WHEN JUSTICE DEPARTMENT special counsel Robert Mueller announced criminal charges against Russian operatives for interfering with the 2016 presidential election, descriptions of how the Russians used modern communications technologies were all too familiar. Journalists referred to the ways in which Russia “manipulated social-media platforms,” and tech company executives like Facebook’s Rob Goldman decried “how the Russians abused our system.”
This is standard fare. When Russia manipulates elections via Facebook, or ISIS recruits followers on Twitter, or racist landlords deny rentals to blacks and then offer them to whites through Airbnb, commentators and companies describe these activities as “manipulation” or “abuse” of today’s ubiquitous websites and apps. The impulse is to portray this odious behavior as a strange, unpredictable, and peripheral contortion of the platforms.
But it’s not. It’s simply using those platforms as designed.
Twitter’s mission statement speaks of sharing ideas and demolishing barriers: “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”
It’s no surprise, then, that ISIS was drawn to Twitter’s ability to share news about demolishing a different type of barrier. When the terrorist group startled the world in 2014 by sweeping through much of Syria and then pushing into Iraq, its key moment occurred on Twitter, as ISIS tweeted photographs of a bulldozer demolishing the earthen barrier that had long marked the border between Syria and Iraq.