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Social Media Platforms Operate More As Independent States, Not Their Proxies

This is clearly a foreshadowing of the coming metaverse.

On November 8, 2021, an independent watchdog journalism organization published a report that alleged that a team within Facebook attempted to influence Nicaragua’s presidential election., Facebook deleted the accounts of the country’s “top news outlets, journalists and activists, all of whom who supported the ruling left-wing Sandinista government.” According to the article, this government is a target for regime change by the United States. In October 2021, Facebook published its findings in a report that said the deleted accounts were “bots” – fake profiles used by nefarious actors conducting “inauthentic behavior.” To prove that this censorship activity was happening, several of these victims resorted to using Twitter to record video messages to show the monitoring and censorship, having their Twitter accounts deleted in the process.

Facebook, and social media writ large, has been consistently under the microscope since hostile actors used those platforms to help sow discord during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. During the time leading up to and through the election cycle, nation-states used social media to weaponize contentious social-issue topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19, among others, to increase tension and division among voters. Even an after-action U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment found that influence operations, disinformation, and fake news were actively distributed via these social media channels, calling attention to how responsible these companies should be for the information created and passed on their platforms.

In response to this “new reality,” social media platforms have since initiated proactive scouring of their platforms and users to identify fake accounts, hostile actors, and nefarious activities that go against their “user service agreements.” Facebook targeted and removed suspected nation-state troll farms leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, while Twitter’s efforts to identify fake accounts remain an uphill battle. However, the social media companies at times aggressive approaches have been called into question several times, as these platforms have often unjustly or unfairly targeted legitimate individuals and opposing conservative political viewpoints, suspending, or removing accounts. Social media chief executives have frequently testified before Congress on these questionable practices.

The removal of the alleged questionable Nicaraguan accounts during the time of the Nicaraguan presidential election certainly harkens back to Facebook’s and social media’s selective censorship of content during times of U.S. political and societal unrest. Facebook and Twitter have been accused of targeting conservative voices, while they allow individuals like Iran’s Ayatollah to use the platform to disseminate extremist hateful views. In contrast, both platforms have banned the former U.S. president.

In July 2021, Facebook even warned its users that they might have seen “extremist content” on its site and should report it accordingly. While the company said this was a “test” to identify users that may have been exposed to this type of content, the intimation was that users were encouraged to help identify people who potentially viewed this type of content. As critics contend, Facebook encouraged users to identify those individuals that fell out of step with what the company considered acceptable content. Shortly thereafter, Facebook initiated its efforts to target attacker manifestos and “far-right” militias, a determination that appears to be made solely by the company’s criteria.

The push for social media companies to police their environments has become a mission to control, monitor, and censor what they want. As private entities, that makes sense, as until Congress changes how these organizations are classified and under which rules they operate, these platforms can continue to promote their own political leanings. But if the Nicaraguan claims are true, Facebook’s willing participation in influencing foreign elections or purposefully meddling in the affairs of foreign states for a specific outcome is worrisome and outside of the parameters of monitoring questionable speech.

Truth be told, in this Nicaraguan incident, Facebook appears less of an arm of the U.S. government and more of its own authority willing to support any government for the right price. In October 2021, a Facebook whistleblower testified before Congress that foreign influence campaigns were ongoing on the platform, intimating that this is a regular course of action. For a social media company that is supposed to be targeting this type of activity, one wonders if everything possible is being done to curb the threat. Despite being banned in China, Beijing has allegedly been paying Facebook to promote “propaganda” that played down the issue with Uyghur Muslims, according to an investigation conducted by a news outlet. If true, it could be interpreted that Facebook is willing to ignore issues for financial compensation, or at least, some benefit.

A September 2021 article suggested that Facebook is operating as an independent digital state with close to three billion users as its netizens. This is worthy of consideration given that as the world’s most popular platform, Facebook enjoys a presence in most countries and maintains specific relations with foreign governments and (based on the Uyghur story) even has a presence in those governments in which it does not have a formal digital presence. Given a recent news report, Facebook is considering forming a legislative body to “advise it on global election-related matters.” This is deeply troubling especially as other social media platforms see what Facebook is doing and may look to replicate their business model for their own purposes.

One thing is clear: the global phenomenon of social media makes their popularity increasingly difficult to get under control. And this should be of deep concern to policymakers that may see social media companies as helpful proxies that suit their political objectives. Government officials should know that a quid pro quo relationship is often temporary at best, lasting only long enough for the mutual utility has run its course. When that separation finally occurs, both parties invariably believe that they have left the arrangement with the upper hand. And that will invariably be the one whose long-term interests were best served.

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.