The FBI Hacks U.S. Networks (Again)
And, what we can learn from the struggles of Trump’s social media company.
Happy Thursday everyone! Today we celebrate the 41st anniversary of the first space shuttle, Columbia, returning to Earth.
Our first story in today’s newsletter is all about how the FBI is proactively going after Russian malware. The second, while not strictly a national security issue, does tie into these concerns. You see, the idea that conservatives are being abused by “Big Tech” is a fundamental tenet for many saying these companies should be broken up. I’ve said very clearly on multiple occasions (see here, here, and here) that I think this is a bad idea and that it could hurt American national security. So, in light of the recent news about President Trump’s social media platform, I thought I’d lay out what I think we can learn from these developments. I hope you find it helpful.
FBI Hacks U.S. Networks (Again)
The FBI says it has removed Russian malware from networks around the world to prevent a large-scale botnet attack. The bureau says the Sandworm hacking group, associated with Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), was exploiting previously unknown vulnerabilities in routers and firewalls made by WatchGuard Technologies and ASUS.
The so-called “Cyclops Blink”' operation would have allowed Sandworm to use thousands of compromised devices and networks as “zombie” devices (i.e., a “botnet”) to steal data, compromise information, send spam, perpetrate ad fraud, or launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. The G-men (G-People? G-Persons?) were likely motivated to act after seeing bad guys scan infected networks—using code to look for IP addresses, vulnerabilities, or other information they could use for an attack.
Sandworm (aka Voodoo Bear) is the same group that used the “Industroyer” malware to takedown large portions of Ukraine’s power grid in 2016 as well as the 2017 “NotPetya” wiperware virus that spread around the world, causing billions of dollars in damages. This is a serious group of black hats who have direct ties to Putin's government.
Of particular interest is how the FBI’s “court-authorized operation” allowed agents to enter networks, including those owned and run by U.S. companies, and to remove the dangerous code, occasionally without the knowledge or permission of the owners of those networks. You may remember the FBI took similar actions last year. While I think I’m good with this, it certainly raises some concerns.
The utility of the FBI’s proactive action seems clear—a large-scale, destructive cyberattack was manifesting on U.S. networks, there were indicators that it might go “live” very soon, and we knew how to take it down before it could do any damage. There also was a very real risk that private sector owners could not, or would not, act quickly or aggressively enough on their own, and that warning them might tip-off the attackers. That doesn’t mean, though, that the U.S. government should be free to do whatever it wants so long as it’s in the name of cybersecurity.
If the Leviathan of government needs to be more aggressive in our defense, its chains must also be reinforced. Most of what happens in the cyberworld is necessarily secret, but this is precisely why congressional and other forms of oversight need to be dragged into the modern era. I’m confident there are legal justifications for the FBI’s actions against Sandworm and other threats; but I have little confidence that Congress understands those justifications and is applying sufficient rigor to their review and use. Therefore, I believe Congress should adopt the Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s recommendation that the House and Senate form permanent select committees on cybersecurity. All cybersecurity-related budgetary and legislative jurisdiction should fall under these two committees, and they should have primary responsibility for overseeing the executive branch’s efforts in securing the nation’s cyber interests.
Americans decided long ago that they would rather endure threats from abroad than tyranny at home and, if the Leviathan cannot or will not submit to more robust oversight, it cannot be allowed to run free.
What We Can (And Should) Learn From Truth Social
Last year, former President Donald Trump announced the creation of his Truth Social social media platform. According to a company press release (that is no longer available online), the mission of Truth Social is “to create a rival to the liberal media consortium and fight back against the Big Tech companies of Silicon Valley, which have used their unilateral power to silence opposing voices in America.” Well, things aren’t going so well.
After launching in February and attracting more than $1 billion in investment, the platform is hitting some pretty strong headwinds. First, the company has been forced to admit that it’s based on code from another social media company, Mastodon. Downloads of the app have already plateaued, and the site has only about 513,000 daily active users. For reference, Twitter—still one of the smaller social media platforms—has 217 million daily active users. Even more, three of the company’s top executives have quit and Trump himself is rumored to be considering ditching Truth Social, possible for another “conservative” platform—Gettr. In short, Truth Social is a disaster and its prospects look bleak.
What should we make of this? Here are a few takeaways:
First, the underlying premise that conservatives are suffering online simply isn’t true. Before I go any further, this is not to deny that many social media companies orient themselves to a liberal worldview or to say that conservatives are not treated differently on these platforms—I believe both things are generally true. For example, the content moderation policies at Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and elsewhere all largely adhere to liberal speech codes, and it makes sense that those who reject these codes (particularly conservatives), are the users who most often run afoul of these rules and are downranked, suspended, or banned. But, even with these content rules in place, by every metric you can think of, conservatives are not only thriving online, but often outperforming their political rivals. Virtually every conservative advocacy group out there has a Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel, and is reaching thousands—if not millions—of people they would never reach without social media.
