by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Are the NFL players who kneeled in protest at the National Anthem to be reviled, or were they being courageous?
Did they insult our nation, or is their freedom to action what our flag stands for?
Were the protesting players disrespectful or patriotic?
These questions vexed the nation in recent days. People argued and took sides. Tempers sometimes flared. Angry posts or tweets were exchanged. And somewhere in a Russian troll farm cyber warriors were smiling.
This National Anthem flap is a perfect example of how we are being manipulated by higher powers in the media sphere every day. Some of the bad actors are foreign, such as the Russia operatives at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, with its army of automated bots, who took to Twitter once again to polarize our public discourse over the NFL protest flap.
The truth is that Russia has been doing this type of thing for years; Using social media platforms on the internet to post extreme and inflammatory messages on opposite sides of every issue. This is just one of Russia’s many methods to sow discord and to splinter our national unity. Their goal: Polarize our politics, widen our political fault lines, pit us against one another and make America ungovernable. Russia is targeting other democracies this way in Europe as well.
But Russia isn’t the only player fomenting disunity and despair. They may even be minor players next to some of our own “stateless” oligarchs who benefit from governmental paralysis at every level. These billionaires don’t want to pay any taxes, support the public commons or be told what they can and can’t do. They are among a oligarchs from around the world who control more wealth and power than most countries. They see self-governing entities as obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of wealth, or as competition in their exercise of power, and some have been messing with our politics and social perceptions for years.
To borrow from a prior article:
… there is strong evidence that the rogue interests of certain Western billionaires and Russian oligarchs have converged. Breaking down the economic barriers that keep wealth and power in check under civilian controlled democracies, and the goal of undermining the strength and unity of Western democracies (strengthening Vladimir Putin’s global influence) are essential aligned.
This is the bigger picture. It is a picture so large it’s hard to take in and even harder to accept as true. Yet here we are, confronted by a clear case where a foreign power used Twitter to influence the personal conversations we are having with each other.
Mainstream media also has its part to play in this NFL protest story and countless others like it. It is the “for-profit” news outlets that select what we will be talking about tomorrow. NFL players protesting during the National Anthem is a real money topic. It attracts a much wider audience compared to another story about race relations. It’s important to remember here that we are the commodity the broadcast media delivers to advertisers. What they choose not to cover, we don’t talk much about. A simple internet search for “NFL protests” proves this point. Lost in the hoopla about the flag is any discussion of why there is a protest.
So what was the protest about?:
1. Police in this country kill too many civilians.
2. If your skin is black, you are twice as likely to be one of those killed.
NFL players were trying to bring attention to these issues, one superimposed on the other. On average, police kill about two people per day. For perspective, in all of Great Britain police kill about two people per year. If the rate of police homicides were that low in the US there wouldn’t be enough of them to reveal any sort of pattern. But a pattern does exist, and African-Americans are too often the victims.
These same racial patterns come up time and again in the American justice system because we have a pervasive and persistent problem with race. Whether we are looking at statistics about arrests, convictions, incarcerations, police stops, etc., the same pattern is superimposed on the data. Racial disparity, by far, is the more stubborn of the two problems listed above. We do need to address it. The other part of the problem, the high number of police killings, is a more solvable problem. We can all agree that the fewer number of civilians killed the better. That might mean better police training, better vetting of applicants and changes in police tactics or philosophy.
But here’s the thing. When we try to have that discussion, the social media platforms light up with extreme, emotionally charged messaging that polarizes our public discourse. Conversations quickly become adversarial. Efforts to separate one issue from another to make problem solving easier are sabotaged. Fake news stories begin popping up to further cloud the issues and crazy websites emerge to sustain the divisions thus created. These are often organized disinformation campaigns to reinforce political disunity. They can be so successful that we sometimes can’t even agree on the same set of facts. We get locked into an ideological battle and don’t how we got there. We can’t see the nefarious forces at work behind the scenes.
To understand how this is happening we have to consider the massive social media platforms though which we can broadly and anonymously communicate with millions of strangers. Never before have we had a cyber presence where everything we write or reveal about ourselves exists forever and is available to anyone. The whole internet is a gigantic, ever growing database that can be searched and analyzed. It’s a mercurial universe of ones and zeros. Yet, to an ever greater degree, our world view is molded by our social media experiences. Even as we become more enmeshed in the cyber world, this new medium is increasing falling under the influence of powerful people with weaponized information technologies and the motivation to alter our perceptions, our behavior and our culture. Our vulnerability to manipulation by bad actors has never been greater.
