Monday, April 9, 2018

The Internet Research Agency: Russian Company Behind the 2016 U.S. Election Meddling (March 2016)

Internet Research Agency Headquarters: Russian "Troll Farm"
Federal Prosecutor Robert Muller, appointed to oversee the investigation in the 2016 U.S presidential election meddling controversy has set a federal grand jury indictment against thirteen Russian nationals in motion on the ongoing investigation. There is new recent developing insight into how the Internet Research Agency, (a Kremlin-linked Russian troll group) set up a vast network of fake accounts of American activist groups and used stolen identities of real Americans in an attempt to wreak havoc on the America’s political system. According to Analysis by U.S. Strategic Command from 2015, among the fake accounts created by the Internet Research Agency’s so called “Translate project” are some recognizable ones such as; “Secured Borders,” an anti-immigration page. The Secured Borders page, spent months posing as an American activist group and spreading provocative messages and images on Facebook insulting immigrants, calling them “scums” and “freeloaders,”  and basically linking refugees to all sorts of crimes (New York Times).  The page attracted more than 133,000 followers before being removed by Facebook.

Another one of these fake accounts is “Blacktivist,” this account is found on both Facebook and Twitter; these accounts regularly share contents, which are meant to cause outrage among the people they are targeting. The Internet Research Agency’s fake social media accounts identified racial tensions as something to be exploited in order to achieve the broader goal set by the Russian government of dividing Americans and creating chaos in U.S. politics during a campaign in which race repeatedly became an issue (CNN media). These fake accounts were so popular that for instance, the face book account of “Blacktivist” had approximately 360,000 likes, more than the verified Black Lives Matter account on Facebook, which currently has just over 301,000 (CNN media).

Other popular accounts created by the Agency are “United Muslims of America” and “Heart of Texas,” The IRA advertised them, and deceived hundreds of thousands of people into joining them.
 Provocative Social Media Posts Linked to the IRA 
These sites were designed to look like they were operated by real Americans. They specifically focused on a number of divisive and sensitive issues in American life, including issues on race relations, religion, immigration, and the 2016 presidential election. For example, on Facebook alone, an estimated 126 million Americans may have been exposed to material the group produced. The Indictment further reveals how he agency had a budget of over $1.25 million by September 2016 big enough to include money for bonuses for its employees. As a result, the company was able to engage in some serious malpractices and has yet to deny any of these allegations.

According to A New York Times story published regarding the Internet Research Agency, the company employs hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda under fake identities on Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter influence the elections. This method of strategy the Agency was using is described as "Troll Farm." According to Collins Dictionary a Troll Farm is an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. The Agency used what are known as automated Twitter accounts, called bots, that sometimes fired off identical messages one after another in the exact alphabetical order of their fabricated names, according to the FireEye researchers.

On Election Day, for instance, they found that one group of Twitter bots sent out the hashtag #War Against Democrats more than 1,700 times. Provocative comments such as the one later are the unethical and problematic issues that the Internet Agency is operating under. Given the powerful roll Social media plays in our daily lives these fake troll farms, are platforms that that are able to get their messages across, in a very influential way, and as a result causing undesirable outcomes. The undesirable outcome in question is not regarding the overall election results in terms of who eventually became president, but instead is more focused on the manner in which the agency conducted its self by creating fake identities acting in behalf of real people to add false advertisement. As for both Facebook and Twitter the message from both companies is that, they are studying the 2016 media hackings and are learning to defend against such meddling for future purposes. Critics say that because shareholders judge the companies partly based on a crucial data point such as “monthly active users “they are then reluctant to police their sites too aggressively for fear of reducing that number. The companies use technical tools and teams of analysts to detect bogus accounts, however, the scale of the sites are incredibly high in numbers approximately 328 million users on and Twitter and nearly two billion on Facebook. Normally given the scale of data companies often remove impostors only in response to complaints. Companies
Secured Borders Propaganda Image aimed to initiate hate
affected by the hacking were able to act accordingly within a short period after detecting the hacks.

Stakeholders: There are many stakeholders involved in this controversy. Among the most prominent stakeholders affected are the thirteen members of the company who have been indicted by Robert Muller. These Stakeholders were directly involved in the meddling and have been identified for their crimes. Having members of the company indicted brings with it a negative reputation to the company. The term "Troll Farm" brings out a negative connotation to the company and labels such as this one are never a positive image on a company. Other Affected stakeholders are the over one-thousand employees of the company. The employees at Internet Research Agency are involved because they are part of the group of people who were directly involved in the controversy. Some employees weather not indicted will be affected just being part of a company that has been a major part of world news in a negative fashion; this could have an internal impact to their personal lives.

Among the stakeholders are also everyone in the American public who were either deceived by the many fake social media accounts, or the negative influence the company had on stealing their identities and eventually intervening with their right to exercise their democratic process of  free and fair elections without interference. The agency affected the Social Media industry as a whole. Media companies such as Face book and Twitter are part of the stakeholders whose market pool got affected. The Internet Research Agency will need to maintain a relationship with these social media companies since the content and agenda that the IRA works with is driven by the availability of these social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, to do their research. Additionally, building healthy relationships with these media stakeholders will reduce the likelihood of their being future lawsuits against the company.  

