After the 2016 American election, the impact of the manipulation of social media and fake news was strongly felt. Ripples throughout the world echoed the fear that the way people share information could become potentially weaponized for cyber warfare.
Hromadske discussed the potential for cyber warfare and how to guard personal data with Svitlana Matviyenko, a media and information war researcher.
When Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed the decree banning some of the most popular Russian social media sites in May 2017, it made headlines as Ukraine joined the ranks of states limiting citizens’ online freedom. “It’s happening everywhere – in Canada, in the United States, in Russia, in China, in Ukraine,” she said.
Photo credit: EPA/BERND VON
Instead, Matviyenko believes that there is another, more crucial issue behind the ban. “This ban is a symptom of social media becoming impossible to use because of many masterful attempts to manipulate users by corporate, state and non-state parties," she explained. "In Ukraine, this un-usability is falsely attributed to the Russian social media and services.”
The ability of the state to collect information from social media is subjected to regulations based on the location of servers. “Of course, when the company’s servers are located within a certain country, the data mining is easy and cheap, in fact, it is almost automated," Matviyenko said.
In Matviyenko's assessment, Ukraine’s decision to ban Russian internet companies is “an unnecessary, reactionary and desperate move of the government.” The government has little means of fully enforcing the ban. “This ban looks so pointless to me and also, painfully naïve and off-ground," she told Hromadske. "By implementing this ban, however, Ukraine is not different from other counties. Every government has realized by now that they have got a new animal in the political jungle. This animal – it is unruly, unpredictable, deadly.”
As Matviyenko pointed out, the real danger online arises from the unethnical attitudes that Facebook and other social media platforms have towards their users. Like Russian social media platforms, "Facebook is the same in its constant attempts to mask unethical intentions with words about freedom," Matviyenko explained. “If the users of VK and Odnoklassniki massively transfer to Facebook, nobody wins (that is, except Facebook)."
To lessen cyber vulnerability, Matviyenko asks social media users to carefully consider what they are sharing, and overcome the urge to share prompted by social media sites. Her own research seeks to remind others of the importance of a materialist analysis of media infrastructure and urges users to think critically about the information displayed on their news feeds.
How would you assess the blocking of Russian internet companies in Ukraine, including the social network VKontakte and the search engine Yandex?
Svitlana Matviyenko: I see it as an unnecessary, reactionary and desperate move by the government. This is not to say that the scale of the popularity of VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Yandex, and Mail.ru among the Ukrainian users, up to 24 millions in the case of the two social media platforms, is anywhere acceptable. And yet, in my opinion, the choice – to use or not to use media – should be made bottom-up,by users, and not imposed top-down, by the government. The fact that our users prefer these particular media reflects the lack of political culture. The fact that many governmental officials themselves are users of these platforms and services is even more troubling. A weak, or lazy, government would always prefer a top-down reactionary move, so called “fast politics.” These methods of accelerated populism are also so comfortable for distracting public attention from other more important topics. Therefore, I see this decision as tactical and not strategic, with such tactics being more symbolic than practical.
Photo credit: EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL
As I follow the response to the ban unfolding mainly in the form of polarized “pro” and “con” views, I am worried that the opponents of the ban see it as a gesture against “free speech,” and therefore, undemocratic. If we want to be precise about what is and what is not democratic, banning media is certainly undemocratic, because, whether you like it or not, that was the user's’ choice, although, a bad one.
To associate social media with “free speech” or the “public sphere” is a gross misunderstanding of what social media is and how it works. Corporate social media and services do not constitute the space for free speech, nor are they the public sphere. At the same time, I don’t think it would be correct to say that VK or Yandex are “under control” of the FSB or the RF government (as we are being told). The social media ecosystem is too complex to be under someone’s control. Social media evolve because they are constantly being out of control. This is their nature. Instead, social media can be masterfully engaged with by the means of different complexity from the human troll armies to the algorithmically governed nonhuman bot-nets or by applying force on networks with the help of click farms.
