The term fake news isn’t new. But it wasn’t a term you heard very often until the past election. Suddenly it was everywhere. It was originally intended to describe social media and internet posts and stories that were either outright lies or grossly misleading. During the election, new sites were constantly emerging on the internet devoted solely or in part to these types of stories.
There were a number of reasons these sites became prolific. Some were purely partisan political sites that went beyond “slanted” stories or “spin” to promote a candidate or disparage an opponent. Many were run by current or past members of the Republican elite. These were not a well-coordinated force, but they were some of the first.
Others were simply profit making endeavors, preying on the public’s fascination with outlandish stories and their need to see people in high places brought low – especially if those people had different political views than they do. The lure of profit simply by having someone click on a web site link was irresistible to many. Kids in Macedonia financed their record collections. Marketing experts in the US got richer.
And then there was the Russian government sponsored campaign.
The Russian Government engaged in a misinformation campaign against the United States. You can argue about this all you want, but the evidence is overwhelming. Please note that I did not say that Russia hacked our election. I did not say that Russia changed voting machine totals. I did not say Russia participated in voter fraud. I did not say that Russia undermined the sovereignty of our country. I did not say those things because those words don’t describe what happened.
I also did not say that the Trump campaign “colluded” with the Russians in this. That’s a question that cannot be answered at this point in time.
Russia engaged in an intentional misinformation campaign.
This is nothing new. The Russians have been engaging in misinformation campaigns against the US for decades. And, yes, we have been doing the same thing to them. Most countries engage in this behavior toward each other to some extent or another, but the US and Russia – and previously, the USSR – are top seeded players in this game.
What is different about this particular misinformation campaign is that it was aimed at the population of the country itself in an attempt to sway opinion and loyalty during an election. It was intended to be both disruptive, on one hand, and to bolster one candidate’s chances over another on the other hand.
And yes, the US has tried to interfere in the elections of other countries with varying degrees of success for years. There is nothing new there either.
What is also different about this misinformation campaign is that it played out almost entirely in cyberspace – that wonderfully complex, ethereal world that not many people actually can get their heads around. And because of that, most people have a difficult time understanding how dangerous this particular assault actually was and the dangers it poses for the future.
This campaign was able draw on and incorporate all of the other misinformation sites out there.
This misinformation campaign would not have been possible even eight years ago. Not enough people were plugged into the internet then. Not enough people were addicted to social media then. Security flaws had not been so completely enumerated and exploited then. But primarily, the software had not been developed at that point that would have allowed for this to be carried off. This is a relatively new phenomenon, and it is still in its infancy. It’s so new that the 2016 election was more of a trial run for the Russians than a real attempt to do damage.
In the past, misinformation campaigns were subtle. They were carefully hidden and their existence was guarded. They were targeted at key players. This was not that. This was aimed at every person they could get access to, and they really made no pretense of being subtle. Later in the campaign they began to target key people, but not in the sense of high-ups in the government. These key people were large groups of voters in key areas of the country who were vulnerable to manipulation.
This was also a very nuanced and complicated psychological warfare campaign. That’s simply another way of saying that it was designed to make people believe one thing over another thing. It was not put together by a bunch of teenage hackers out to have some fun. This was a carefully crafted and coordinated effort and American intelligence community will tell you that it had all the earmarks of the Russian intelligence community.
Some people in the current administration like to disparage the findings of the American intelligence community, but our security agencies have been keeping us and our families safe for decades. Very few of them are political appointees. Most don’t care much about politics. They are career experts, dedicated to keeping America safe from threats, foreign and domestic, and disparaging them is just another part of the misinformation campaign itself.
The term misinformation campaign is one that is used by governments and that intelligence community, not the guys in the local pub or the folks at the annual picnic. Just hearing those words calls up images of CIA and FBI and KGB. That’s spy stuff and if our spy guys are saying that their spy guys are doing bad things, that’s hardly a new thing. But if our spy guys are getting a lot of bad publicity from, say, the White House – or an entire political party -it sure makes it harder to stand behind our spy guys.
If you are involved in a misinformation campaign, the last thing you want is for people to start throwing that term around. It calls up all the wrong images. People might begin to catch on. No, you need a better term when you talk about these things; one that doesn’t have those connotations. The way you talk about a thing defines how you think about a thing.
Fake news has none of those spy guy connotations. Fake news simply implies someone is not telling the truth. Fake news can be dismissed simply because it’s something someone just made up. All you have to do to discredit something is call it fake news and move on.
As people began to use the term continually, the Republican campaigns picked up on it and started calling any story in the so-called mainstream media that did not serve their purposes fake news. This was a blatant attempt to mislead people into thinking that the reality reported in the press, previously the primary source for what we knew about what transpired in the world, was in fact not reality. Essentially they simply called the entire fourth estate liars. It was easy. It was effective.
The current President of the United States uses the term continually in his dawn tweets to dismiss every report that comes out that makes him look less than the greatest thing since sliced bread.
