Not unlike the printing press, telegraphy, radio, and television, the invention of the computer has fundamentally shifted social and political dynamics. I have blogged recently about how advanced hacking has forever destroyed our tradition notions of privacy. See Compute This. I also focused in on evidence that voting machines in the 2016 election were hacked and election results flipped in key swing states. See, for example, Steve Friess. Today’s blog links to an important article by Massimo Calabresi in Time, “Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America”. We now know that during the 2016 campaign, and to this day, sophisticated computer analytics have been used by Russian operatives to spread disinformation through US media – primarily, though not exclusively, through Twitter and Facebook – to sway public opinion. Similar efforts appear to have been made by Cambridge Analytica, a British computer company with ties to US oligarch Robert Mercer and Trump operative Steve Bannon – indeed, the Russian and Cambridge Analytica attacks may have been coordinated. Nor is the US government necessarily innocent of computer meddling on foreign soil – there are widespread reports of CIA and other US intelligence agency attacks. The recent widespread global ransom-ware attack reportedly used a backdoor to a Microsoft operating system that had been discovered by US agency experts. The indications are that future attacks may be worse.
“[A recent report] described how Russia had already moved on from the rudimentary email hacks against politicians it had used in 2016. Now the Russians were running a more sophisticated hack on Twitter. The report said the Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department. Depending on the interests of the targets, the messages offered links to stories on recent sporting events or the Oscars, which had taken place the previous weekend. When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow’s hackers to take control of the victim’s phone or computer–and Twitter account.
As they scrambled to contain the damage from the hack and regain control of any compromised devices, the spy hunters realized they faced a new kind of threat. In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect. Now counterintelligence officials wondered: What chaos could Moscow unleash with thousands of Twitter handles that spoke in real time with the authority of the armed forces of the United States? At any given moment, perhaps during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, Pentagon Twitter accounts might send out false information. As each tweet corroborated another, and covert Russian agents amplified the messages even further afield, the result could be panic and confusion.”
Calabresi on the underlying dynamics:
“That’s where the algorithms come in. American researchers have found they can use mathematical formulas to segment huge populations into thousands of subgroups according to defining characteristics like religion and political beliefs or taste in TV shows and music. Other algorithms can determine those groups’ hot-button issues and identify “followers” among them, pinpointing those most susceptible to suggestion. Propagandists can then manually craft messages to influence them, deploying covert provocateurs, either humans or automated computer programs known as bots, in hopes of altering their behavior.”
And on its use in the 2016 election:
“Democratic operatives searching for explanations for Clinton’s loss after the election investigated social media trends in the three states that tipped the vote for Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In each they found what they believe is evidence that key swing voters were being drawn to fake news stories and anti-Clinton stories online. Google searches for the fake pedophilia story circulating under the hashtag #pizzagate, for example, were disproportionately higher in swing districts and not in districts likely to vote for Trump.”
Calabresi goes into substantial detail, reviewing not only the dynamics of social cyber war but the constraints on US researchers in getting a handle on the problem because of US privacy protections. The bottom line, however, is that the dynamics of modern social media and its potential manipulation by well-funded parties engaged in mischief represent a new threat to the underlying integrity of democratic institutions. This threat won’t go away. It must be understood and addressed by those of us who value a free and civil society.