As of Tuesday, the top 10 performing link posts by U.S. Facebook pages over the previous 24 hours included Fox News, Ben Shapiro, Sean Hannity, and Dan Bongino—all of whom regularly top this list. In fact, in what may be the most comprehensive audit of algorithmic recommender systems ever, this study found the following:
In six out seven countries studied, the mainstream political right enjoys higher algorithmic amplification than the mainstream political left. Consistent with this overall trend, our second set of findings studying the U.S. media landscape revealed that algorithmic amplification favors right-leaning news sources. We further looked at whether algorithms amplify far-left and far-right political groups more than moderate ones; contrary to prevailing public belief, we did not find evidence to support this hypothesis.
Even if you reject this study (which is peer-reviewed and one of the most comprehensive data-rich studies I’ve found), these findings are consistent with the vast majority of quality research that has been done on these issues over the last 10 years. Or you can simply believe your own eyes: The fact that conservatives are not migrating en masse to Truth Social or other so-called “conservative” platforms is proof enough that they feel like they’re getting what they need right where they are.
Second, there’s a reason why social media companies do not adopt a First Amendment standard for speech—it’s too risky and it makes their platforms awful. The First Amendment is critical for a free and democratic nation. The ability to criticize our government, our leaders, and our society is a bedrock of liberty. But it is equally critical that this freedom extends to groups of people—not just individuals—so that political coalitions, advocacy campaigns, think tanks, and even technology companies can say what they want to say and not be compelled to say or promote something they do not want to say or promote. In the case of social media companies, virtually all of them have rules against all kinds of speech, with Truth Social’s content moderation policy being among the most aggressive, threatening to ban any user who posts “libelous, slanderous, or otherwise objectionable” content (it’s ironic that this “otherwise objectionable” standard is the exact language many conservatives point to when arguing for repealing Section 230 protections for social media companies). Truth Social’s enforcement of its standards apparently included rejecting one user based on his username, @DevineNunesCow, which is the same name as a Twitter account that has poked fun at the company’s CEO, former Rep. Devin Nunes (doesn’t seem very free speechy to me).
Or take Parler as another example. It had signed contracts with multiple companies that required it to have active content moderation policies. In the wake of the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capital, it was discovered Parler was not meeting this contractual obligation and it was promptly dropped from the Google and Apple app stores. Parler's leaders claimed they were being targeted and censored, but Parler was quickly reinstated in both stores when they came into compliance with their contractual obligations. Why did Google and Apple have these policies? Precisely because they didn’t want to be held liable for things like the unmonitored planning of anti-government violence on an app they host in their stores. That makes sense to me.
Even more, the freedom of speech in the United States includes things like pornography, and adopting a First Amendment standard on social media would quickly result in yet another part of the internet being overtaken by this degrading and immoral content. Facebook, unlike Twitter, isn’t overrun with porn precisely because it has the freedom to restrict this kind of “speech.”
Finally, third, building a profitable social media platform is hard, but claiming you’re being censored by “Big Tech” is a great way to make money. There are many, many social media platforms out there; but very few of them are successful. In the case of Truth Social, its rapid decline is being driven by bad design, poor user experience, and, therefore, low user adoption. There’s no grand conspiracy, just a poor product. But many still find it very helpful to claim they’re being abused.
Take Dennis Prager, for example. His YouTube page currently says, “PragerU is experiencing severe censorship on Big Tech platforms. Go to PragerU.com to watch our videos free from censorship!” His channel has nearly 3 MILLION subscribers and his videos have almost 1.5 BILLION views on YouTube alone. And, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that one of the No. 1 sources of visitors to his website come from YouTube. Prager isn’t being abused by YouTube, he’s killing it because of YouTube. If this is censorship, I’d love for The Current to get censored all day, every day.
Other conservative advocacy groups—many of whom I substantively agree with on a lot of issues—have also discovered that running afoul of social media content moderation rules and subsequently being disciplined is a great way to raise money. Here’s the process: (1) Post content that skirts the edge or openly violates a platform’s content rules; (2) Have disciplinary action taken against you; (3) Highlight on other social media platforms how “Big Tech” is censoring you; and (4) Immediately send out emails and direct mail campaigns calling on donors to support you so that you can keep “fighting ‘Big Tech’ discrimination.”
To be clear: I 100 percent support conservatives in pushing social media companies to adopt rules that are fair and more accommodating to conservative perspectives. I’m also okay with naming and shaming these companies when they violate their own standards or enforce them incoherently. But, at the end of the day, they have the right to set their own standards and we have the freedom to vote with our feet. Importantly, we also have to acknowledge that, for some, there is a perverse monetary incentive to constantly claim abuse online and that these pseudo complaints undermine efforts to highlight and address legitimate examples of real abuse or unfair treatment—many of which I’m on record for raising.
Finally, it should not be lost that the loudest voices decrying “Big Tech” as “the enemy of the people” regularly take to social media to make these claims. You know why? Because social media gives them access to millions of conservatives who are going to see their posts. This massive conservative audience, by the way, is on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—not Truth Social.
That is the truth.
That’s it for this edition of The Current. Be sure to comment on this post and to share this newsletter with your family, friends, and followers. You can also follow me on Twitter (@KlonKitchen). Thanks for taking the time and I’ll see you next week!