Russia’s attack on our 2016 election has become a watershed moment in American politics. Many of those on the right downplay its severity and impugn our intelligence agencies—like Republican Senator Ron Johnson saying that the FBI may be manipulated by a “secret society.” Those on the left seemingly alternate between thinking that Trump was installed by Vladimir Putin as a puppet president, to those on the far left who think this is all a hysteria ginned up by Democrats refusing to address their shortcomings—plus a typically overzealous security state. The result of this meddling and our squabbling has led to a dictionary-worthy example of the word “clusterfuck.”
Bots have become a popular target of America’s ire, with many blaming Russia’s weaponization of disinformation on social media for Trump’s victory. Twitter especially comes under fire, as Democratic Senator Mark Warner said that Twitter’s congressional testimony “showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is.” This struggle caught fire again this week, as the hashtags #SchumerShutdown and #ReleaseTheMemo were amplified by well-known Russian bots (that were also boosting other popular but politically unrelated hashtags at the time).
But this is just one of many examples of state actors attempting to manipulate people via social media. ISIS created an Android app that made it easier for their followers to spread their propaganda on Twitter. Facebook says it is deleting accounts at the discretion of the U.S. and Israeli governments. The British Army created the 77th Brigade in 2015, partially for psychological operations on social media. An Oxford University study found 29 countries manipulating the web to push their agenda. Per Bloomberg's writeup of the report:
Online behavior of the government-backed groups varies widely, from commenting on Facebook and Twitter posts, to targeting people individually. Journalists are harassed by government groups in Mexico and Russia, while cyber troops in Saudi Arabia flood negative Twitter posts about the regime with unrelated content and hashtags to make it harder for people to find the offending post. In the Czech Republic, the government is more likely to post a fact-check response to something they see as inaccurate, said the report.
Governments also use fake accounts to mask where the material is coming from. In Serbia, fake accounts are used to promote the government's agenda, and bloggers in Vietnam spread favorable information. Meanwhile, government actors in Argentina, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and elsewhere use automation software — known as “bots” — to spread social media posts in ways that mimics human users.
“Cyber troops are a pervasive and global phenomenon,” said the report published by the group that is studying how digital tools are being used to manipulate public opinion.
In that context, Twitter saying that they found 50,000 Russia-linked election bots seems kind of small. Twitter's general influence is also dramatically overstated (probably thanks to Trump and the fact that it's become LinkedIn for journalists). Twitter has roughly 328 million active accounts, but half of its traffic is automated. Compare this to Facebook, who has 1.23 billion monthly active users, and Twitter's reach simply can't meet that of the only social network that really resonates at scale. However, Facebook has its own problems with bots, as it admitted to having as many as 270 million fake or clone accounts. The internet isn't ours anymore, it belongs to computers now. That's a big part of what this cryptocurrency craze is all about.
A lot of the activity online isn't driven by humans. It's not just Russia behind it. In 2011, Gawker received a tip that most of Newt Gingrich's followers were fake. A bot famously made $2.4 million in an impeccably well-timed options trade on Wall Street. Bloomberg and Dow Jones have created news feeds designed for computers, not humans. According to the security firm Imperva, humans account for 48.2% of all internet traffic, and 28.9% is due to impersonators, hacker tools, scrapers and spammers (the other 22.9% are “good bots” that Imperva classifies as “feed fetchers, search engine bots, commercial crawlers and monitoring bots”). Imperva's marketing director expanded on the internet's malicious bot problem in a blog post about the research, writing:
The most alarming statistic in this report is also the most persistent trend it observes. For the past five years, every third website visitor was an attack bot.
Twitter has a bot problem that's seemingly more pervasive than others thanks to the fact that anyone with a modicum amount of coding knowledge can make a bot for Twitter's API. Plus, the general concept of vetting doesn't really seem to be a major priority for Twitter unless the user base is clamoring for it.
