Sunday, October 22, 2017

Guy W. Farmer: Social media and national politics

Farmer image from article

Back when I was in the public affairs/public diplomacy business we didn't have to deal with social media. We dealt with traditional media — press, radio and TV — and didn't have to worry about things like ambassadorial and/or presidential "tweets." My, how things have changed.

You can call me an old fuddy-duddy but I think social media have a pernicious effect on national politics and international relations because anyone can go online and create a media firestorm. That's what President Trump does several times a week with offensive and unpresidential tweets. As I noted last Sunday, he specializes in picking Twitter fights with our friends, just what we don't need in a dangerous world. And last week he picked fights with Gold Star families. What next?

Another worrisome social media problem is children can go on Facebook and reveal way too much information about themselves, which is an invitation to Internet predators to track them down and ruin their lives. It's one thing to tell everyone what your cat had for breakfast, but it's quite different to reveal personal details about yourself and your personal life. Internet predators also target senior citizens with a wide variety of financial scams. So don't bother looking for me on Facebook.

Here's another cautionary note on social media: According to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy, "Facebook promoted several dubious websites on its crisis response page" following the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. One of those websites, "a forum in which individuals are permitted to post almost anything anonymously," misidentified the shooter and posted false information.

Darcy wrote Google first recommended a link to that same spurious website in its "top stories" section shortly after the Vegas shooting. Google later apologized for "briefly surfacing an inaccurate website," but therein lies the social media problem. Once they let the inaccurate website genie out of the bottle, it can't be put back in and false information spreads like wildfire on the Web. Let's call it "fake news."

Friends have sent me many fake news stories via email. "I saw it on the Internet," they say. Well, you can find almost anything you're looking for — true or false — on the Internet. You can discover the earth is flat and learn about talking dogs. It's a continuous "believe it or not" exercise, but too many social media users believe almost everything they see on the Web, probably the same people who believe what they read in supermarket tabloids.

Social media have pernicious effects in national politics beyond the president's infantile and/or stupid tweets. For example, there are at least three ongoing investigations into whether the Russian government attempted to use social media to influence last year's U.S. presidential election. Although there's no conclusive evidence Russians affected the outcome of our election, there's no doubt they tried to affect the outcome in favor of President Trump, who classifies all three investigations as "witch hunts." We'll know the truth when Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, issues his final report.

We know for sure an international cyber war is already underway between the U.S. and its allies on one side and China, Russia, and North Korea, among others, on the opposite side of the battle. Nevertheless, our government isn't fully mobilized to conduct effective cyber warfare partly because the State Department has dismantled an office specifically designed to combat disinformation and misinformation spread by our enemies through social media. Congress should fully fund that office and order State, the CIA and the Pentagon to counter anti-American propaganda.

Guy W. Farmer is a retired diplomat who worked to counter Soviet propaganda during the Cold War.

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