The NFL protest debate is a great example of Russia using Twitter to manipulate Americans

Facebook, Google, Twitter are currently being scrutinized by U.S. lawmakers for their influence and Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But the hearings in Washington aren’t just about politics. Several senators used the National Football League protests to explain the scale of the misinformation problem on tech platforms.

During a hearing with the Senate Intelligence committee on Wednesday, Sen. Angus King shared top hashtags from Sept. 23 and 24 and used by 600 Russian websites. The hashtags included Syria, NFL, boycotted, standforouranthem, MAGA, and takeaknee.

“We have Make America Great Again, Russia, Take A Knee. In other words, they were tweeting on both sides of the NFL dispute in order to exacerbate the divisions,” Sen. King said. 

Image: C-SPAN

The “Take A Knee” protests, started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have ignited a dispute in the NFL and among football fans. Players have chosen whether to stand or to kneel. Fans have cheered or boycotted

On Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube, Russian propagandists — or anyone really — can participate in these conversations. The concern from senators is that Russians are leveraging these open networks to manipulate these conversations.

“One witness to this committee had said that their strategy is to take a crack in our society and turn it into a chasm. That’s exactly what we’ve seen. We saw in 2016, and my point here is it hasn’t stopped, and it won’t stop,” Sen. King said. 

“My point here is it hasn’t stopped, and it won’t stop.”

The spread of misinformation is quite prolific on Twitter for several reasons. Twitter is real-time and 140 characters (for the majority of users), which lends itself to spreading quick, not fact-checked information. Twitter users also do not have to use their real names, so there’s less ramifications for sharing something inaccurate. 

Asked “why on earth” Twitter would not require real names by Sen. Martin Heinrich, Twitter’s General Counsel Sean Edgett shared the company’s mission of free speech and providing a secure channel for activists.

But that also means that Russian trolls can amplify negativity around any topic. Twitter, for example, revealed that only 9 percent of the tweets from Russia-linked accounts were election-related. Edgett said Wednesday the company had seen activity related to the NFL boycott on the platform. 

That may never stop on Twitter, and it’s a concern from these senators. Sen. James Lankford echoed Sen. King’s sentiments. 

“This is not an opposition to free speech though. This is actually a battle to try to protect free speech. We want to have good American dialogue, and the fear is that your platforms are being abused by foreign actors who want to abuse free speech,” Sen. Lankford said. 

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Tags: 2016-election colin-kaepernick donald-trump facebook google nfl-protest russia-hacks take-a-knee tech-hearings twitter

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