Joseph Cox—a writer for The Daily Beast—had his Twitter account suspended thanks to an army of bots spamming him. Per Cox:
“Caution: This account is temporarily restricted,” a message on my account read Tuesday. “You’re seeing this warning because there has been some unusual activity from this account,” it continued.
This came after analysts from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR Lab) uncovered pro-Kremlin outlets and Twitter bots spreading a certain narrative around the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests. In response to DFR Lab’s work, an army of automated accounts turned on the researchers themselves, bombarding their notifications and manipulating their follower counts. I reported on these subsequent shenanigans Tuesday, and that’s when a relatively small wave of bots started following and retweeting me.
“Personally, I’ve never seen anything like this before. What happened to you is very strange indeed,” Donara Barojan from the DFR Lab told The Daily Beast, referring to Twitter restricting my account.
Twitter unlocked his account a few hours later, but they refused to comment on the record about how bots may have led to his account becoming suspended. The fact of the matter is that bots have always had an outsized impact on Twitter, and we are only beginning to understand the effects of that reality. Hell, Twitter seems to only just be realizing the power of their product.
This isn’t just a Russia or a Twitter thing. This issue of social media manipulation cuts to the heart of truth itself, and every nation with the resources to deploy an army of internet warriors has done so. Combine this with Google and Facebook’s business models pushing what you want to know and not what you need to know into your feed, and our polarized populace is ripe for the picking. Disinformation has always been Russia’s forte—no matter the medium—but they’re far from the only ones utilizing the latest technology to spread it—allies included.
We are in the middle of a war, and we still don’t quite realize it. Russia comes easily to mind, but the bigger picture gets lost in the scrum over their relative importance. From what we can tell, it looks like the United States kicked the World Cyber War off with our covert and still unacknowledged Operation Olympic Games, which began at the same time that we launched cyber-attacks in Iraq in 2006, and ultimately implanted the famed “Stuxnet” virus into an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010.
Russian meddling is both a red herring and a serious issue in 2018 America. They seem to understand us better than we understand ourselves, and all they did was exacerbate our existing polarization by hooking social media up to a churning firehose of BS in 2016. They do this all the time across Europe—trying to prop up extremist parties in the cause of chaos—and we are no different. In fact, our polarization renders us all extremists for their purposes. This isn’t about a new Cold War and we don’t need to escalate a digital attack into the kinetic sphere. Russia is not on the level of Europe, the United States or China militarily, economically or diplomatically.
The reason they mess with us is because if the West is busy fighting with itself, no one can meddle in Russia’s politics, nor can they stop them from claiming land in the resource-rich north pole being opened up by climate change. Russia doesn’t want to go to war with the United States, they just want our government off their back while they take this opportunity to exploit a new land rush in the Arctic (and maybe Eastern Europe). Their methods are effective—we’ve proven it—and on a nation-state scale, these types of cyber projects cost relative peanuts. We should be weary of the power that Russia wields over us.
But we should also be weary of Saudi Arabia. And Iran. And Israel. And France. And China. And Brazil. And anyone and everyone with a little money and a big agenda. I haven’t even written the word “corporation” yet, and that’s at least five other universes of manipulation piled on top of this mess. Hyper-focusing on Russia completely misses the forest for the trees. We have entered a new digital dystopia that we are wholly unprepared for. Automation already took our jobs, now it’s coming back for our souls.
Video technology is so drastically advanced that it’s fairly easy for someone to convincingly put your face on a porn star’s body.
Not a picture.
The entire video.
You can see a safe for work demonstration of the technology below, as Redditor nuttynutter6969 (of course) placed Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley’s face on a performer.
Now, take that kind of technology and apply it to politics. Combine a bot that can mimic anyone’s voice with a believable image, promote it with an army of bots, trolls and operatives, and we are rapidly approaching a future where bad actors can make public figures say and do whatever they want. Russia is a problem, but only because they’re part of a much, much larger problem. We all must fully grasp what we’re up against before we let our democracy get suffocated by a toxic combination of mankind’s genius and its stupidity.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.