The arrival of 2019 marks the kickoff of the 2020 presidential election campaign, amid continued worries about foreign influence – particularly from Russia – in our democratic process.
After the lid was blown off Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, we’d be wise to be very concerned about another spate of foreign influence attempts on the upcoming presidential race.
What should we be on the lookout for? Before we look ahead, let’s take a look back.
The Russians have been using campaigns of disinformation long before there were Twitter bots to do it for them. And guess what? They are darn good at it.
Ever since the 1920s when Soviet leader Josef Stalin coined the term “dezinformatsiya” (deliberately French-sounding so that it would be perceived as a Western invention), the Russians have been spreading disinformation.
In recent decades, some of the Russian campaigns of disinformation have included the false claims that the U.S. invented AIDS and that the U.S. supported apartheid under the former white minority government in South Africa.
As technology has evolved, the Russians have learned how to use data as a lethal weapon. Meanwhile, we have gotten flat-out complacent. So should you be scared? Yes.
For those of you not up on “bot” speak, let me explain.
During the 2016 election, the Russian government used the International Research Agency (IRA) – a Russian company dedicated to online influence on behalf of Russian business and political interests – to interfere in our presidential election.
The Russians initiated at least 180 million engagements on Instagram and 75 million on Facebook. They created accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers on both platforms, and purchased thousands of ads.
Through these tactics, the Russians made contact with tens of millions of Americans, giving them false information on critical issues.
For example, United Muslims of America appeared to run an ad on Facebook that said 44 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view towards Islam and linked that to a tripling of hate crimes against Muslim Americans.
The Heart of Texas appeared to run an ad on how rapists, drug dealers and human traffickers were given amnesty by Hillary Clinton and President Obama.
But in fact, both of these groups and the ads they sponsored were actually created by the Russian government.
These are examples of Russian interference that we know about. But you can bet there’s much more that we don’t know about.
As a statistician, I’m usually trying to decode misleading statistics. The problem with these numbers is that the people who know the whole truth aren’t telling it, and when you don’t know the truth, you can’t even begin to quantify it.
So who’s not telling us the truth?
Well, today we have a handful of data barons – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet (Google) founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey among them. They dominate the fledgling data industry, to which government regulation still has not caught up. And they play fast and loose with their commodity.
For example, after Cambridge Analytica accessed millions of users’ data without their consent and used it for political purposes in the 2016 campaign, Zuckerberg said that the feature the company (and tens of thousands of other apps) had used to access users’ friends’ information was disabled.
However, the truth is that 61 companies were given an “extension” – that is, a loophole to continue to access the data. Keep in mind that Facebook only admitted to doing this after 700 pages of documents reached the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Mail.ru was one of the 61 companies. Even though it has many links to the Kremlin, Facebook defended its decision to grant Mail.ru (along with its hundreds of associated apps) an extension, citing Mail.ru as one of the “top five largest internet companies.”
Many believe that the user data collected by Mail.ru went straight to the Federal Security Service (FSB) for the Russian government. They’re probably right.
Furthermore, the New York Times recently reported that Facebook gave user data access to more than 150 companies – a fact that Zuckerberg previously did not disclose – including Microsoft’s search engine Bing, Spotify and Netflix. The latter two were even allowed to read users’ private messages.
Alarming as that is, I’m most disturbed that the search engine Yandex – the Russian equivalent of Google – was on that list. You can bet that all of our information is going directly to the Kremlin. Even scarier though, in my opinion, is that Facebook is defending this activity, citing “no evidence of abuse” by its partners.
Please. Facebook says it bans developers when it discovers misuse. But I don’t trust Facebook to even know when developers are doing bad things, much less its interest in doing anything about it.
According to the Statistics Portal, Facebook has over 200 million American users, Instagram has over 100 million, and Twitter has about 70 million. While a fair amount of these users will overlap, it is safe to say that statistically, more than 60 percent of the American population has most likely been exposed to foreign propaganda and influences.
This is Russia’s doing, but it is becoming our fault. Russia is simply taking advantage of our government’s lack of regulation of the data industry – and, of course, the political division in our country, in which the Russians surely have had a hand.
Data is the newest, biggest, baddest kid on the block. Even we statisticians haven’t come to terms with the mountain of information in front of us, or the possible ways it will be used for good and bad.
As a child living in Ukraine, my grandmother faced Russian Cossacks raiding her village on horseback. Today we’re facing an entirely new threat from the very same enemy. And escaping to America won’t work this time, because the attackers are already here.
Step back for a moment. Have you ever spoken to President Trump? Have you ever met him? For the vast majority of Americans, the answer is no. The only way we know him, or any other political candidate, is through the media and advertisements.
The foreign entity that is able to interfere with the information upon which we determine who these candidates are, and who among them we vote for, is a terrible and fearsome foe.
The question is not whether Russia is going to try to disrupt the 2020 elections, but rather, if our government is going to let Russia do it.