Breach podcast — Election hacking, step 1: State-sponsored trolling

Want to learn much more about state-sponsored trolling? Click to read Nick Monaco’s report.

Today, we’ll begin with Step 1: Long before you step into the voting both, your vote can be hacked. It’s already happened.  I’ve written about state-sponsored trolling before, and I think it might be the greatest threat to democracy, and maybe even intelligence itself.  Here’s a partial transcript from this part of the podcast.  (Or just click play below. Or visit iTunes. 

(What is this? Click back to the introduction for an explanation.)


I sat down with Nick Monaco in D.C., he’s a researcher who studies disinformation and state-sponsored trolling, to understand how our vote can be hacked on social media. But first I needed to know what disinformation actually is.

Sure. I mean, I think we’re all just trying to avoid saying fake news. [Laughs] Academics will
make the distinction that disinformation is um, false information that’s knowingly spread. So
there’s an intent to deceive people knowingly. Uh, and then they’ll say that misinformation, um,
is information that is spread unknowingly that’s false. So maybe you retweet a story that you
thought was true, that would be a case of misinformation. But if you create a false story to
smear someone that would be disinformation.

Let’s say you’re online researching the upcoming campaign of Bob versus Alia. Obviously you
should vote Bob.
Absolutely not, it’s me.
But then you see an article or something that looks like an article or a meme, and it’s circulating
with a headline like this: “Tech Journalist Bob Sullivan is a Puppy Killer.”
No! We at the Alia campaign would never. You have Rusty the Golden and are so sweet to him.
Well, maybe. But let’s say foreign actors who want you to win, well they don’t care about that.
They start circulating this information that I am funded by puppy killers. And of course the
comments go crazy, “How could you vote for him? He hates puppies.” Meanwhile, on the other
side, people who support me, they start rushing to my defense, and they start saying things like,
“Alia, she doesn’t really care about puppies. She’s a cat person”

But I’m not.
And there you are defending. explaining. The second that you’re explaining, you’re losing.
So regardless of any of that, this puppy issue’s totally fabricated, wouldn’t have been there
otherwise. But now I can’t get in a word edgewise about my platform because all I’m doing is
defending myself against these puppy accusations.
And of course a lot of times it’s not even humans spreading disinformation. It’s bots. Software
programs posing as human users. I used to be able to sniff out bots on twitter. Instead of
photos, they had those little eggs for their avatars and bad grammar and no followers.
Bulb Sullivan is a very puppy killer. Yes.

But now they’re way more sophisticated.
They can uh, tweet and they can interact with real users, uh, so use A.I. to convert — to talk to
people like a human would—
Hey so like I’m really offended by your tweet. How could you vote for Bob and call yourself a
dog owner? Look at this puppy’s face!
Um, but they can be much less sophisticated. They can simply retweet everything someone
else posts or like everything someone else posts.
You guys, Bob the tech-journalist is actually a puppy killer! Like, share, retweet.
They can be used to promote messages. They can be used to make hashtags trend.

Uh, which becomes quite interesting when you think about the fact that, you know, most news
organizations now have um, incentives, uh, if not, you know, choose of their own accord to
report on what’s trending online. What if what’s trending online is produced, you know, 90% by
bots and 10% of humans are promoting it?
Can Bob Sullivan’s candidacy survive #puppygate? Critics weigh in.
Uh, one of my colleagues has come up with the term “manufacturing consensus”. You think that
people are talking about something or liking something or into something, but really it’s just
computer programs.
That’s disinformation and bot armies. The last way your vote can be hacked online is via
propaganda, which is different than just fake news or spreading a particular lie to skew you one
way or another on a candidate. At least in 2016, we now know Russia’s propaganda campaign
was to create a ton of content and memes on both sides for our most divisive issues, just to
push us further apart.

Just to start a fight like a bar fight
And we’re definitely still vulnerable there when it comes to things that matter.
Things that instinctively even rational people uh, and well informed people have trouble and how
like immediately starting to yell about when they hear about.

If we see extreme accounts promoting really, really extreme narratives on either side. That’s,
that’s a thing that a lot of people don’t understand. These aren’t exclusively in the case of 2016
Promoting Hillary or promoting Trump. They’re on all sides of an issue.
I hate that. It’s so dirty.

And it’s too easy. How often have you heard lately “our nation is more divided than ever”? That’s
what the Russian I.R.A. certainly wanted us to think with their state-sponsored trolling.
I think it’s worked. Producer Jan joined me in D.C. and had a question.
State sponsored trolling um, it is a hack, but of our minds? Of our own infective human pack
mentality? What is it hacking?
Right. No, I think that’s a really great way of looking at it. Um, so I think that in the first place, if
people’s attention is hacked already by a platform, and they’re spending time on this platform,
and then they’re receiving messages that might sway their actions — So we already have you in
one place, we know where you are, we know kind of what you think about, and we know where
you live uh, let’s just send you some information that we think would be amenable to what you
— what you think, and maybe influence you to act in some way.









About Bob Sullivan 1334 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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