As the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election continues, Americans already have a first look into the breadth and depth of the campaign against our democracy and just how effectively Russian influencers were able to wield our most popular technology and social media platforms against us. The reports of how they leased virtualized computing infrastructure and services based in the United States to rapidly scale their capabilities and mask the real geographical origin of their attacks and how they made ruthlessly efficient use of social media platforms shows that the convergence of digital platforms with politics has taken a new and alarming turn. So, what is the proper response by the companies that design and deliver these powerful platforms? And how should we, the people of the United States, react and change?
We’ve seen how the landscape of platform technologies has enabled intellectual property and relationships to fundamentally alter our economy and disrupt industries. It has led to innovative, asset-light companies being able to scale at a dizzying pace, approaching nearly $1 trillion in market capitalization — an unimaginable valuation for any one company only a decade ago. Just as we underestimated the value and impact that these companies — including Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc. — would create, we have also been slow to realize how their platforms enable individuals and organizations to dramatically change our social and political discourse. The U.S. Department of Justice’s recent 37-page indictment against Russian nationals and companies details the activities performed by the Internet Research Agency LLC, a “Russian organization engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes,” with the goal of manipulating social media platforms in order to “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general.”
The activities described in the indictment call into question the strategy and capabilities of leading platform companies to monitor and moderate the usage of their products and to enforce defined acceptable uses. For traditional companies, it is relatively easy to understand and limit who will be using your product or service, and in what ways.