We need to educate ourselves about this new virtual world in which we find ourselves. We have lost control over our public discourse and need to win it back. We have to learn how to recognize when we are be targeted with propaganda messaging and how to resist falling victim to it. We mustn’t let our authentic narratives become hijacked by those who would alter our perceptions to serve their own ends? If democracy is to survive, if America is to survive, we have to overcome our differences and fight back against those who want to see our people’s Republic fail.
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
What if Presidential candidates could identify the exact swing districts, to the precinct, that they need to win state elections? Imagine how concentrated their campaigns efforts and resources would be, including the ad buys and how those ads are tailored to the voters in those districts.
Welcome to the modern political campaign. The ability to do exactly this grows greatly every election cycle. Highly detailed voting information has not only allowed candidates to geographically concentrate their resources, it has given unscrupulous party operatives a map to devise voter suppression strategies, vote tampering schemes and gerrymandered districts that give their party structural advantages.
This much is well known by the savvy readers here, even if it remains under appreciated by the many voter. Less well understood are the new information technology weapons that were employed in the last election.
Into the” big data” world of our modern political campaigns came a whole set of newly developed propaganda technologies that can exploit a campaigns massive knowledge base. Explaining how just one of these new, information technology weapons work, one called micro-targeting, we can see how the dots are connected in the Russia election scandal now unfolding.
Here is a step by step plan to use modern information technologies to micro-target individual voters in swing districts to manipulate their vote.
Step 1. CREATE BIO-PSYCHO-SOCIAL PROFILES ON POTENTIAL VOTERS: All the publicly shared Facebook and Twitter information voluntarily provided by individual users has unwittingly created the most massive database ever imagined. Marketing companies can use this database to target ads to those most likely to buy certain products. But in politics, companies like Cambridge Analytica can use this data to creates highly accurate bio-psycho-social profiles (BPS profile) on millions of American adults, and use that information to manipulate voting behavior. The ability to create these very accurate, highly predictive individual profiles using a meta-analysis techniques is well established. Researchers have estimated that just 150 “likes” on Facebook, along with self-reported biographical information, can produce a BPS profile for individuals that better predicts their behavior than what their own spouse could predict. These profiles can even predict which words or phrases will elicit specific emotional reactions in a person. Of this profiling data, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician, said, “People just don’t understand the power of this data and how it can be used against them.”
For those who don’t know, Cambridge Analytica is a election data analysis company founded by Robert Mercer, an American billionaire with some very radical ideas. The company was lead by Breitbart’s Steve Bannon until he joined the Trump administration. Cambridge Analytica was contracted by the Trump campaign to utilize the company’s extensive voter profiles to help get Donald Trump elected in 2016.
Information that Facebook or Twitter does not uniformly obtain is the current voter registration status of users or their voting history. This type of information is only kept in state or county voter registration databases spread throughout the country. For a political campaign to get this type of information they would need to hack into many state and county databases, and do it in a way that doesn’t easily trace back to the campaign.
Step 2. HACK SPECIFIC VOTER REGISTRATION FILES: Micro-targeting voters is a huge undertaking requiring a massive amount of computing. It also requires connecting an individual’s BPS profile with their current voter registration status and voting history. Micro-targeting voters cannot happen without this information. There is currently no national source for voter registration information, but one has been proposed by Donald Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission of Election Integrity.
Not having a national voter registration system is probably a good thing. A hack of a single database would be far more damaging, and is less likely to be detected. Hacking dozens or hundreds of smaller databases increases the odds of getting caught. Hacks of voter registration files should therefore be limited in number, and the hacks must therefore be targeted at just the right swing districts where micro-targeting has the best odds of changing voting behaviors. The people with the best idea of which voting districts to hack are those within the campaign. The same internal polling numbers used to direct ad buys are the same numbers needed to direct voter registration hacks.
One way to assure that hacking activity can’t easily be traced back to a candidate’s campaign is to covertly employ third parties to conduct the hacks and supply the stolen information to the data analysis companies. If micro-targeting of voters took place during the 2016 elections, as a growing body of evidence suggests, then there has to be a connection between the micro-targeting and the Russian hacks of voter registration files that took place in 22 states. Some information sharing between the campaign and third party hackers would be required to assure that the information to be obtained is useful.
It is still highly speculative, but not unreasonable, to investigate the connections between the Trump campaign and Russian hacking of the voter registration databases. It is also reasonable to investigate whether any of the stolen information ended up in the databases of companies such as Cambridge Analytica.
Step 3. IDENTIFY INDIVIDUALS IN SWING DISTRICT WHOS VOTING BEHAVIOR CAN BE INFLUENCED BY MICRO-TARGETED MESSAGING: Once a voter’s registration information and voting history is matched up with his or her BPS profile, it is a relatively straight forward step to distinguish implacable voters from casual or inconsistent voters. BPS profile characteristic can be used to identify a voters political leanings and the issues they might care about. Another characteristic that micro-targeting requires is that the target must be engaged in social media.
