A matter of trust by @BloggersRUs

A matter of trust

by Tom Sullivan

The nastiness spread across my Facebook feed ahead of the 2016 election was as breathtaking as it was disheartening. A lot of "smart" progressives weren't. Russian bots and trolls promoting fake websites and rumors were playing them even as they mocked GOP voters convinced that a blustering, former reality-TV-star-slash-real-estate-tycoon would serve America better than seasoned leaders with actual skills. How could his voters be so gullible?

Not only did the Russians succeed in undermining faith in the election, they undermined our faith in each other. In a city council primary here last week, a once-popular incumbent Democrat went down to defeat. Voters cited their loss of confidence stemming from the rancid, anti-Clinton Facebook posts the former investigative journalist (and many others) shared during the 2016 campaign.

The Guardian has a post-mortem on how the Russians gave people a push:

What has now been made clear is that Russian trolls and automated bots not only promoted explicitly pro-Donald Trump messaging, but also used social media to sow social divisions in America by stoking disagreement and division around a plethora of controversial topics such as immigration and Islamophobia.

And, even more pertinently, it is clear that these interventions are continuing as Russian agents stoke division around such recent topics as white supremacist marches and NFL players taking a knee to protest police violence.

The overarching goal, during the election and now, analysts say, is to expand and exploit divisions, attacking the American social fabric where it is most vulnerable, along lines of race, gender, class and creed.

It was not clear a year ago that some of this material was circulated by Russian agents, but much on my feed was obvious propaganda. Propaganda lapped up by friends whose judgment is now in question. "News" sites with no mastheads from domains a simple whois search revealed were registered months earlier. Reporters and opinion writers with no web histories. People were not of a mood to question sources.
In the last month – mostly through vigorous reporting and academic research – we have also learned that the impact of Russia’s Facebook infiltration was far more widespread than Mark Zuckerberg claimed when Barack Obama pulled him aside at a conference in Peru last November to inform the young titan he had a problem on his hands. As more evidence emerges revealing the extent of the Russian web invasion, it is clear that its footprint is far larger than the tech giants have ever conceded.

On Facebook alone, Russia-linked imposters had hundreds of millions of interactions with potential voters who believed they were interacting with fellow Americans, according to an estimate by Jonathan Albright of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who broke the story wide open with the publication of a trove of searchable data earlier this month.

Those interactions may have reinforced the voters’ political views or helped to mold them, thanks to the imposter accounts’ techniques of echoing shrill views and presenting seemingly sympathetic views with counterintuitive, politically leading twists.

Albright's data focuses on just six sites used to reinforce or mold voters' views. Others report some of the promoted material came from U.S. sources. The Russian bots helped make sure more eyes saw them.
“There’s some really intricate maneuvering going on,” said Albright. “It’s definitely set up not to directly force issues but to identify people that fall into the wedge categories that can be used to influence others or to push conversations elsewhere.”

The imposter pages included Secured Borders, an anti-immigrant account that grew to 133,000 followers; Texas Rebels, which parroted Lone Star state pride while criticizing Clinton; Being Patriotic, which attacked refugees while defending the Confederate battle flag; LGBT United, which subtly espoused “traditional” family values; and Blacktivists, a faux satellite of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Beyond social media, concerns abound that American voting systems themselves have been hacked and are vulnerable. The New York Times examines efforts to plug the holes. States are hurrying to acquire, shall we say, "hardened" voting equipment meeting new standards ahead of the 2018 midterms:
Experts have warned for years that state and local election equipment and security practices were dangerously out of date, but state and local election agencies short of cash have often lagged in updating their systems. The 2016 election, however, laid bare the seriousness of the threat.

Federal officials have said they are confident that November’s election results were not tampered with. But federal intelligence and security officials were so shaken by Russian attempts to compromise the vote that the Department of Homeland Security designated election systems a critical national infrastructure, like banking and the electrical grid, that merit special protection.

The new guidelines for voting equipment include a requirement that they produce verifiable, written records and that software or hardware errors cannot produce undetectable changes to vote tallies.
For all the expressions of resolve, money remains the biggest obstacle to a complete overhaul of the system. Many jurisdictions rely on equipment bought after the 2002 Help America Vote Act, Congress’s response to the problems exposed by the 2000 presidential election, allotted nearly $4 billion for new machines and other reforms. Many of those machines are at or past the end of their service lives; Georgia conducted November’s elections on voting machines running Windows 2000, and parts of Pennsylvania relied on Windows XP.

Most states still use paper ballots that are counted by hand or by machines. But four other states besides Delaware — Louisiana, Georgia, New Jersey and South Carolina — use paperless systems that leave no audit trail, as do large swaths of Pennsylvania and some other states. Virginia scrapped thousands of paperless voting machines in 2015 after discovering that even an amateur hacker could easily and secretly change vote tallies.

A number of states and jurisdictions are replacing old equipment, and Los Angeles County — with 5.3 million registered voters, the nation’s largest election district — has designed an election system from scratch, and is asking manufacturers to bid on supplying it.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are not the only things that need rebuilding in this country.

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer, at tom.bluecentury at gmail.