By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, October 24, 2017)
“We cannot turn back the clock. We cannot undo the impact of technology. Nor would we want to,” said Robert Mueller, former FBI Director and current special prosecutor investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, in his keynote speech at the March 2012 RSA Cyber Security Conference.
Mueller said the businesses and institutions embracing the newest technologies will prosper over those in denial or trying just to “keep up.”
Though he didn’t say so, the U.S. electoral system is definitely in the latter category.
Given the known Russian activities in the 2016 U.S. election, from the troll factories to the fake-news-spreading Twitterbot accounts, trying to control or eliminate foreign actors (rogue or otherwise) from participating in this country’s electoral process is a merry chase: American elections are an international affair whether we like it or not, particularly at, but not limited to, the presidential level.
Federal election regulations may be able to impede foreign money coming into our electoral system (though even that enterprise is dubious), but controlling information originating from foreign actors is a different matter. That may be an impossible task.
Do our first amendment rights give us the right to be influenced by campaign speech initiated by foreign agents?
At the individual-level, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment implicitly protects the right of any U.S. citizen to re-tweet Tweets or post Facebook content generated by foreign sources of unknown veracity and integrity.
If someone believes a news story on the Russian government-funded news website, RT.com, is worthy of being passed around to their Twitter followers or Facebook friends, it is their constitutional right to do so. Any attempt by the U.S. government to abrogate that right will be met with the appropriate outrage.
While nobody can knowingly proliferate social media content that threatens physical or permanent harm towards others, we have no legal obligation to vet the content we download and share on the internet.
Morally, however, we have a civic obligation to eschew known falsehoods and to prefer truths, as uncertain as those may be sometimes. But, Twitter, Facebook and Google are under no current legal requirement to distinguish truth from falsehood. They are merely high-tech, digital conveyor belts designed to move and share information generated by their users.
Freedom of speech is messy and social media just makes it messier.
“The main issue to remember when dealing with the internet is that people still have their basic rights intact,” says Kelly O’Connell, a senior editor for Internet Business Law services.
The internet, unfortunately, also offers individuals the means to publish and propagate malicious or erroneous information that can spread to thousands, even millions, of individuals within a short period of time. Furthermore, this false information can reside near permanently on the internet, even after it has been discredited.
According to O’Connell, internet users are subject to the same defamation laws that newspapers and television broadcasters must also follow — and if rogue actors believe they can spread false and defamatory information on the internet with anonymity, they may be disappointed. “The internet is not as completely anonymous as the typical person may presume,” says O’Connell.
Even the Russians couldn’t hide their interference in the 2016 election (assuming they were trying to hide to so).
Yet, it is unlikely our defamation laws are an impediment to Russian influence operations. A libeled or slandered politician may be able to sue individual bloggers or vloggers located in the U.S. for damages, but it is doubtful a Russian internet troll would be similarly vulnerable.
Is the internet too big and decentralized to regulate campaign communications?
The size and scope of the internet should humble any U.S. congressional attempt to regulate and manage its content. But the internet is finite.
Most of the internet’s traffic enters and leaves the United States through over 40 network nodes via submarine cables connected to Europe, South America, Asia, Australia and Africa. (see map below).
Despite its ubiquitous and circuitous nature, it is not impossible for the U.S. government to control the internet content available to Americans. The Chinese government does it to their citizens, facing a task only marginally easier than what the U.S. government faces. And though significant content gets past Chinese internet censors, what the government does control is still substantial.
Regardless of whether the U.S. government should, it is naive to think the U.S. government is incapable of imposing significant controls on what Americans can see on the internet.
We already know our government monitors, categorizes and selectively warehouses much of this content as it passes through these 40 entry/exit nodes. This government activity is not a secret.
However, the philosophical and practical difference between monitoring internet content, as opposed to controlling, is substantial.
Social media botnets played a visible role in the past U.S. presidential election. These accounts are generally defined as a group of social media accounts (on services such as Facebook or Twitter) connected in a coordinated fashion for malicious purposes. They are, in effect, a force multiplier for rogue actors trying to magnify their presence in the social media information stream.
Studies found that around 20% of 2016 U.S. election-related Twitter activity came from suspect botnet accounts. These botnet accounts will need to be addressed by social media internet companies and the U.S. Congress, hopefully, before the 2018 midterm elections.
However, whatever rage many Americans feel about this past election, this should not cloud our nation’s judgment on how best to protect our electoral system from malicious external actors. Any congressional legislation this country passes in response to Russian electoral interference cannot be done without strict bipartisan oversight and accountability.
Just as many feel the 9-11 terrorist attacks led to, in the name of heightened security, unnecessary infringements on Americans’ civil liberties, we must be equally vigilant against any federal government power grab under the pretense of keeping foreign influences out of our campaign communications.
What can the government do to keep the Russians out of our elections?
How Congress will monitor and regulate content on Facebook, Twitter or Google is still a work-in-progress. Congressional Democrats have been restrained so far, as evidence continues to be gathered by congressional committees and the Mueller investigation on what actually happened in 2016; but, the initial legislative ideas coming out of Washington, D.C. have been narrow and are unlikely to deter the Russians or other rogue actors determined to interfere in American elections.
One example is the Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in October by Democratic senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar and cosponsored by Republican senator John McCain, is the first legislative attempt to address Russian interference.
The bill would require political advertisers on social media and other online platforms to disclose who is paying for their ads. In effect, the bill requires internet political advertisers to comply with the same disclosure standards already required of broadcast, radio, and print advertisers. But the democratic nature of digital platforms — which, unlike radio and television, allow virtually anyone to create content — means rules aimed only at advertisements will have a limited effect.
