Like the Chinese, the Russian government has shown itself to be resourceful and resolute in most matters, and in the area of propaganda and world opinion their activities are no exception. Unlike the Chinese, the Russians like to go for overt influence rather than subtlety. Case in point is the Russia Today cable network, which is cast as a Russian version of other English-language global networks like the BBC, but year after year acts more brazenly as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.
Internet hacking is another pastime of the Kremlin and its domestic proxies, as the Clinton presidential campaign found out to its dismay. Peddling incriminating documentation directly to U.S. political campaigns appears to be another tactic. All these hijinks provide ample evidence that the Russian government is more than capable of chewing gum and walking at the same time; e.g. invading bordering countries like Georgia and the Ukraine, while engaging in influence peddling as part of an intelligence stratagem.
And then there is the case of Facebook.
Facebook, the Harvard dorm creation of Mark Zuckerberg that is the poster child for a viral Internet unicorn, controls the planet’s social media footprint. That’s right, not just the U.S., but the entire globe. Sure, there is Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube, and the like, but those platforms are fighting over the 20% of the social media market that Facebook does not control. And yes, QZone and RenRen are dominant in China and Kontakte is dominant in Russia, but these are the Eastern exceptions. Its ubiquity means that Facebook has been used for nefarious purposes by illicit groups worldwide, without drawing much attention or interest from the company. Facebook has been loathe to be heavy handed in its censorship of it users, as this may endanger the billions in advertising dollars it rakes in every month.
This is good news for the intelligence outfits of non-U.S. governments. Influence can be bought with a simple online Facebook ad campaign bought through a dummy company. No need to hunt for foreign agents or willing participants to surreptitiously lease airtime in U.S. radio stations to broadcast opinion pieces as real news, for example. And Facebook is happy to take the money. Worst case is that it will have to cancel the ads later (1).
The news of a major Russian campaign that engaged in the aforementioned tactic over the last two years is now spilling out into the public. I give the credit to the Russian government for its inventiveness and its willingness to manipulate the greed of U.S. Internet companies to its own purposes.
But for the U.S. individuals and entities involved with the scheme, I would call it treason. If there was any activity that could be called aiding and abetting a foreign government, this would have to be it.
It seems few in the U.S. government have an appetite to call Facebook (and others) to account publicly, particularly given its own manipulation of the same companies for intelligence purposes. But to the executives of those firms I would offer the following piece of advice:
Tread carefully and remember that it is the premise of the underlying U.S. market system that is the source of your businesses’ ability to thrive, not just your success-reinforced ego and genius (2).
(2) U.S. consumers can be fairly forgiving regarding geopolitical controversies; that is not the point–biting the hand that feeds is the point.