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On digital graffiti, Confucius Institutes, and what happens when 1 in every 33 homes ruins a neighborhood
It comes as hardly any surprise at all that arms of the Chinese government were engaged in a large and sustained effort to clog Facebook and related social networks with literally thousands of fake accounts apparently intended to influence American audiences. The company revealed its efforts to take down the coordinated effort -- called "Spamouflage" -- in a new security filing that was served up as a matter of routine, rather than fanfare.
■ Social media outlets remain vastly more attractive to malign influence campaigns than their conventional media counterparts, though both have to remain perpetually vigilant. But whereas it takes time and funding to spin up "Confucius Institutes" and gain enough credible traction that they might be cited in conventional media, it takes no time at all to spin up a malignant social-media operation.
■ In fact, that is exactly the vulnerability that the Chinese government appears to have exploited, converting existing spam networks into influence operations. Perhaps amusingly, much of their efforts via these fake accounts were spent in reaching out to other fake accounts -- a sort of infinite loop of pointless recursion.
■ At some point or another, though, Facebook and its fellow-travelers in social media will have to reconcile with the reality that letting spammers (and adversarial foreign governments) jam up their networks with junk has much the same effect as if they were to allow graffiti to appear all over the walls of their headquarters.
■ People start to notice defacement with the first instance, but often find reasons to look past it. But given enough encounters, they ultimately vote with their choices and move along to better neighborhoods. Facebook's parent company, Meta, even acknowledges the problem of fraudulent accounts in its filings with the SEC, noting "In the fourth quarter of 2022, we estimated that approximately 3% of our worldwide MAP [monthly active people] consisted solely of violating accounts." That may not seem like much at first, but if one out of every 33 homes in your neighborhood was a drug den, you'd probably think seriously about moving out.
■ Eradicating bad actors is impossible -- they have too much incentive to find new and innovative ways to get around the rules. But Facebook and other social media outlets need to work harder to keep their virtual streets clean. It isn't hard to uncover the bad actors out there, if only they want to try.