The real lesson of Facebook's Russian ads is scarier than we realise -- and we're still blind to it

There’s a mad scramble underway to figure out how we lost control of our social networks.

How did the innocent place where we reconnect with old classmates and share cute baby photos become ground zero in a plot to interfere with in an election? How did the fun feeds we mindlessly flick through to kill time on the bus become dangerous weapons wielded by foreign powers?

The unfortunate answer is that nobody really knows.

And, as we learn more about how Russia seeded Facebook with thousands of political ads during the 2016 election, the solutions being proposed to regain control of the situation expose how far we are from actually being able to solve the problem.

Legislation is reportedly being drafted to regulate political advertising on social networks, essentially bringing the kinds of controls and accountability to ads on Facebook and Twitter that have long existed for political ads on TV and radio. The Federal Election Commission is taking steps to update its rules. And on Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — whose company once argued against being bound by the same advertising laws as other media — outlined a plan of his own to require disclosures on political ads that appear on his social network.

These are well-intentioned efforts to close loopholes that allowed shadowy foreign actors to buy ads on Facebook (and maybe Twitter) and to manipulate the public discourse during the 2016 presidential election.

But focusing on the political ads on social media is the equivalent of making people take their shoes off at the airport. You might stop the bad guys from buying ads, but you won’t stop them from finding other ways to accomplish their goal.

You don’t need ads anymore

Regulating ads might have been an adequate measure under an old media framework dominated by TV, radio, and print gatekeepers.

But social media is a low-cost, self-service distribution platform. Its beauty, and its very raison d’etre, is that it makes it possible for anyone’s opinion, song, or funny meme to go viral.

And you don’t need to buy an ad to do it. There are countless ways to spread content ranging from fake news articles to notices about rallies so that they blow up on social networks. There’s a whole bag of tricks full of fake bot accounts, hashtag campaigns, and other goodies available to anyone who wants to use them.

How will Facebook stop Russia, or other malefactors, from spreading propaganda that isn’t packaged in the form of an ad? People post political comments on social networks every day — is Facebook going to regulate the political speech of its 2 billion users?

Misinformation is hardly a new phenomenon in politics. But previously such tactics were confined to fringe media like mail campaigns and phone calls. Social networks are a new beast.

The bigger problem

The reality is even the creators of social media technology don’t have a clue about how to solve this. Ten months ago Facebook’s Zuckerberg was in denial that a problem even existed.

As The New York Time’s Kevin Roose puts it, Facebook is having its “Frankenstein moment.” Right now we’re still trying to piece together how Frankenstein escaped. Until we figure out exactly what went wrong and get a proper diagnosis, we can’t even begin to think about a cure.

But what’s really scary about the Facebook election saga is that it reveals how vulnerable we are to the onslaught of new technology that’s reshaping so many different realms of our lives right now.

Artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and bioengineering promise huge changes for society. Many of the changes will be the good stuff we expected; other changes might not be so good; and some, we’ll never even see coming until it’s too late.

The lesson of the Russia scare is how quickly the magic that enables our new way of life can go from being “gee whiz” to “what happened?” — and how serious the consequences can be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.

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