My first reaction when I heard about the ban was the thought that it’s a very bad sign. Poroshenko joined a really bad company of dictators who blocked social media in such countries as Turkey, Kazakhstan, North Korea. Upon some thinking, I realized that there is something more to what happened and that it does not concern only Ukraine. This ban is a symptom of social media becoming impossible to use because of many masterful attempts to manipulate users by corporate, state and non-state parties. In Ukraine, this un-usability is falsely attributed to the Russian social media and services. But it is not exclusive. It is a general property of social media today. There are reasons to believe that such un-usability will accelerate towards a total collapse of social media due to continuous exploits, hacks and bans, many more of which we will be seeing in the near future. Twitter’s creator Evan Williams’ diagnosis is “the Internet is broken” now. But I’d say it’s not. The internet is finally perfect, but not for us. For cyber-war.
Many in Ukraine consider the products of companies such as Facebook and Google as a substitute for Russian social networks, search engines and email services, which, it is claimed, can be controlled and abused by the Russian government. Are they safe alternatives in terms of internet freedom and respect of rights for ordinary users?
Svitlana Matviyenko: The intense surveillance has been happening, it’s not news. It’s happening everywhere – in Canada, in the United States, in Russia, in China, in Ukraine. Unless one triggers the interest of authorities, a user remains a nameless dot in the multitude of dots, a meat puppet producing data for IT companies. This is not invisibility; this is temporary non-identifiability. But as soon as the authorities get interested in you, say, if you have triggered their attention by using flagged keyword or by accessing some websites or social media groups, if you are an activist or if you can be useful for surveillance of other activists by being part of their social media network, the authorities may decide to use some available resources (such as people, software and hardware) to dig out more about you and your circle, than you know yourself.
Photo credit: EPA/JOHN G. MABANGLO
Of course, when the company’s servers are located within a certain country, the data mining is easy and cheap, in fact, it is almost automated. Think of the Russian SORM system, which Ukraine and other post-Soviet states have also been using, and which subverts the whole idea or “lawful interception,” or the American PRISM program, which for a number of years successfully surveilled the whole world and its own citizens, which is against the US law. That is why, waging its cyber-war against “the American Internet,” famously dubbed by Putin as “the CIA project,” Russia has been forcing such companies as Google, Facebook and Twitter to store the data of Russian citizens on the territory of Russia to comply with the Russian law implemented in September 2014. This is not to say that surveillance is impossible when the servers are outside of a certain country. It simply requires other means and techniques. It has been reported that Google, Facebook, Twitter resisted to comply with the Russian law. But the struggle is far from being over.
Is there any alternative? It is very unfortunate, but currently, there is no reliable alternative when it comes to social media. At least, not in terms of what we imagine as social media and what we expect from them. There are networks that are protective and secure, such as Riseup.net, but they are not the place where one can persistently inform the world about one’s awesome partner, post updates from the gym or eating routine and collect “likes.” This narcissistic practice is invented and owned by Facebook. Do not get me wrong, I do recognize the positive value of sharing in many situations. But when the practices of self-exposure and self-management dictated by platforms, constantly nudging users to expose more, has become not only the way of being online, but even off-line, we must get worried.
Is it possible in practice to achieve full restriction of access to any website, if such tools as VPNs are available to users?
Svitlana Matviyenko: I do not think “full restriction” is possible. We already see how VPN products are growing popular. But I doubt VPNs will be massively used for such reasons as social networking (and even associated with social networks shopping and pirating). The effort is probably not worth it. Today’s user embraced the easiness, seamlessness, instantaneity and iniquitousness of computation. Anything that intervenes is bad, any additional click is bad. So, for many, Facebook may look as a more suitable solution.
But let us also think about a possibility that this ban has opened up: a possibility to learn about encryption and anonymization – not for the sake of returning to VK, of course, but in order to secure the space away from surveillance. It would be great, if people used this time outside the comfort zone to explore CyberGhost, Protonmail, Tutanota, Tails, Thunderbird and many other similar handy tools.
VKontakte and Yandex were among the most visited websites in the Ukrainian segment of the web. What effect do you expect as a result of their ban?
Svitlana Matviyenko: If the users of VK and Odnoklassniki massively transfer to Facebook, nobody wins (that is, except Facebook). What we’ll get is a highly concentrated multitude of users with Ukrainian IPs in one place and all interconnected, because the density of the Ukrainian cluster of social network is very high. This is a dream scenario for social engineering and surveillance within the Facebook ecosystem. Online, you are responsible for many, most whom you do not even know. If you are connected with any risk groups (i.e. some ethnic minorities who could be abused or LGBT groups), you are exposing these users by making them visible as part of your network and unknowingly unlock their privacy settings.
Photo credit: EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
If someone thinks that VK has been open for “propaganda,” the same can be reproduced on Facebook. (Has not it already!?) In fact, Facebook and Twitter, for instance, are particularly prone to manipulations by “fake news” and “misinformation.”
In your lectures, you insist on the importance of a materialistic analysis of the media infrastructure. What does this analysis give us?
Svitlana Matviyenko: Indeed, in my work, I am using media archaeology and political economy, two approaches that naturally intersect given their focus on the materiality of media, communication and information. They offer methodologies for studying the weight of history in the development of technologies and their infrastructural assemblages. My goal, too, is to keep reminding my students and readers that the Internet has not disappeared and to explain to them the significance of its complexity.
The Internet / telecommunication infrastructure embodies the power relations and economic relations between the state and its citizens, between different states as well as the state and the planetary network – all at once. The material analysis helps to distinguish between the imaginary and real infrastructures that include such different things as underwater cables, signal towers, data centers, computers, cell phones, and any “smart” tech, algorithms and more. After the imperial collapse, how much of the empire still survives by way of its robust infrastructure? Infrastructurally speaking, do we still live in the Soviet Union? What could be the arguments for and against this possibility? What is the infrastructural legacy of the Soviet Union?
There is a widespread idea that Facebook manipulates the news feed. What are the consequences of such manipulations?
Svitlana Matviyenko: Both VK and Facebook are manipulation machines, but they are different machines. Over recent years, questions were raised about the News Feed algorithm and how it selects posts. American journalist Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble (2011), was one of the first who raised the attention to this problem. There are suggestions for how users can “burst” the information bubbles, but the fact remains: these echo chambers can seriously undermine democracy, in fact, they have done it already. The formation of information bubbles is somewhat “unexpected” effect of the personalized web (it is not exclusive to Facebook, it’s only more visible there).
Is it possible that the algorithm will take someone's side in the information war?
Svitlana Matviyenko: When it comes to bubbles, the algorithm does not “take sides.” At the same time, it is crucial to understand that algorithms are not neutral. Take for example, FBX or the Facebook Exchange algorithm that enables third parties such as ad technology companies to purchase ads on social network. The algorithm does it by creating the clusters of digital consumers, interpreting the relation between different data which enables targeting of users on the basis of race, gender, income and what not. It is harmful for many reasons. Think of not only what information a user sees, but what one does not see, because the algorithm “decides” that this particular user is not worthy. In other words, the company does not work directly “against the law,” but the team of tech people and lawyers together exploits the holes in the law for the benefit of the corporation.
Photo credit: EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
Can the social network algorithm be used as a weapon in a cyberwar?
Svitlana Matviyenko: I would not stretch the description of a social media platform or a particular algorithm to that of weapon. Instead, I’ll just say that these companies and extremely unethical in their attitude towards users.The superior intelligence, it becomes us, learns from us and all about us, by parasitizing the delicate network of our invisible relations, and then it absorbs us to nourish its non-human core. This social media monster “moves fast and breaks things” and the governments understand they have to survive in one space with it. They are all calculating now what is more beneficial and less risky for them to do: to burn this monster, tame it somehow, make human sacrifices, or use it against the enemy. So, I guess, we will see all these scenarios. Let us see and ask questions.
/Written by Vitalii Atanasov
/Translated by Chen Ou Yang