A misinformation campaign on the other hand… all that spy guy stuff… all that cyberspace voodoo that supposedly went on according to our intelligence folks… that’s harder to deal with. The whole idea of a war in cyberspace is something for the science fiction writers and the nerdos, right? All those bits and bytes and code and viruses and worms and IP numbers and DNS attacks and the singularity. All that artificial intelligence mumbo jumbo. That’s not breakfast table conversation in most homes. That’s the Hal 9000 refusing to open the pod bay doors for poor old Dave in “2001 A Space Odyssey.”
For one thing, it’s hard to keep up with the advancement of technology. It’s understandable that most people go on line and figure out how to do things and simply accept that as the way it is. It’s harder to see the changes as they are happening. It’s like the old story about boiling a frog. Throw a frog in boiling water and it jumps out. Throw it in cold water and gradually turn up the heat and it will just sit there and cook.
Take advances in “artificial intelligence” as an example. Almost everyone has heard the term, but many are not aware that it is being used everywhere on the web, all the time.
A bot is a bit of code that operates much as a human would to collect or spread information on the internet. Some bots collect data that allows Google to do searches. Some bots notice who you are and place appropriate advertising on your browser. Other bots put comments on Facebook that call you a libtard, tell you that you ought to go f**k yourself, and that you wouldn’t find that difficult because you have no spine.
It’s all a form of artificial intelligence programming and the bots are everywhere. Last year alone there were at least 15 new “bot” startups, companies completely devoted to creating AI bots, backed by venture capitalists. (1)
In fact, a recent study claims that 52% of all internet traffic is now bot traffic. (2)
Russia employed a number of methods to spread misinformation, but they relied on bots to a large extent on social media, and they are still doing it.
While it’s not an easy thing to accomplish in practice, the concept is easy enough to understand.
Set up a web site and put lots of misinformation on it. Or just find ones that someone else has kindly provided you. Put stories about how Hillary Clinton killed someone. Put up stories about how she was running a child prostitution ring out of a pizza parlor. Put up stories about women’s bodies buried at the Clinton estate and how they raked in money for personal gain from their foundation.
Now set your bot loose on the web.
If you send a tweet or post something on Facebook that mentions Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, or maybe you just use the word “corruption,” along comes this bot and it goes, “Aha!” And then it posts a comment that contains a link to the misinformation site. It has a whole series of verbal comments to choose from, and it does that by reading the other comments and your post and seeing what words were used. It might go to your Facebook page and read that the same way, looking for keywords in your posts.
Then it makes a choice. That’s the AI part. It makes a comment and maybe it picks the story about how Hillary killed people. Maybe one of the others. But it keeps track. That comment is attributed to an account that looks legit on casual inspection. The account has a bio that shows a picture of someone who looks just like you and your friends. It has personal information that sounds like you and your friends.
Now the bot has your account information. It dumps it in a database somewhere for use by other bots and trolls.
Trolls are a familiar part of social media. If you’ve been around the web very long at all, you’ve encountered them. These are people who spend all their time anonymously making trouble, calling others names, and otherwise being obnoxious. Human trolls were also a part of the misinformation campaign. These were the paid human troublemakers. At the beginning of the campaign in 2016 they were easy to tell apart from their bot counterparts. By the end of the campaign, not so much. The bots kept getting more sophisticated.
Suddenly you were seeing all sorts of things on your Twitter feed or your Facebook timeline about how Hillary Clinton is a criminal. You were seeing some things sent to you directly and other things that just show up in comments. And they were all from different accounts, not the same one, because the people who sent the bots out had thousands of accounts under different names. There was a whole army of people involved in setting up these accounts and managing this whole campaign.
If you were a Sander’s supporter, you were a special target. You got bombarded over and over with the “crooked Hillary” stuff. Much of the continuing animosity between Clinton and Sander’s supporters to this day was fomented during the height of the misinformation campaign and show just how successful it was in terms of disrupting the American political process.
If you were a Clinton supporter you were also subjected to a barrage of misogynistic name-calling from both accounts that seemed to be from the MAGA (Make America Great Again) crowd and from accounts that seemed to be supporting Sanders. It has been suggested that most of the so-called Bernie bros were in fact Russian bots. (3)
The more you see this stuff from people you think are just like you, the more you begin to wonder if there is any truth to it, and the more the misinformation campaign is succeeding. Pretty soon some of the people you actually know are starting to share this same stuff, some because they just like to share things; others because they believe it. Slowly but surely this stuff is everywhere. That’s how psychological warfare works. You either resist or you give in. You either put in the time and effort to research everything you see, or you accept what “everyone” knows.
Then some more people realize there is money to be made and they set up more misinformation sites rife with advertising.
It starts out slowly, but before you know it, you have a very boiled frog.
Forty four percent of Americans get their news from Facebook. (4) When Facebook is rife with misinformation spread by Russian supported players, a whole lot of people are being duped.
And there were plenty of Russian players.
