Posts Tagged ‘bots’

Privacy and Elections

December 5, 2019

The title of this post is identical to he title of one of the fixes needed for the internet proposed in Richard Stengel’s informative work, Information Wars. If your privacy information is protected, you are less likely to be targeted by deceptive information and disinformation.

Stengel thinks that an online privacy bill of rights is a good idea. One thing that needs to be mandatory in any digital bill of rights: the requirement that platforms obtain consent from users to share or sell their information and notify users about the collection of their data. This is the absolute minimum.

Regarding elections, platforms need to alert people when a third party uses their private information for online advertising. Political campaigns are highly sophisticated in their ability to use your consumer information to target you with advertising. If they know what movies you like, what shoes you by, and what books you read, they know what kind of campaign advertising you will be receptive to. At the same time, advertisers must give users the ability to output any content they receive.

The following fix could happen quickly: treat digital and online campaign advertising with the same strictness and rigor as television, radio, and print advertising. Currently, the Federal Election Commission does not do this. Television and radio stations, as well as newspapers, must disclose the source of all political advertising and who is paying for it. This is not true for digital advertising. The Honest Ads Act, which was introduced by the late Senator John McCain, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Senator Mark Warner, is an attempt to solve the problem of hidden disinformation campaigns by creating a disclosure system for online political advertising. It would require online platforms to obtain and disclose information on who is buying political advertising, as well as who the targeted audience is for the ads. It requires that platform companies disclose if foreign agents are paying for the ads. Platform companies would also be responsible for identifying bots so that voters know whether they are being targeted by machines or actual human beings. Stengel writes that all of this is both necessary and the absolute minimum.

For this regulation to be effective, it must also be done in real time during campaigns. Currently, according to the Federal Election Commission, political campaigns do not have to disclose their ad buys until a year after the fact. This is absurd. People need to know if they are being fed disinformation and falsehoods, and to know this in a timely way so they can factor it in their decision-making. Immediacy is more important during political campaigns than at any other time. Finding out a year later that you were targeted with a false ad by a bot that influenced your vote is worse than useless.

Congress also needs to designate state and local election systems to be national critical infrastructure. This would the federal government broader posers to intervene in a crisis. The Obama administration tried to do this, but the Republican majority in Congress voted it down. Stengel writes, “This is an essential change, and should be a bi-partisan issue.


October 31, 2018

“Kiselev called information war the most important kind of war. At the receiving end, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party wrote of ‘a war, clearly, but edged on a different kind of battlefield.’ The term was to be taken literally. Carl von Clausewitz, the most famous student of war, defined it as ‘an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.’ What if, as the Russian military doctrine of the 2010s posited, technology made it possible to engage the enemy’s will directly, without the medium of violence? It should be possible as a Russian military planning document of 2013 proposed, to mobilize the ‘protest potential of the population’ against its own interests, or, as the Izborsk Club specified in 2014, to generate in the United States a ‘destructive paranoid reflection. Those are concise and precise descriptions of Trump’s candidacy. The fictional character won, thanks to votes meant as a protest against the system, and thanks to voters who believed paranoid fantasies that simply were not true… The aim of Russian cyberwar was to bring Trump to the Oval Office through what seemed to be normal procedures. Trump did not need need to understand this, any more than an electrical grid has to know when it is disconnected. All that matters is that the lights go out.”

“The Russian FSB and Russian military intelligence (the GRU) both took part in the cyberwar against the United States. The dedicated Russian cyberwar center known as the Internet Research Agency was expanded to include an American Department when in June 2015 Trump announced his candidacy. About ninety new employees went to work on-site in St. Petersburg. The Internet Research Agency also engaged about a hundred American political activists who did not know for whom they were working. The Internet Research Agency worked alongside Russian secret services to move Trump into the Oval Office.”

“It was clear in 2016 that Russians were excited about these new possibilities. That February, Putin’s cyber advisor Andrey Krutskikh boasted: ‘We are on the verge of having something in the information arena that will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals.’ In May, an officer of the GRU bragged that his organization was going to take revenge on Hillary Clinton on behalf of Vladimir Putin. In October, a month before the elections, Pervyi Kanal published a long and interesting meditation on the forthcoming collapse of the United States. In June 2017, after Russia’s victory, Putin spoke for himself, saying that he had never denied that Russian volunteers had made cyber war against the United States.”

“In a cyberwar, an ‘attack surface’ is the set of points in a computer program that allow hackers access. If the target of a cyberwar is not a computer program but a society, then the attack surface is something broader: software that allows the attacker contact with the mind of the enemy. For Russian in 2015 and 2016, the American attack surface was the entirety of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google.”

“In all likelihood, most American voters were exposed to Russian Propaganda. It is telling that Facebook shut down 5.8 million fake accounts right before the election of November 2016. These had been used to promote political messages. In 2016, about a million sites on Facebook were using a tool that allowed them to artificially generate tens of millions of ‘likes,’ thereby pushing certain items, often fictions, into the newsfeed of unwitting Americans. One of the most obvious Russian interventions was the 470 Facebook sites placed by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, but purported to be those of American political organizations or movements. Six of these had 340 million shares each of content on Facebook, which would suggest that all of them taken together had billions of shares. The Russian campaign also included at least 129 event pages, which reached at least 336,300 people. Right before the election, Russia placed three thousand advertisements on Facebook, and promoted them as memes across at least 180 accounts on Instagram. Russia could do so without including any disclaimers about who had paid for the ads, leaving Americans with the impression that foreign propaganda was an American discussion. As researchers began to calculate the extent of American exposure to Russian propaganda, Facebook deleted more data. This suggests that the Russian campaign was embarrassingly effective. Later, the company told investors that as many as sixty million accounts were fake.”

