Foreign efforts to sway U.S. public opinion no surprise

Friday, October 6, 2017

Americans are blessed to have a right to govern themselves through their vote, but recent revelations show the wisdom of the founders in creating a republic, where voters choose representatives to make decisions, rather than a direct democracy, even if the majority choose not to take part.

Both sides of any rivalry or conflict have always tried to influence public opinion on the other side, from Hitler’s Lord Haw Haw to Tokyo Rose to Radio Free Europe, American leaflets dropped over Vietnam and continuing efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of populations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It should be little surprise that Russia has tried to influence American opinion through social media, and we’d be surprised if our own side has failed to make similar efforts.

Monday, Facebook turned 3,000 ads over to three congressional committees Monday as part of the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election.

The social network said the ads, seen by an estimated 10 million people before and after the 2016 election, have been linked to a Russian internet agency.

A Facebook executive said the ads focused on divisive social and political messages such as LGBT issues, immigration and gun control. Many encouraged people to follow pages on those issues.

Fewer than half of the ads were seen before the election, and 56 percent of them after the vote. Some were paid for in Russian currency.

Pressure has been put on Twitter and Google to release any Russia-linked ads.

Facebook is said it plans to hire more than 1,000 people to review advertisements and update its policies to require better documentation from advertisers who want to run ads related to the U.S. election, including a requirement that advertisers will have to confirm the business or organization they represent.

To be sure, many of the social network ads originating in Russia were not designed to strictly influence public opinion, but were meant to accomplish the same goals of U.S. advertisers — generate “clicks” and make money.

But online media are learning the same hard lessons traditional media learned long ago — freedom of expression carries a responsibility to distribute the truth. Our democracy — our republic — depends on voters demanding, and finding, fair, accurate information.

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