Reports that Russian Twitter trolls stoked fears about the Ku Klux Klan’s presence during the 2015 student protests over racial issues at the University of Missouri are cause for alarm.
And they should be a call to action.
Social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook must do more to prevent the spread of misinformation. If they don’t, the social platforms are complicit in cyberspace attacks from Russians or any other bad actors.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jarred Prier detailed the cyberattack in an article on “information-age warfare” published in Strategic Studies Quarterly late last year.
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He concluded that Russian trolls masterminded a tweet that fueled erroneous reports that the Ku Klux Klan was patrolling Mizzou’s campus during the protests.
Prier explains how a fake Twitter account dispatched a warning after “#PrayforMizzou” started to trend on Twitter in the wake of the protests.
“The cops are marching with the KKK! They beat up my little brother! Watch out!” the misleading tweet read. A photo of a black child with a bruised face accompanied the tweet.
The report was false, Prier wrote, but within minutes, the tweet had been shared and retweeted by at least 70 bot accounts.
Many fell for the ruse, including the members of the media, who took Twitter heat for not covering racists on campus.
The hoax was part of a calculated and government-supported effort by Russia to disrupt democracies, according to Prier, director of operations for the 20th Bomb Squadron.
The tweet also influenced then-Missouri Students Association president Payton Head, who warned students KKK members had been confirmed on campus. He later apologized after the reports could not be confirmed. But the tweet helped spread fear among concerned Missouri students and others.
The fake account was also used to spread false news about a chemical factory fire in Louisiana in 2014 and rumors about Syrian refugees in 2016, Prier wrote.
Prier compared the disinformation techniques used at Mizzou to measures used during the Cold War. Social media made it easier to spread, he wrote.
It’s past time for companies such as Twitter and Facebook to stop pretending they don’t serve the same role as radio, television and yes, newspapers.
They are conduits for news.
The mainstream media became a dominant force in keeping our democracy healthy precisely because, for all their foibles, professional journalists take their credibility far more seriously than critics on the right and left give them credit for.
All news organizations and publishers — even the social media giants that are loath to admit they are indeed publishers — have an obligation to police information posted on their respective platforms. If they don’t, the public’s trust in traditional and social media companies will continue to erode.
And that would adversely affect the checks and balances needed for a strong, vibrant democratic nation.