Unsurprisingly, Julian Assange was never a journalist. New information details Assange’s central role in Russia’s 2016 election interference campaign. Assange is directly linked with working with Russian and other foreign hackers.
“State-sponsored disinformation campaigns are upping their game, and they won’t be limited to election cycles. Democracies are still playing catch-up — the United States barely so. It’s time for the United States to step up, work with Europe and together pull together like-minded governments, social media companies and civil society groups to learn from each other. With resources, time, attention and especially political will, we can develop a democratic defense against disinformation.”
Lifelike renderings of presidents, along with thousands of similar deepfakes posted on the internet in the past two years, have alarmed many observers, who believe the technology could be used to disgrace politicians and even swing elections. Democracies are gravely threatened by the speed at which disinfo can be created and shared, before the tiresome work of verification is performed. Before it was debunked, a digitally altered video showing Speaker Nancy Pelosi appearing to slur drunkenly through a speech was widely shared on Facebook and YouTube last month—and retweeted by President Trump, who has not deleted it. The director of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, Eileen Donahoe, wants political leaders and candidates of all stripes to pledge not to use deepfakes against their opponents and to disavow any deepfakes put out on their behalf.
Heshmat Alavi, an Iranian commentator, has been portrayed as a courageous dissident with a broad constituency and rare insight into the inner workings of the Iranian theocracy. His columns have been printed in Forbes, The Diplomat, The Federalist, Voice of America, The Daily Caller, and The Hill. And his analysis, such as his assertion that former President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran pumped money into the mullahs’ military budget, has been cited by the White House to justify leaving the agreement. But what if…he doesn’t actually exist?
Election security legislation has been facing roadblocks for over a year in Congress, thanks (or no thanks) to Sen. Mitch McConnell, and little activity on the issue is expected in the coming months. But other branches of government have made more progress. Here are some of the steps the federal government has taken to help secure elections in the U.S., as well as some of the possible disinformation threats that could reappear in 2020.
AI researchers are working tirelessly to defuse the most challenging political weapon to date—technologically falsified videos that could undermine candidates and mislead voters during the 2020 presidential campaign. House Intel Chair Adam Schiff says, “I don’t think we’re well prepared at all. And I don’t think the public is aware of what’s coming.” There also are fears that deepfakes could lead to people denying legitimate videos. “As a consequence of this, even truth will not be believed,” says Nasir Memon, a computer science professor at NYU.
“The information ecosystem is broken. Our political conversations are happening on infrastructure—Facebook, YouTube, Twitter—built for viral advertising. The velocity of social sharing, the power of recommendation algorithms, the scale of social networks, and the accessibility of media manipulation technology has created an environment where pseudo events, half-truths, and outright fabrications thrive.”
The Russian government is likely to try to influence the 2020 presidential election, not through the release of stolen emails and other documents but through faked videos, according to Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee. A carefully crafted, controversial fake video, known as a deepfake, would be “hugely disruptive and hugely influential,” Schiff said.
The Russian government-sponsored operation by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency to manipulate American public opinion during the 2016 election was “a vast, coordinated campaign that was incredibly successful at pushing out and amplifying its messages,” according to a Symantec analysis. And some trolls even used their fake accounts to make money, with one potentially generating nearly $1 million.
“If a monopolistic tech company decided to fully embrace its capacity to spy on its users and leverage that data to a personal or political end, the consequences for democracy could be catastrophic. Americans got a taste of what an influence attack looks like during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. So long as big tech remains largely unregulated, future influence attacks on American elections will become only more potent.”
“I was surprised and inspired last week to read about a national initiative in Finland—now in its third year—to focus sharply on how to detect the false information that has permeated political campaigns here in the U.S. and in Europe. Finland’s efforts…began with the nation’s president, Sauli Niinistö, declaring in 2015 that it was the duty of all Finns to combat the rising tide of misinformation. Finland, which shares 832 miles of its border with Russia, has for decades had a wary yet compatible relationship with Russia, but the Finns are acutely aware of allegations that Russian troll operations have influenced elections throughout Europe and the U.S.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that Facebook’s refusal to take down an altered video of her shows that the company’s leaders were active contributors to online disinformation and “willing enablers” of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Thanks to Robert Mueller and our intelligence agencies, we’re a lot more educated today than we were three years ago on the threat of disinformation—where it comes from, how it is spread, and what the effects are. Or are we? As it turns out, probably not surprisingly, Americans’ understanding of these matters falls along political lines, according to a new study by Comparitech.
