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How Russia turned the internet against America

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How Russia turned the internet against America


Some who value the online world’s freedoms are ‘at a loss’ after Friday’s indictment offered new details about how trolls exploited its weaknesses.

The indictment released Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller makes plain how prosecutors believe Russia pursued its multiyear scheme to undermine the 2016 presidential election — by wielding the social media-driven internet that the United States itself did so much to create.

They had help, digital experts say, from decades of accepted U.S. policy about how to help the internet thrive: The U.S. government has taken a largely hands-off approach, while the anonymity that protects people’s privacy and liberty online also allowed Russian trolls to deceive overly trusting Americans.

And the same freedom to innovate that has made Silicon Valley wealthy and powerful meant that there were few eyes on the ball as Russian actors began figuring out how to manipulate the internet’s few dominant platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and the Google-owned YouTube.

“So many of us thought for so long that the internet was an unbridled force for good, but man, over the last year, the shine has really come off,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a D.C.-based tech advocacy group.

“I’m sort of at a loss right now,” Hall added. “I value anonymity, but it’s really hard to see how this doesn’t lead to some sort of driver’s license for the internet, which makes me feel horrible.

There’s needs to be some sort accountability, though I really don’t know what that is. We have a lot of work to do.”

Jonathan Albright, an expert on bots and online propaganda, also found the conclusions of Mueller’s investigators stunning and sobering.

“The indictment is unbelievable,” said Albright, who’s also a research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

He pointed in particular to a section detailing how the major social media companies did not share evidence of Russian spending on political or social ads until September 2017, some 10 months after the presidential election.


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