The US is home to some of the world’s most successful social media companies, such as Meta’s Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Alphabet’s YouTube.
It is also the country with the most active social media users after China and India, with 327 million users in 2023.
However, social media platforms have become a huge source of concern for the US administration due to the difficulty of weighing the sacrosanct values of freedom of speech and data privacy against the interest of national security.
The dark side of Discord
Over the last few months, the social platform has found itself at the epicenter of the largest leak of classified Pentagon documents since Edward Snowden. Discord has strong privacy features, and since it was founded in 2015, has become a secure space where users can have private discussions. This has attracted users who want to spread misinformation and hate speech without being noticed. Most groups are invitation-only and users on Discord are not asked for real names during registration and operate under pseudonymous usernames.
The breach of classified documents on Discord went unnoticed for quite a long time. Documents were shared from January of this year, but up until March they circulated only within a single group, thanks to Discord’s privacy features. The reason they remained undetected is that no single US office is responsible for proactively monitoring online forums to uncover potential illegal acts.
As result, US intelligence agencies are reportedly considering monitoring social media platforms and online chatrooms more closely. That would mean treading a tightrope for a country already accused of massive surveillance, not only of its citizens but also of other countries, as the leaks revealed. In Washington, the intelligence community is confronted with an old dilemma—how to protect national security while not infringing upon American citizens’ civil liberties.
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Social media is caught in the middle of Russian information warfare
The Discord incident adds to other social-media-related troubles plaguing the US administration.
The Pentagon leaks showed, among other things, that Russia has become more effective in promoting its disinformation campaign on platforms such as Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube. A disclosed document seen by The Washington Post contains claims by Russian operators of false social media accounts that are detected by social networks only about 1% of the time.
Even if the estimate is exaggerated, it suggests that Moscow is getting better in its campaign of disinformation. The document focuses on the Russian network tasked with running the country’s disinformation campaign known as ‘Fabrika’, with the analysis concluding that “the efforts will likely enhance Moscow’s ability to control its domestic information environment and promote pro-Russian narratives abroad.” The analysis is particularly worrying in the run up to the next US presidential elections. The 2016 elections showed how social media platforms could become strategic channels for the dissemination of false online content to polarize political discourse.
Washington’s never-ending dispute with TikTok
TikTok has rocketed in popularity since its debut in the US eight years ago and is today the top platform for teens, according to the Pew Research Center. TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has been accused of posing a national security risk through data gathered from users.
In March, US President Biden told ByteDance that the company faces a potential federal ban if it does not divest its ownership in the app. More recently, Montana has become the first US State to pass legislation banning TikTok on personal devices. While a federal ban would be challenging to implement, the State legislation sets an important precedent of the US government banning an app on national security grounds.