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How to Program Dissent: Politics and the Role of Technology

When did this machine really go off the rails? Hard to say. The only thing we can really do is look back at the events that may have led us here.


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Andrew Long

3 years ago | 6 min read

I remember when our opinions were not so dependent on our social media echo chambers. I remember when I could still be friends with people across the political isle.

It’s not that I don’t want to be now, it’s that the political climate over the past 4 years has become so polarizing that hating the other team has become a prerequisite for either party. The other guys are evil, they want to destroy this country. It doesn’t matter who the other guys are.

I’m not alone in this sentiment. Many of my friends and colleagues have spoken at length about needing to unfollow/block/unfriend old friends and even family members because of the political brainwashing that has taken place. It’s not just one side.

We are all being manipulated. That doesn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t surprise you. It’s a system that has been tested and perfected over the course of decades. Only now, it has been weaponized.

When did this machine really go off the rails? Hard to say. The only thing we can really do is look back at the events that may have led us here.

Facebook’s questionable practices

If you asked 5 of your friends if they think Facebook can be trusted to protect their privacy, how many would say no? A poll by the Wall Street Journal revealed that 3 out of 5 people don’t trust Facebook with their data. Yet, Facebook boasts nearly 2 billion daily active users.

What does this say about us? Quite a bit, and it sends a loud, clear message to Facebook: “Do what you want, we’ll still be here”.

Do you remember the story, back in 2014, about Facebook’s massive mood-altering experiment on it’s users? A Facebook spokesman commented:

We do research to improve our services and to make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible.

A big part of this is understanding how people respond to different types of content, whether it’s positive or negative in tone, news from friends, or information from pages they follow.

At the time, the story seemed benign (although creepy). Essentially, the experiment set out to measure the mood changes over users when introduced to positive or negative stories. So, what did they discover?

We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.

We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

The complete paper can be found here. This story, taken alone, doesn’t really paint a clear picture of the true power that Facebook was playing with, only that they could influence our mental state to some degree. The world was still very much in the dark over what this type of power meant for the future of our society.

Then, election time came.

Cambridge Analytica’s dirty campaign work

Christopher Wylie, Photo Credit: Chatham House
Christopher Wylie, Photo Credit: Chatham House

We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis that the entire company was built on,”

This is a quote from whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who helped build the infrastructure for Cambridge Analytica and obtain the data. The basis of this work was eerily similar, though more nefarious, to the Facebook emotional manipulation experiment.

It was essentially a step up from that work, and sought to appeal emotionally to users’ fears and biases in order to sway public opinion.

Facebook’s estimate of who was affected worldwide
Facebook’s estimate of who was affected worldwide

For anyone not familiar with the scandal, Cambridge Analytica used a third party app to exploit a weakness in Facebook’s user security to collect at least 87 million profiles of data.

The data was then used to pinpoint who in the US they could target to sway opinion toward the Trump campaign’s favor, and who was the most valuable. They heavily targeted swing states key to the campaign’s success:

[Cambridge Analytica] created a visualization tool that showed in each state which areas were most persuadable and what those voters care about…

Cambridge developed a so-called “psychographic targeting,” system based on extensive personality profiles they claim contain around 5,000 data points each.

They used this same system to help the Trump campaign identify which voters in the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) own data file were most likely to swing toward Trump.

They used this same methodology to target those they saw as most likely to donate to the campaign (netting the campaign millions in donations).

This is only one piece of the puzzle. Big Data was used to profile Americans and prey on those who were found to be persuadable, in order to secure the nomination for Trump.

But what factors led to the same campaign winning the Presidential Election? Unfortunately, it was a little less savory than simple campaigning and advertising.

Enter the Russians

In August of 2016, the FBI announced that it had found evidence of breaches in multiple states’ voter registration databases, but no accusations were made to name the intruders.

Then, in early 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released a report indicating Russian involvement in these attacks.

In July of 2018, prosecutors in the Mueller case revealed evidence that Russian hackers had stolen upwards of 500,000 voter registration records, as well as infiltrating a major voting registration software vendor and posing as the company to phish high level Florida election officials.

This was in addition to the attack on the Democratic National Committee(DNC), attempted attacks on other republican candidates and the RNC, and a successful attack on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that allowed them to steal thousands of emails related to the election.

As bad as these actions were, possible the most damaging to the American people, and helpful to the Trump campaign, was the onslaught of Russia-sponsored “troll farms” and bogus political/special interest groups infecting social media.

Another indictment alleges that the operation of these malicious groups began as early as 2014, as they tested the waters by spreading misinformation and measuring the effect.

By 2016, these same groups were producing massive amounts of divisive content pertaining to Black Lives Matter, gun control, Hillary Clinton, and the Trump Campaign.

Fake news articles were fabricated and distributed by hundreds of staged accounts with the intent to create unrest between American citizens and convert moderate and centrist voters into Trump supporters.

On a broader scale, the misinformation campaign (in conjunction with the other attacks) caused many Americans to lose faith in their government, and the democratic process.

It was this climate that allowed the Trump Campaign to rally together the marginalized, angry voters that had come to fear the overtaking of their country.

The campaign made many claims that the voting process was rigged, and that they would “drain the swamp” and clear the government of these corrupt career politicians. This message would not have resonated so clearly without the help of a troll army.

What we’re left with

We have proven that all you need is a headline to create a narrative in your favor, the story (or its validity) doesn’t matter.

As our attention spans shorten, and content consumption grows, how can we protect ourselves from the forces at work? How do we bounce back from a world where the President can openly spread false information over social media without repercussion?

We must hold ourselves accountable. We have to read past the headline, and analyze the facts. Sitting in our own social bubbles, where everyone shares the same opinion has to stop.

Read things outside of your political sphere. Never take a single story as the entire picture. Here’s the really tough one — disconnect from social media and the news cycle from time to time. Go talk to people and let’s try to rebuild the non-partisan foundations of our great country.

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Andrew Long

Ethical hacker and IoT security specialist.


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