As early as Oct, 2016, “Russian reporter Ludmila Savchuk says she worked undercover in a Russian ‘troll factory’ in St. Petersburg, where staff were paid to post attacks online against Russian opposition leaders and the West, as well as to praise Putin. ‘This was certainly not the only ‘troll factory.’ Other journalists who were conducting research saw similar activities in different parts of our country.’ Savchuk says it was clear that their orders were coming from the Kremlin and estimates there are perhaps a hundred or more such operations throughout Russia.” The “factory” Savchuk claims to have worked in had over 1000 employees. (5)
Senator Mark Warner of the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed this report recently. (6)
There are those who contend that there is no evidence that a single vote was changed, so what’s the big deal? The Russians did not tamper with the election because no votes were changed.
Part of the big deal is that minds were changed and they were changed because people were given misinformation on which to base their choices. Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a total of 82K votes. (7) That clinched the Electoral College for him even though Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Is it possible that a psychological misinformation campaign on social media could have influenced 82K voters to make the choices they did? It is not only possible, it is a near certainty.
Remember that 44% of Americans read Facebook as a primary source for news. There are 213,000,000 Facebook subscribers in this country. (8) If 44% of them used it as their primary news source, that’s 96,360,000 people. Trump won the Electoral College by just 82,000 votes. That’s just .00878% of the people in this country who claim they get their news from Facebook. If you have 100 Facebook friends only .87% of one of them would have had to have been swayed, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the misinformation campaign on Twitter, which was at least as substantial.
And while it may be true that not a single vote was changed …this time, this isn’t over.
“Journalist Adam Chen, now a staff writer at the New Yorker but a freelancer when he investigated alleged interference in the US election, claimed in a podcast with Longform that a large number of Russian trolls were now churning out support for Mr. Trump.” (9)
“On Election Day alone, there were nearly 150,000 attempts to penetrate the state’s voter-registration system, according to a postelection report by the South Carolina State Election Commission.” (10) And that wasn’t even a hotly contested state.
“In harder-fought Illinois, for instance, hackers were hitting the State Board of Elections 5 times per second, 24 hours per day’ from late June until Aug. 12, 2016, when the attacks ceased for unknown reasons, according to an Aug. 26, 2016, report by the state’s computer staff. Hackers ultimately accessed approximately 90,000 voter records, the State Board of Elections said.” (11)
So even if no votes were changed, this time, it is obvious that voter information was being gathered. Names, addresses, voter id numbers, voting histories were being collected. The current intelligence community estimates are that 21 states were probed in one way or another. In California names and addresses were changed on voter rolls resulting in people not being able to vote. (12) The prospect for 2018 is another barrage of cyber-attacks that could do irreparable harm.
Increasingly, the most important battles are being fought in cyberspace. And it isn’t just elections.
Back in early June “Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt released coordinated statements, announcing a diplomatic break with the tiny-yet-wealthy peninsular nation of Qatar. They cut air, sea and land links and ordered Qatari officials and nationals stationed in their countries to return home.” (13) They also cut trade links. This precipitated regional crises unlike any seen there recently.
Interestingly, the White House seemed to side with the Saudis and company even though Qatar has one of our largest and most important forward bases within its borders.
It now turns out that at least part of what prompted this crisis was another hacking incident involving social media.
“The United Arab Emirates orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, in late May that sparked the ongoing upheaval between Qatar and its neighbors, according to U.S. intelligence officials.” (14 )
Cybersecurity has become a top issue for American businesses. They have learned through experience that they cannot let their guard down for even a second. Government computers are similarly at risk.
We are beginning to hear more and more about probes into electrical utilities, gas plants and even nuclear plants.
So how is the Trump administration reacting to all of this?
Trump still refuses to admit that the intelligence community is right about the Russian misinformation campaign. His new communications director, a man with no intelligence background whatsoever, claims that “once he gets his security clearance,” he will “look into the matter” and advise the president.
Christopher Painter, the state department’s top cyber advisor, has been fired. Painter “has been leading American delegations to international cyber meetings since 2011, negotiating joint agreements with other countries on issues like protecting critical infrastructure and developing cyber norms.” In addition to letting Painter go, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is “considering closing the cyber office or merging it with another office and downgrading the cyber coordinator’s rank, according to a source familiar with internal planning. ‘It’s a step back from everything done over the last ten years,’ said the source, who added that Tillerson was also considering ‘limiting the number of people who work on cybersecurity’ at State.” (15)
Most people have learned that in an age of computer generated imagery (CGI), you really can’t trust that what you see on the movie screen is real. In this age of Photoshop, you really can’t trust that the photo you are viewing is what the camera saw. And in this age of artificially intelligent social media participants, you can’t believe a great deal of what you are told on line.
We have been battling phoniness and truthiness for some time now, and it is only going to get worse. This administration is obviously not interested in protecting the country from what has a far greater chance of destroying it than ISIS.
No matter how the current investigations into the Trump organization’s relationship to Russia and the Russian misinformation campaign plays out, it is very clear that American voters must learn to be far more savvy about the way in which they get their news, the people they trust to share news with them, and how quickly the water is warming around them without their knowledge.
Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon
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