Even the bill’s proponents agree that it will do little to hinder the Russians.
“It’s a good piece of legislation to address the modern realities of campaign financing and the need for disclosure,” Adam Sharp, former head of news, government, and elections at Twitter, told Wired magazine. “But I’m skeptical of how it will tamp down on behavior by bad actors like we saw in the 2016 election.”
Congress will need to address social media-based botnet accounts, perhaps the most effective tool utilized by the Russians in 2016, and there are a number of ways to identify and eliminate botnet accounts, some more intrusive and sophisticated than others.
Botnets distort the democratic pretenses of social network sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Their existence is inconsistent with the notion that these social networks are the modern day version of the ‘public square.’
One solution to botnets is rather mundane and easy to implement. Scholars at the University of Indiana suggest that Twitter use “captcha” tests for certain users to prove they’re human before they can post content. As a Twitter user, it would be annoying, but a small price to pay for limiting the power of botnets.
Another option would be for the social networks to allow users to directly flag suspected bot accounts — a sort of wisdom of the crowd method. This idea however could prove to be more an indication of the partisan bias of Twitter or Facebook users than a good detector of botnets.
Another option would be for the social networks to further develop sophisticated algorithms to detect botnets. While this anti-botnet solution may offer the least disruption to social network users, it places an extremely high burden on the social networks to maintain the relevancy of these artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. Where there is a will to evade such algorithms, rogue actors will find a way.
Given their potential for making decisions that could impact large swaths of social media content, using AI algorithms to identify botnets cannot be carelessly implemented simply to placate an angry Congress. AI systems are still relatively new and are limited in their operationalization.
“Real-world planning and decision-making is still beyond the capabilities of modern computers, the exception being very well-defined, constrained problems such as mission planning for satellites,” says Max Welling, who teaches artificial intelligence courses at the University of California-Irvine.
Finally, at a nation-state diplomatic level, we could implement meaningful sanctions against any country harboring agents disruptive to American elections. We know what the Russians did in 2016. Are we willing to back up our evidence with action?
I’m guessing, no. Our Congress will more likely inconvenience American citizens and social media companies with whatever legislation they finally pass to protect American elections.
Whatever Congress decides, the social media companies will likely be adversaries to their effort
Any attempt to control foreign-sourced election communications must recognize the user-count business models of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Emilio Ferrara, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California and bot specialist, says, “Twitter’s business is selling advertising but bots don’t buy products and they don’t click on ads.”
The Twitterbot problem may, in fact, expose Twitter as being less than it says it is to advertisers and investors. Twitter is claimed to have 328 million monthly active users, as of the second quarter of 2017, though to what extent that number includes Twitterbots is uncertain.
Twitters recent announcement to no longer accept advertising from the Russian government-supported news services, RT.com and Sputnik.com, will have no impact on future Russian influence operations.
What is clear is that the Twitter stock price is largely driven by its user base numbers. When Twitter reported earlier this year that its monthly active users were up 6 percent year over year and 3 percent sequentially, investors sent Twitter stock shares up almost 11 percent.
Twitter has a strong incentive to stonewall attempts to determine the number of Twitter botnets in its user population or attempts to delete botnets from the Twitterverse.
Nonetheless, that is exactly where the Congress will need to go if it wants to defend the legitimacy of American elections in the age of social networks. Furthermore, when rogue actors illegally hack into email systems for political purposes, that is crime and should be pursued as such.
Does that mean we ignore the information, no matter how accurate or pertinent to the campaign, once it is made public by some entity like Wikileaks? Unlike a jury, it is hard to ask the American voting public to disregard information already available on the internet.
What is possible is exposing the likely source of this illegally-obtained information and letting voters decide if it warrants their consideration when making a vote decision. This is exactly what happened in 2016 and, in that sense, it was our greatest defense against Russian interference.
The Internationalization of U.S. Elections is Here to Stay
Here is a prediction: Future U.S. elections will include information (some of it ‘fake news’) created by foreign sources aiming to disrupt the election. Email servers will be attacked. Botnets will become more sophisticated. Online trolls will continue to target American voters on the various social media platforms. Even at the risk of retaliatory sanctions, the incentive for the Russians (and other nations) to influence American campaigns will not go away. This is the price of a free society.
This prediction does not mean, however, we should ignore these international miscreants. Our political parties and campaigns need to be more sophisticated in how they protect their private information. Our state governments need more secure methods for maintaining their voter registration records and more consistent technical standards for their voting machines. No entity should ever be able to hack into a U.S. voting machine from a remote location (Note: There is, as yet, no evidence this happened in the 2016 election; nonetheless, the theoretical possibility that it could happen should make us concerned).
At the same time, Americans cannot let its defense of our elections become another power grab by the federal government. Congressional Democrats, in particular, assume a government-imposed solution, often accompanied by increased federal powers, will solve the problem. It won’t.
One inference from Mueller’s speech at the 2012 RSA Cyber Security Conference was that the ‘bad guys’ will never go away and will adapt as fast as we build defenses to stop their attacks. That doesn’t mean we stop improving our cyber security efforts. It does mean we need to be realistic about what we can and can’t do. Their are no fail-safe solutions, but what we can do is keep Americans informed on what foreign actors are doing during our elections and how voters, on an individual-basis, can self-identify rogue actors and ‘fake news’ populating our social media platforms.
Americans must always have access to foreign sources of campaign information. This does open the door for other countries’ intelligence services to manipulate such information, but that risk is small compared to the risks associated with our federal government becoming a gatekeeper to what we can read, see and hear on the internet. The risk of foreign interference in our elections is attendant with our constitutionally-protected freedoms. Let us not harm the latter thinking we are stopping the former.
K. R. K.
About the author: Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY). He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.