pointed out, the words Trump read had been lifted from a Newsweek article and falsely attributed to Blumenthal by Sputnik, a Russian news website. It was already clear that Moscow was meddling in the election. A Homeland Security statement said the Kremlin had “directed” the hacking of email accounts associated with the Democratic Party “to interfere with the US election process”.
There was not much doubt that Russia was behind the release by WikiLeaks of emails to and from Clinton.
Shortly after the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as “a pretty crazy idea” the notion that fake news might have decided the contest in Trump’s favour. Last week, he had to admit that he regretted those words.
We now know that before (and after) the election, Russian trolls with bogus identities bought more than 3,000 Facebook ads. The Russians also used Facebook Events to organise phoney political protests in the US, including an anti-immigrant rally in a small Idaho town known for welcoming refugees. It was to be “hosted” by “SecuredBorders”, a Facebook group exposed in March as a Russian front.
Twitter was used in a similar way. In response to congressional investigations, the company admitted last week it had identified about 200 accounts linked to Russia, and that Kremlin-backed news site RT spent US$250,000 on Twitter ads last year.
It is still too early to conclude that Russian use of social media decided the election. However, we probably can conclude that social media decided the election. The Trump campaign spent about US$90 million on social media, most of it on Facebook. Last November, Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s digital director, said: “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing.” I believe he is right.
In less than a decade, the public sphere – and the democratic process – has been revolutionised. In 2008, the defeated Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, had 4,492 Twitter followers and 625,000 Facebook friends. Barack Obama had four times as many “friends” and 26 times as many followers. Yet the platforms were still in their infancy.
Today, Facebook has more than 2 billion users around the world. In America, about two-thirds of adults are on Facebook. Nearly half get their news from it. One in 10 gets news from Twitter. About 40 million people (and bots) follow @realDonaldTrump.
Everyone, including Russian trolls, as long as they conceal their whereabouts, can use social networks to spread not just falsehoods but extreme opinions. This is a key problem the titans of Silicon Valley gravely underestimated. The tendency for “birds of a feather to flock together” means like-minded people form clusters in any social network, regardless of its size.
The result is massive polarisation. A recent study of 665 blogs and 16,852 links between them showed that they formed two almost separate clusters: one liberal, the other conservative. A study of Twitter revealed that retweets have the same character: conservatives retweet only conservative tweets. A study of language used on Twitter showed that, on hot-button issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage and climate change, it is the tweets using moral and emotional language that are more likely to be retweeted.
The sky is darkening over Silicon Valley. Facebook or Fakebook? Twitter or Twister? Last week, Trump fired his first shot directly at Facebook: “Facebook was always anti-Trump.” Zuckerberg shot back: “That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”
The key question is how tenable that defence now is. A platform for all ideas? Or the most powerful media publisher in the history of the world?
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford