Banning Foreign Influence Trolls Isn’t Enough

In the wake of a number of recent high profile scandals, it was announced this week that Facebook is rapidly banning accounts suspected of being tied to efforts to undermine US Elections in an attempt to appear as if they’re able to self-regulate.

In reality, the response by Facebook et al to eliminate accounts tied to foreign influence has been pathetically tepid and has come long after any of these actions would have made a major impact on the public. It would be easy for a commentator standing between the worlds of national security and network security to make write an entire essay based on the premise of “I told you so”, and we in the infosec community don’t want to brag, but….we fucking told you so.

While the threat of government regulations on social media companies is certainly a motivating factor for these companies to get their acts together, a few banned accounts isn’t going to cut it when the threat is a hostile and determined foreign government with a persistent interest in using domestic social media companies to undercut their home democracy. More needs to be done, but what?

It’s becoming clearer that what is needed is a joined effort of public and private intelligence resources including the US Intelligence community, liaisons to social media companies, and the social media companies themselves. What we’re facing is a true counterintelligence threat, and it deserves a modern counterintelligence response.

The missed point is that banning accounts is a one-off act. Banning a single round of accounts has a limited impact on intelligence operations. Is it symbolic? Sure. It’s as symbolic as declaring 25 “diplomats” Persona Non Grata and kicking them out of the country. Unfortunately, as these things work, 25 new “diplomats” usually follow those who got tossed, and the hostile activity continues. Not only is this a cynical and ultimately meaningless gesture, but it’s much more difficult to do even that when the setting is cyberspace rather than a sovereign & controlled collection of land.

If Congress took this threat seriously, they would have apportioned bipartisan resources a year ago in order to study the extent and effect of foreign influence operations, and we may have already had an appropriate response in place. Considering that this didn’t happen and the problem only seems to be getting worse with each news update, it would be wise for a governmental intervention to occur at some point in the near future.

Ultimately, we may find that what needs to be put in place is a robust counter-influence division with the expressed goals of countering misinformation and foreign information operations embedded into the conduits of that misinformation. If this sounds a little iffy, it’s not the first time something like this has been done. In fact, it’s kind of a part of the FBI’s standard business practice to interact with private industry.

Whatever the response, there’s now an immediate need for the country to protect itself in the future from this type of influence. The appropriate responses range from heavy-handed, to potentially compromising American values…but what exactly are our shared values anymore? It’s hard to tell these days.