“Americans were not exposed to Russian propaganda randomly, but in accordance with their own susceptibility, as revealed by their practices on the internet. People trust what sounds right, and trust permits manipulation. In one variation, people are led towards even more intense outrage about what they already fear or hate. The theme of Muslim terrorism, which Russia had already exploited in France and Germany, was also developed in the United States. In crucial states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, Russia’s ads were targeted at people who could be aroused by anti-Muslim messages. Throughout the United States, likely Trump voters were exposed to pro-Clinton messages on what purported to be American Muslim sites. Russian pro-Trump propaganda associated refugees with rapists. Trump had done the same when announcing his candidacy.”

“Russian attackers used Twitter’s capacity for massive retransmission. Even in normal times on routine subjects, perhaps 10% of Twitter accounts (a conservative estimate) are bots rather than human beings: that is computer programs of greater or lesser sophistication, designed to spread certain messages to a target audience. Though bots are less numerous that humans on Twitter, they are more efficient than humans in sending messages. In the weeks before the election, bots accounted for about 20% of the American conversation about politics. An important scholarly study published the day before the polls opened warned that bots could ‘endanger the integrity of the presidential election.’ It cited three main problems: ‘first, influence can be redistributed across suspicious accounts that may be operated with malicious purposes; second, the political conversation can be further polarized; third, spreading misinformation and unverified information can be enhanced.’ After the election, Twitter identified 2,752 accounts as instruments of Russian political influence. Once Twitter started looking it was able to identify about a million suspicious accounts per day.”

“Bots were initially used for commercial purposes. Twitter has an impressive capacity to influence human behavior by offering deals that seem cheaper or easier than alternatives. Russia took advantage of this. Russian Twitter accounts suppressed the vote by encouraging Americans to ‘text-to-vote,’ which is impossible. The practice was so massive that Twitter, which is very reluctant to intervene in discussions over its platform, finally had to admit its existence in a statement. It seems possible that Russia also digitally suppressed the vote in another way: by making voting impossible in crucial places and times. North Carolina, for example, is a state with a very small Democratic majority, where most Democratic voters are in cities. On Election Day, voting machines in cities ceased to function, thereby reducing the number of votes recorded. The company that produced the machines in question had been hacked by Russian military intelligence, Russia also scanned the electoral websites of at least twenty-one American states, perhaps looking for vulnerabilities, perhaps seeking voter data for influence campaigns. According to the Department of Homeland Security, “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple U.S. state or local electoral boards.

“Having used its Twitter bots to encourage a Leave vote in the Brexit referendum, Russia now turned them loose in the United States. In several hundred cases (at least), the very same bots that worked against the European Union attacked Hillary Clinton. Most of the foreign bot traffic was negative publicity about her. When she fell ill on September 11, 2016, Russian bots massively amplified the case of the event, creating a trend on Twitter under the hashtag #Hillary Down. Russian trolls and bots also moved to support Donald Trump directly at crucial points. Russian trolls and bots praised Donald Trump and the Republican National Convention over Twitter. When Trump had to debate Clinton, which was a difficult moment for him, Russian trolls and bots filled the ether with claims that he had won or that the debate was somehow rigged against him. In crucial swing states that Trump had won, bot activity intensified in the days before the election. On Election Day Itself, bots were firing with the hashtag #WarAgainstDemocrats. After Trump’s victory, at least 1,600 of the same bots that had been working on his behalf went to work agains Macron and for Le Pen in FRance, and against Merkel and for the AfD in Germany. Even at this most basic technical level, the war against the United States was also the war against the European Union.”

“In the United States in 2016, Russia also penetrated email accounts, and then used proxies on Facebook and Twitter to distribute selection that were deemed useful. The hack began when people were sent an email message that asked them to enter their passwords on a linked website. Hackers then used security credentials to access that person’s email account and steal its contents. Someone with knowledge of the American political system then chose what portions of this material the American public should see, and when.”

The hackings of the Democratic convention and wikileaks are well known. The emails that were made public were carefully selected to ensure strife between supporters of Clinton and her rival for the nomination, Bernie Sanders. Their release created division at the moment when the campaign was meant to coalesce. With his millions of Twitter followers, Trump was among the most important distribution channels of the Russian hacking operation. Trump also aided the Russian endeavor by shielding it from scrutiny, denying repeatedly that Russia was intervening in the campaign.
Since Democratic congressional committees lost control of private data, Democratic candidates for Congress were molested as they ran for Congress. After their private data were released, American citizens who had given money to he Democratic Party were also exposed to harassment and threats. All this mattered at the highest levels of politics, since it affected one major political party and not the other. “More fundamentally, it was a foretaste of modern totalitarianism is like: no one can act in politics without fear, since anything done now can be revealed later, with personal consequences.”

None who released emails over the internet has anything say about the relationship of the Trump campaign to Russia. “This was a telling omission, since no American presidential campaign was ever so closely bound to a foreign power. The connections were perfectly clear from the open sources. One success of Russia’s cyberwar was the seductiveness of the secret and the trivial drew America away from the obvious and the important: that the sovereignty of the United States was under attack.”

Quotes are taken directly from “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America” by Timothy Snyder