Something is rotten in the state of digital, and it centres on how little leading tech giants such as Google, Twitter and Facebook seem to know about the power their own platforms have on public opinion – or so they claim.
As the blame game continues in the U.S. over alleged Russian influence in last year’s presidential election — including Russia’s use of social networks to influence everyday Americans — these major internet companies are at the forefront.
As of 2017, two-thirds of adults in the U.S. access news via social media. Nearly 68 per cent of all American adults use Facebook. Google dominates market share of online searches in the U.S, accounting for 63.1 per cent — nearly three times that of the nearest competitor.
And despite Twitter’s lower overall user rate among the general population, it has been ranked the most important social network among journalists, who still remain important influencers for informing the public.
Given such power, it would be a no-brainer for anyone hoping to influence a target audience to use social networks as the vehicle. That obviousness makes it all the more surprising that representatives of these companies should be so unwitting to the possibility.
At the end of October, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Alphabet — Google’s parent company — told Fast Company that they “did not understand the extent to which governments [the Russian government] would use hacking to control the information space. It was not something we anticipated strongly enough.”
For a company whose mission statement was once to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” not knowing about this obvious vulnerability should be problematic for its brand.
A ‘new’ challenge
That’s why the claim is really difficult to believe; an entire industry has grown up around search engine optimisation, a process for which Google offers tips to website administrators. And this is to say nothing of a study published in 2010 that showed how Twitter could be used to spread misinformation, gaming Google’s real-time search results, during a Senate election no less.
While Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, claimed at a recent congressional hearing that “the abuse of our platform to attempt state-sponsored manipulation of elections is a new challenge for us,” the social network has been plagued by manipulation by non-state actors such as ISIS since at least 2014.