Individualist: Friedman’s individualism theory states, “The only goal of business is to profit, so the obligation that the business person has is to maximize profit for the owner or the stockholders.” The key element in Freidman’s definition of individualism is “profit.” Profit in this context is any outcome that appears to be beneficial for the company and its agenda. For instance, profit can be a company getting maximum amount of money they can generate, at the expense of some of its customers, but as long as the outcome brings profit to the company then an Individualists would evaluate the situation as a positive one.This of course becomes problematic because, if the interpretation of Friedman’s theory is taken verbatim then certain companies will act in the most unethical and socially undesired ways to meet their personal goals of profit. For example, an individualist can interpret this case as ethical in regards to how the company has been able to generate a lot of money from the Russian government due to their services. By creating these fake accounts, the company was aiding the needs of its government and in return made lots of money out of the actions. Overall helping increase the revenue of the company. However, the company’s actions have indeed led to negative and undesirable attention worldwide.

Utilitarianism: The Utilitarianism theory of business ethics involves two aspects, egoism and altruism. Egoism is to maximize your own happiness and altruism is to maximize happiness in others. A person with utilitarian principles would asses this case as unethical. The IRA were probably acting to maximize the happiness of themselves in terms of employees getting lots of money, and perhaps the happiness of  the heads of the Russian government. However, this would only apply to the Egoism concept of utilitarianism. Reason why this issue is unethical to a utilitarian is that in order for the company to act ethically, both concepts must apply. The IRA did not necessarily benefit the whole of Russian society by committing these acts. The altruism part of utilitarianism is unfulfilled. Though the company might have brought joy to the Russian Oligarch, more than a majority of the country is not associated with oligarch, and they are most likely not happy with the negative publicity the country has had to face since the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.  Additionally, not only did the actions of the IRA not maximize the happiness of all-Russians, Americans were definitely not happy about the behaviors of the IRA once they found out who was behind the election meddling. Globally, on a larger scale the company failed to increase the overall happiness, in fact one can say the effect is the exact opposite. Since the actions were viewed as cynical and socially unacceptable.

Kantianism: There are four basic principles to Kantianism. The principles are as follows; (1) act rationally, (2) allow and help people to make rational decisions (3) respect people, their autonomy, and their individual needs and differences, and (4), be motivated by good will. According to a person who follows Kantian ethical beliefs, this case is unethical. First, though The Internet Research Agency might have been acting rationally in their own view since they were fully aware of the actions and consequences of their acts, they were however irrational because their acts would ultimately hurt their company due to the negative publicity such actions receive. Second, the company did not allow people to make rational decisions because the decisions people made that were affected by the troll farms were not voluntary, in most cases people were not aware they were being given misleading information that might have led them to think or act or even protest for untruthful causes.Most importantly, the Internet Research Agency showed a lack of respect to the people and their autonomy, by deceiving them, stealing their identities, and in a way taking their rights to participate in a free and fair election. It is clear that The Internet Research Agency’s motivation does not reveal any indication for good will. Their intensions were clearly to cause disruption and humiliation to the American democratic system.

Virtue Theory: The Virtue Theory of business ethics focuses directly on the action taken by the company and considers how it is unethical. The Virtue Theory focuses on four characteristics, courage, honesty, temperance, and justice. Applied to this case, the IRA did not show any of these characteristics. Though the IRA have not publicly denied the charges leveled on them, they also have not shown the courage to acknowledge their involvement in the meddling process; they are constantly being deceitful in that they are not honest at all. In fact, their entire agenda is driven through falls statements and advertising which does not resemble a virtuous ethical code in business. Furthermore, the IRA are not doing what constitute to being morally right by stealing and creating falls identities of people, in that case their actions are immoral. Furthermore, The IRA is constantly lying to people as part of its operation, they have lost credibility do to their actions and the nature of their actions has led to a wide majority of people deeming their behavior unjustifiable. According to virtue theory, if the IRA had implemented most of these characteristics such as honesty, courage, and justice as part of their operations, their actions would have been ethically acceptable in accordance to the standards of virtue theory of business ethics.

References

Ciaccia, Chris. “Internet Research Agency Indicted: Who Is the Russian Company behind the Fake Facebook Ads?” Fox News, FOX News Network, 16 Feb. 2018, www.foxnews.com/tech/2018/02/16/internet-research-agency-indicted-who-is-russian-company-behind-fake-facebook-ads.html.

Donie O'Sullivan16. “Internet Research Agency Indictment: What the Russians Did and How They Did It.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 16 Feb. 2018,money.cnn.com/2018/02/16/media/internet-research-agency-mueller-indictment/index.html.

Ewing, Philip. “The Russia Investigations: Mueller Indicts The 'Internet Research Agency'.”Illinois Public Media, 17 Feb. 2018, will.illinois.edu/news/story/the-russia-investigations-mueller-indicts-the-internet-research-agency.

Ross, Alexander Reid. “The Internet Research Agency: behind the Shadowy Network That Meddled in the 2016 Elections.” Southern Poverty Law Center, 21 Feb. 2018, www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/02/21/internet-research-agency-behind-shadowy-network-meddled-2016-elections.

Shane, Scott. “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/us/politics/russia-facebook-twitter-election.html

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