“No American president has done more to weaken confidence in the U.S. abroad and create turmoil at home than Trump. Putin has stepped into voids where the U.S. has erratically pulled back and become a reliable, steady authoritarian other countries can consistently engage. Meanwhile, Moscow has seen solid gains in Syria, no serious challenges in Crimea and Ukraine, a weakened NATO, a crumbling EU, and an America splintered by political infighting. … As of today, the White House appears to be spending more effort investigating the investigators of Russian interference in 2016 than preventing the Russians from interfering in 2020.”
Disinformation is a scourge in and of itself, but now it’s causing real disease. Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, mumps, and whooping cough, have again become an issue in Western and developed countries, fueled by an anti-vaccine movement that is growing more cohesive, gaining more funding, and becoming more adept at spreading its message.
“We still have time to draw the necessary lessons. Just as in Europe, it is now our own people who are primarily responsible for twisting the truth on an industrial scale. And, just as in Europe, we are doing little to compel the social media platforms to clean up their act and decontaminate our information environment. And the Trump administration has still done little to develop a coherent program for addressing the problem. There is no hint of an overarching strategy for countering the online machinery of lies that has become such a part of everyday life.”
Yesterday, executives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter came to Capitol Hill to testify about election security. But instead of asking questions about how the companies were tackling disinfo campaigns or preventing foreign governments from purchasing political ads on their platforms ahead of the 2020 election, Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee complained about the “shadow-banning” (i.e., quietly blocking or restricting) of conservative accounts. Really?
With 2016 still fresh in everyone’s mind, the intelligence community is leaving nothing to chance. The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence have briefed the 2020 presidential candidates on potential cybersecurity and espionage issues they may face, and how to recognize ways that foreign influence operations might try to affect their campaigns. Let’s hope they take it more seriously than a certain past campaign did.
In the first quarter of 2019, Facebook banned more than 2.2 billion fake accounts. More than double the amount banned in fourth quarter of 2018.
A hunt for political disinfo spreading on Facebook in Europe suggests that the far-right has effectively used the platform to spread propaganda to millions of voters ahead of tomorrow’s European Parliament vote. The study found that disinformation networks identified and disabled by Facebook had more interactions (13 million) in three months than the main party pages of six major political parties combined (9 million). That’s a lot of influence.
Austria’s political scandal has revealed the country’s former vice-chancellor’s corruption, but it also highlights the close ties between the Kremlin and far-right populist parties around the world. As part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s quest to become “a leader of a new global conservatism,” Russian sources help fund political campaigns and spread disinformation in support of far-right candidates. Sounds very familiar…
“Democracies depend on the free flow of accurate information more fundamentally than autocracies do, not only for functioning markets and better public policy, but also to allow citizens to make informed voting decisions, provide policy input, and hold officials accountable. At the same time, information flows can be manipulated to undermine democracy by allowing the unchecked spread of propaganda and pseudo-facts, all made more efficient by the Internet, automation, and machine learning. This is Democracy’s Dilemma: the open forms of input and exchange that it relies on can be weaponized to inject falsehood and misinformation that erode democratic debate.”
The Archimedes Group is accused of running an influence campaign that sought to disrupt elections in several countries around the world. Facebook barred the Israeli company from using its platform and banned dozens of Israeli accounts for spreading disinformation.
Is Vladimir Putin succeeding? Polls show that Americans are losing faith in our electoral system and in the media that reports on our elections. “This is Vladimir Putin’s game plan — sow distrust, discord, disillusionment, and division,” says Sen. Richard Blumenthal. “There’s a real danger to such distrust in the integrity of our election system that has lasting damage,” he warns.
Singapore’s ruling party defended its planned bill to combat “fake news” amid continued debate about who gets to define what’s true and false. Under a new bill backed by the government, it will be government ministers who make that call. “Free speech should not be affected by this bill,” Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in parliament this week. “We are talking here about falsehoods, we are talking about bots, we are talking about trolls, we are talking about fake accounts, and so on.”
Canada’s Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics has issued subpoenas for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to appear before the committee. Zuckerberg had previously ignored previous requests to appear before the committee. The committee wants Zuckerberg to address election meddling and misinformation in their meeting.
Be careful who you friend on Facebook. The company said Monday that it had removed a network of 21 fake Russian accounts that were “engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts to join Groups, impersonate other users, and to amplify allegations about a public figure working on behalf of intelligence services.” A sample post shared by one of the fake accounts was about a conspiracy theory about the Democratic Party.
