Facebook, Google and Twitter head to Washington this week for their first public congressional hearings on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign via their social networks. In the runup, NPR is exploring the growing social media landscape, the spread of false information and the tech companies that build the platforms in our series: Tech Titans, Bots and the Information Complex.
Earlier this year, a Facebook group page called Blacktivist caught the eye of M'tep Blount.
As a supporter of Black Lives Matter, Blount figured Blacktivist would be a similar group. The Facebook page came with a message: "You have a friend who is a part of this group," and it had a huge following — over 400,000 as of late August.
Blount found that Blacktivist's page shared information about police brutality. Videos often showed police beating African-Americans in small towns. "It was like, 'Wow! This is happening in this community too. I really hope they do something about it but they probably aren't going to,' " she says.
As it turns out, the Blacktivist page was not like Black Lives Matter, at all. It appears to have been linked to Russia, and Facebook has since taken it down. The group was carefully crafted to attract people like Blount whose behavior on Facebook showed they mistrusted police and were concerned about civil rights.
It was just one of the many calculated ways in which social media platforms have been used lately to covertly sow divisions within society. Later this week, Facebook, Google and Twitter will face members of Congress to answer questions in three public hearings about their role in enabling Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The hearings are also expected to shed light on how Russian propaganda has spread in the U.S. through these major social media platforms.