Step 4. BOMBARD TARGETED VOTERS ON THEIR SOCIAL MEDIA WITH SPECIALLY DESIGNED MESSAGES: In the final phase of the operation the object is to create an alternative social media landscape for the targeted voter by bombarding them with fake news stories, tweet storms and biased commentary designed to alter their perceptions of the political environment. These messages are tailored to elicit specific emotional reactions in the subjects. The messages are delivered by a virtual army of trolls (Russia has internet troll farms) and automated bots using fake Facebook or Twitter accounts. If the targeted voter ever shared any doubts about Hillary Clinton on social media, for example, the content of their micro-targeted messages might be designed to amplify those doubts and raise new ones. The purpose is to lessen the likelihood of that voter voting for Hillary. If a person ever “liked” a story about building the border wall, targeted messages might contain outrageous immigration stories to heighten fear and loathing toward immigrants, and to strengthen the voters motivation to vote for Donald Trump. By BPS profiling and micro-targeting people, it is the targeted voters who get manipulated, not the voting machines or the voting process itself.
RESULTS: The psychological and emotional impact of targeted propaganda messaging on individual voters will motivate some to go to the polls and vote for a candidate when they might have otherwise stayed home. Or the messaging may dispirit some voters and cause them to stay home when they would have otherwise cast their ballot. Researchers tell us that people manipulated by these technologies generally don’t realize they are being manipulated. Because of the massive computing power available to these election data companies, and the unprecedented social media databases, identifying and targeting voters susceptible to targeted propaganda messaging is capable of directing these attacks on many thousands of voters just before an election. Flipping whole election through this process may be possible. Did micro-targeting flip the 2016 Presidential election to Donald Trump’s win? No one knows yet, in part because it is so difficult to prove.
It is my belief that the state voter registration hacks were not done to disenfranchise voters at the polls, but to supplement data needed in order to identify and to micro-target low malleable voters with propaganda messaging. I also suspect targeting information was provided to the Russian hackers who broke into the state voter registration files. I don’t know if these are crimes. I certainly hope they are, and I hope the Justice Department Probe is pursuing this line of investigation.
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
The mainstream media is finally starting to get it. They haven’t yet declared that we are at war with both foreign and domestic adversaries bent on dismantling our democracy, but they are starting to report on the outlines of the cognitive warfare raging against us in the media universe.
A New York Times editorial piece today broadens awareness of the means by which Russia influenced our 2016 election.
“But as a startling investigation by Scott Shane of The New York Times, and new research by the cybersecurity firm FireEye, now reveal, the Kremlin’s stealth intrusion into the election was far broader and more complex, involving a cyberarmy of bloggers posing as Americans and spreading propaganda and disinformation to an American electorate on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.”
And a New York Times Op-Ed piece today by Siva Vaidhyanathan provides further insight into how Facebook allowed (and continues to allow) Russia to influence American politics.
“On Wednesday, Facebook revealed that hundreds of Russia-based accounts had run anti-Hillary Clinton ads precisely aimed at Facebook users whose demographic profiles implied a vulnerability to political propaganda. It will take time to prove whether the account owners had any relationship with the Russian government, but one thing is clear: Facebook has contributed to, and profited from, the erosion of democratic norms in the United States and elsewhere.”
Here is another rather scary quote from this Op-Ed:
” We are in the midst of a worldwide, internet-based assault on democracy. Scholars at the Oxford Internet Institute have tracked armies of volunteers and bots as they move propaganda across Facebook and Twitter in efforts to undermine trust in democracy or to elect their preferred candidates in the Philippines, India, France, the Netherlands, Britain and elsewhere. We now know that agents in Russia are exploiting the powerful Facebook advertising system directly.”
Even if there was no direct collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the last electionD, there is strong evidence that the rogue interests of certain Western billionaires and Russian oligarchs have converged. Breaking down the economic barriers that keep wealth and power in check under civilian controlled democracies and the goal of undermining the strength and unity of Western democracies to strengthen Vladimir Putin’s global influence are essential aligned.
The Facebook, Twitter and alt-right media assaults on public perceptions during the 2016 election were not only parallel, but closely coordinated to produce the surprising outcome of Donald Trump winning the Presidency. The proof of this is slowly emerging.
What is even less appreciated now is the ongoing media assaults aimed at Trump’s supporters to maintain their loyalty and their perception that he is saving America from a “deep state” takeover of our government, or from radical Islamist trying to establish Sharia law, etc.