“The simple fact is this: Trump remains — despite all available evidence — a skeptic about both Russia’s past attempts at interference in the 2016 election and, therefore, the country’s attempts to target future elections. That skepticism could have far reaching consequences when it comes to just how much (or little) the administration prioritizes dealing with these threats from foreign powers heading into the 2020 election. And that is a truly scary reality.”
Major media outlets failed to rebut President Donald Trump’s misinformation 65% of the time in their tweets about his false or misleading comments, according to a Media Matters review. That means the outlets amplified Trump’s misinformation more than 400 times over the three-week period of the study — a rate of 19 per day.
“For Twitter to see the core underpinnings of democracy through the lens of ‘fake news’ is truly frightening and reminds us that it either doesn’t take its role in democracy seriously or that it takes it so seriously that it is afraid of reminding society how much power it truly wields over the future of the nation itself. In the end, as the Washington Post’s motto reminds us, ‘democracy dies in darkness.’ It is time for us to shed far more light on social media’s impact on democracy.”
“Kremlin-sponsored bot-farms and Twitter trolls will surely try to aggravate America’s racial tensions, undermine respect for our democratic institutions, and sow doubt about the legitimacy of our elections through a ‘messaging campaign.’ But our sitting president does all those things — exponentially more effectively — through his Twitter feed on a near-daily basis. … Our political Establishment’s refusal to acknowledge this fact is more dangerous than the president’s failure to acknowledge the threat posed by Russian interference — not least because, were it not for the former, Donald Trump would no longer be president.”
“From India to Indonesia to Brazil, democracy is being compromised by online domestic disinformation campaigns from political parties seeking to gain an advantage. Democratic institutions have not been able to keep up and have instead deferred to tech firms, trusting them to referee online behavior. But this is a task far beyond the limited capabilities and narrow motivations of companies such as Facebook and Twitter. If the democratic recession is to end, democratic institutions need to create new rules and hold the responsible parties to account.”
“The Mueller report isn’t just a reckoning about our recent history; it’s also a warning about the future. Unless checked, the Russians will interfere again in 2020, and possibly other adversaries, such as China or North Korea, will as well. This is an urgent threat. Nobody but Americans should be able to decide America’s future. And, unless he’s held accountable, the president may show even more disregard for the laws of the land and the obligations of his office. He will likely redouble his efforts to advance Putin’s agenda, including rolling back sanctions, weakening NATO and undermining the European Union.”
On Tuesday, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers, said that the multiple investigations into Russian election interference have been more harmful to American democracy than the original interference itself. He couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, he might want to actually read the Mueller report, which reveals a years-long plot by the Russian government to interfere in the U.S. that investigators call “sweeping and systemic.”
Imagine reading the Mueller report and finding a photo of your diehard Democrat dad being used to advertise a Trump rally. That’s what happened to Ronnie Hipshire, whose father, Lee, a coal miner who died of complications from black lung disease, was featured without permission on a poster for “Miners for Trump.” The poster was created by the Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency.
As firefighters worked to contain the fire that ravaged the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday, Islamophobic conspiracy theories about the cause of the fire were being pushed on social media by anonymous accounts, known white nationalists, and political pundits. French officials investigating the fire have ruled out arson and terrorism, saying the fire that led to a roof collapse was likely tied to ongoing repairs at the cathedral.
Facebook says it has made strides in its efforts to prevent online abuses in the Indian national election that starts this week. Excoriated for failing to stop Russian manipulation in the 2016 U.S. presidential vote, Facebook has ramped up efforts to prevent abuses in subsequent elections. India, where Facebook has more users than in any other country, is shaping up as a major test.
No, not Donald Trump’s idea of “fake news.” The real kind: disinformation designed to obfuscate, bad data from “official” sources, and lies intended to create a false narrative. Globally, research shows they lead to the election of incompetent — and perhaps corrupt or self-dealing — governments.
It is still unclear if Julian Assange will be ousted from the Ecuadorian embassy. Ecuador’s foreign ministry released a statement saying it “doesn’t comment on rumours, theories, or conjectures that don’t have any documented backing,” but a senior Ecuadorian official said no decision had been made. WikiLeaks believes Assange would be extradited to the U.S. if he left the building and was arrested by the Metropolitan police.
No, this is not The Onion, the satirical news website. The first question Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked his guest was whether a new study examining global warming is “the science that he grew up with,” as if science never advances or evolves. He then went on to ask: “How did we wind up with a country in which feminists do science?”