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How to win elections and influence people

18 July 2018 7:15 PM
Digital technology

You could say elections are being disrupted.

The United States has been investigating whether Russia attempted to or succeeded in meddling in their 2016 elections.

On Friday 13 July the new charges were brought against 12 Russians and organisations for hacking Democratic Party computers and contravening laws related to fraud and identity theft.

This piece looks at the allegation of how it was done. The process is not similar to many other security breaches to obtain information, blackmail or embarrass groups and individuals to do the hackers' bidding.

In February charges were brought against 13 Russians and a number of Russian companies with an accusation “to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”

While the modern version of propaganda and misinformation may use new methods, the intent and impact remain the same - influence those you target to either believe your message or doubt anyone else's.

Potentially, the first time humans have attempted this was over 2500 years ago.

There is little chance it is going to stop any time soon.

These latest charges form part of many other operations that were not necessarily part of a coordinated plot, but when objectives align, the efforts amplify the effects.

The plan is similar to the one created by Bell Pottinger to deflect attention from state capture reporting by introducing the motivation for the coverage as a plan by "white monopoly capital".

The same activities are being investigated for being used to convince British voters to choose to leave the EU. The fallout has seen much of the political focus on how to manage the Brexit process which, had the "remain" camp succeeded, British politics would be focussed on something else potentially more productive.

The plot

The Obama administration with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State applied some of the most direct and severe sanctions on Russian citizens associated with President Putin following the annexation of Crimea.

Had Clinton won, the US attitude to Putin's Russia would persist. Donald Trump, even before he had chosen to run for President, had seen and benefited from business opportunities in Russia.

No surprise then that, if Trump won, the future may be rosier for Russian interests.

Even without actual collusion, which is a significant part of the investigation, the evidence for a Russian company with links to the Russian President engaging in operations that would promote the cause of Trump and damage those of Clinton can be tracked to the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm at the centre of many of the meddling campaigns.

They registered social accounts, posted content supportive of Trump or undermined opponents in the hope of introducing doubt about supporting the Democratic Party.

Attracting support for their fake accounts and reposting and promoting comments from those they were looking to support completed the primary social campaign.

Added to that is a presidential candidate at the time, engaged on social media and happy to share content without proper vetting.

Local groups who also aligned with a Trump candidacy relating to issues like gun control and environmental concerns, healthcare and a range of other topics that aligned with a Republican view rather than a Democratic one.

The Trump campaign leveraged their own efforts in all media but especially on platforms that were supportive like Fox News. It also investigated, if not used, the kind of highly targeted campaigns claimed as successful by Cambridge Analytica.

And then other players were merely looking to make the most of the massive volume of clicks that could come from the highly partisan stories that could be posted on large-scale social media sites, specifically Facebook.

While media in the US are entitled to be partisan and have commentators and editorials that support one side more than another, those that were willing to help the Trump campaign were ready to go further in their coverage of doubtful stories than media looking to be more balanced.

Facebook itself may have reacted differently had it also not been under pressure to be more willing to allow conservative views and coverage on the platform after reports that human moderators were suppressing those views.

A switch to computer filters would have made detection difficult. It is a challenging task for skilled journalists, so it would be just as hard for engineers to try to create and train machines to do the same job.

This was further compounded by the Facebook ad platform which did allow for significant and targeted reach to be bought which at the time could have been purchased by anyone.

This campaign was not only carried out online, although it would have had the highest reach. Local supporters were recruited and assisted in organising rallies and even arrange for potential conflict situations with groups that would be opposed to them.

It is a grave breach for any country to contend with anyone inside or outside of the country looking to compromise the integrity of a democratic election.

A separate effort to access Democratic Party systems for the purpose of stealing data and leaking it involved attempts to get staff to respond to false emails, requiring them to change passwords using a website they controlled. Attempts were also made to access the servers and computers of staff for the purpose of using malicious software that would log and report their keystrokes and take screenshots at various times while using the computers.

The final part once the information was obtained was to distribute it in a way that would hide who originally obtained it. A fictitious hacker personality was created that contended that they were highlighting the questionable practices of the Democratic Party. The account also reached out to individuals and organisations hoping they would help distribute the information.

Did it work?

President Trump has treated the entire investigation as a challenge to his legitimacy and that he was part of it. While that has not been ruled out, the focus was the attempt not the outcome. There is little that can be used to prove social campaigns and rallies could get someone to vote for someone they would otherwise not. It does allow for stirring fear, anger and hatred by those that already held those views. It would make the chances of constructive debate less likely and coverage to be viewed in a more partisan way.

The question of whether the campaign worked is not judged by who won the election, it is by whether America feels less like one country rather than two.

In that respect, efforts in the US and the UK were a success. Debates about issues became debates about people.

While this appears to be the most specific and high profile attempt at meddling, it is not unique and not new. Intelligence agencies, for all the good work in detecting meddling, are not exempt from being willing to influence or meddle in other nations.

There is a natural capacity for media and individuals to process and filter a certain number of stories and spot the ones intended to manipulate you. The challenge now is how much more content is available and using our phones we are always able to check in and get more.

When social media platforms take greater responsibility for acting like a publisher of information, rather than just a distributor, and we get more discerning about what we are willing to share, the issue may return to being a more manageable threat. Until then, and indeed while it still appears to work, you can expect all sides to be shouting "fake news!".

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18 July 2018 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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