We mustn’t discount Russia’s influence in the 2016 presidential election, especially since it’s now been confirmed Russia officially penetrated several states’ voter rolls, and is gearing up to repeat its success this November.
But Russia did not succeed only because it infiltrated the Trump administration and voter rolls. Some argue a greater threat is literally right at our fingertips.
There are 1.5 billion YouTube users in the world, more than households with televisions. When a user watches a video, he or she is presented 20 “up next” clips relevant to the video to maintain the user’s interest.
This is all because of specific algorithms.
A problem arises, though, when users click on a suggested video that, although related to desired content, may or may not be factually accurate. In other words, someone may be clicking fake news despite his or her best intentions to avoid it.
In October, after the election, Zeynep Tufekci, a widely respected sociologist and technology critic, tweeted:
“YouTube is the most overlooked story of 2016. Its search and recommender algorithms are misinformation engines.”
Former Google computer programmer, Guillaume Chaslot, worked for several months with a team of YouTube engineers. He concluded:
“YouTube is something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online. The recommendation algorithm is not optimising for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy.”
“There are many ways YouTube can change its algorithms to suppress fake news and improve the quality and diversity of videos people see. I tried to change YouTube from the inside but it didn’t work.”
A former Justice Department lawyer, now an adviser for state election officials, said:
“Russia probably realizes, despite what a lot of people in the progressive community and other communities probably think, it’s really hard to change the outcome in a race; to change it [the count] to what they might want to occur. That [theft] would require a lot of Americans engaged in an active conspiracy here on the ground; thousands of people. But for less money and risk, they can get us to do their job for them. They can get us to doubt our own election system; to doubt the machinery of American democracy. And they have been enormously successful in that. And I think the NBC piece [this week] is part and parcel of that. When you talk about, hysterically, risks that everyone has known about for nearly a year, and you don’t talk about all the work that’s been done since then, you don’t interview a single election official, you’re basically trying to put people into a state of hysteria about how their vote is not going to count. That’s really damaging. That’s going to undermine our democracy.”
What they found is concerning.
50,000 automated Russian-linked accounts re-tweeted Trump 10 times more frequently than messages pertaining to Hillary Clinton.
All told, from September to November 15, 2016, bots tweeted two million election-related messages, according to Twitter.
News initially broke in October about evidence confirming Russian buyers used Facebook advertising as propaganda leading up to the election. In response, Facebook presented Congress 3,000 Russian-purchased ads through 470 phony pages and accounts intended to exploit America’s racial divisions. Facebook said at least $100,000 was spent for this purpose, a mere fraction of its political advertising during the 2016 campaign.
Then in November, the House Intelligence Committee released a sample of Facebook ads the Russian government-affiliated Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg troll farm, purchased about issues like immigration, religion, and race, for and against presidential contenders Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. Also included in the release was a document containing every Twitter account handle tied to the troll farm.
More than 11 million people between 2015 and 2017 viewed the ads.
Russia used Facebook ads to help Trump win Michigan and Wisconsin. Russia used Facebook to exploit our racial and religious divides. Russia hacked a Florida voting equipment vendor and sent spear-phishing emails to over 100 local election officials up until days before election day. Russia used half a million bots and trolls to infiltrate voters’ preferences.
So what are we doing to prevent the hacking of our own minds as well as the electoral system as a whole?
Secretary of States Rex Tillerson confirmed this week the United States is still vulnerable to meddling similar to what Russia perpetrated.
“Well, I don’t know that I would say we’re better prepared (than in 2016) because the Russians will adapt as well. The point is if it’s their intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that. And we can take steps we can take, but this is something that, once they decide they’re going to do it, it’s very difficult to preempt it.”
Asked whether he thought Russia would interfere again, Tillerson said:
“I don’t know. I hope they don’t.”
As former FBI director James Comey asserted during his Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in June:
“We’re talking about a foreign government that using technical intrusion, lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re [Russians] coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them. So they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible. That’s what this is about and they will be back. Because we remain — as difficult as we can be with each other — we remain that shining city on the hill. And they don’t like it.”
Image credit: technologysalon.org