There’s a fix to disinformation: Make social media algorithms transparent

Posted on March 17, 2022 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
March 16, 2022.   By Stephen Maher, Contributor

How exactly is harmful content spreading on platforms like Facebook? It’s time to consider algorithmic transparency as part of our national defence.

On Feb. 27, when Vladimir Putin told the world that he had put Russia’s nuclear arsenal on high alert, Valery Gerasimov was seated at the end of a long table from Putin, his face unreadable.

Gerasimov, who was a commander in the Chechen war that solidified Putin’s grasp on power, has been Russia’s top general since 2012. He successfully led Russia’s campaign in Syria, propping up blood-soaked dictator Bashar Assad, and has presided over small border wars, where Russia creates chaos and then sends in “peacekeepers” to establish “frozen conflicts” on its periphery.

Western analysts credit him with the “Gerasimov doctrine” — the idea of blurring the lines between military and non-military methods, seeking to “perfect activities in the information space.”

His authorship of the doctrine is disputed, but nobody can doubt that is what the Russians are doing — using disinformation and propaganda to weaken their enemies, seeking advantage by inducing chaos and uncertainty.

Ahead of the 2016 U.S. election, Russian intelligence hacked the Democrats, made the documents public and used sophisticated social media techniques to help Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton.

The Facebook campaigns were largely aimed at depressing the African American vote, using fake Black Lives Matter groups and “dark advertising” — deceptive messages secretly directed to voters through Facebook. Facebook denied the problem and then sought to minimize its impact, until it was forced by American lawmakers to reveal its role.

Last month, Grid reported that the main Facebook groups promoting the so-called “freedom convoy” in Canada were actually managed by a Bangladeshi marketing firm. But who was directing that operation?

It would be wrong to conclude that it was the Russians, but it would be better to know than to guess.

The Verge has reported that the convoy movement really started to take off after it was promoted by conservative American outlets who have their own reasons to want to knock Justin Trudeau down a peg or two. The Russians must have been delighted, because coverage of the Canadian disruption — which was featured heavily on Fox and Russia Today — helped distract from Putin’s troop buildup on the border with Ukraine. And when the Russian tanks rolled in, Putin-friendly Americans were able to draw a connection between Canada’s convoy crackdown and Russia’s invasion.

In the period of newspaper and broadcast dominance, anyone could find out what news their neighbours were consuming just by opening the paper or turning on the TV. In the social media era, many of those interactions are dark.

The solution is algorithmic transparency. But this is easier said than done, because the algorithms are the special sauce in the platforms.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has advocated for a new kind of regulator that is empowered to pierce the veil of secrecy. So far, lawmakers have listened politely, but not acted.

Consider Pat King, a convoy organizer in jail in Canada. In his livestreams, King used racist language, discussed white replacement theory and opined that Justin Trudeau was “going to catch a bullet.”

Canadian national security expert Stephanie Carvin emailed a senior contact at Facebook at the end of January to raise a concern about comments that King was making about anti-hate campaigners, which she deemed threats. At the time, King had 200,000 Facebook followers. Her contact replied that Facebook was aware of his page and was balancing freedom of expression and safety. King’s page is still up; he now has 325,000 followers.

Carvin thinks we need to know more about how he got so popular. “Who was Pat King promoted to and on what grounds?” she asks.

Because the algorithms are secret, we have no idea.

Since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, it has become clear that many Western countries have neglected their security. Given the Gerasimov doctrine, the platforms’ record in dealing with disinformation and foreign threats, it is time to consider algorithmic transparency as part of our national defence.

Stephen Maher is a journalist, a Harvard Nieman Fellow and a contributing author to the Centre for International Governance Innovation at

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