Kathy Sheridan: Ireland was ahead of the curve on hacking

Cyberattacks and social media threats show the benefits of traditional democracy

Electronic voting machines and ballot modules  in storage in Glasnevin, Dublin. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Electronic voting machines and ballot modules in storage in Glasnevin, Dublin. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Opinion writers stand accused of undue negativity, so make way for a few heart-lifting positives. Well-thumbed physical election registers. Paper ballots. Stubby pencils. Interminable counts surveyed by gimlet-eyed tallymen and women. That’s our fabulously antiquated voting system and it stands up well.

Last week, by contrast, Americans learned that the electronic voting systems of 21 states were targeted by Russian hackers in 2016 and some had been “actually successfully penetrated”, in the words of the US head of cybersecurity. The targeting may have been exploratory probes for system vulnerabilities to be exploited later, say experts, pointing to the crumbling US digital voting apparatus.

In other words, the 2016 hackers could look like plankton compared with the shark attacks expected around the forthcoming mid-term elections, with their potential to rebalance power in America.

Or not. Have the magpie media once again fallen headlong for the shiny clickbait – a hacking conspiracy thriller – and, as some suggest, taken their eye off the more significant story of the 2016 election campaign? That is, the triumph of propaganda – ie biased or misleading information – by social media advertisements, trolls and bots.

We know now that online giants such as Facebook and Twitter enabled Russian operatives to inflame the polarisation of American society. Twitter has provided a list to a US Senate committee with the user names of nearly 37,000 Russian-linked bots that tweeted a total of 1.4 million times. If that sounds tame, consider this : those 1.4 million tweets were viewed 288 million times.

Facebook has admitted that 11.4 million Americans definitely saw Russian troll-farm advertisements like this: “Hillary is Satan, and her crimes and lies have proved just how evil she is. And even though Donald Trump is not a saint by any means, at least he is an honest man and he cares deeply for this country.” Sweet. Between clicking and sharing, it’s likely that half the US population saw this post.

In the final weeks, the top five fake news items were all negatives for the Clinton campaign. “In other words, the Facebook algorithm picked a side – it’s not neutral,” writes lecturer and author Rachel Botsman in the Observer. Facebook is not merely a “neutral technology pathway”, she writes, “it is a media company with enormous influence in shaping someone’s worldview about whom to trust. And it is profit-driven.”

Online platforms that once looked invincible have had to explain themselves before powerful government committees and face a gathering threat to their vital advertising revenue

Closer to home, she cites a study on the period leading up to the Brexit referendum, in which one-third of Twitter traffic appears to have come from scripted bots mainly spreading pro-Leave content. Another study of the 48 hours around the vote shows that Russian-linked accounts posted more than 45,000 pro-Brexit tweets – and for every original bot tweet, seven retweets were made by humans. Think about that in the context of the margin between Leave and Remain. And think about motivation and funding sources.

We can argue the toss on whether the focus should be on hacked voting machinery or Big Tech’s global distortion of trust. Either way, Putin’s work is done. A new NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll suggests that four out of five Americans are somewhat or very concerned that the country’s voting system might be vulnerable to computer hackers.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that 63 per cent of its 33,000 respondents across 28 countries say they no longer know how to tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods. Who are that confident 37 per cent? The canny, well-informed? Think of the fake tweets innocently repeated by credible news and current affairs presenters.

Sow chaos

Mission accomplished then for Trump and brethren whose best hope for gaining or retaining power is to sow political chaos by undermining confidence in the voting system, the media, regulators and democracy itself.

There are glimmers of hope. Online platforms that once looked invincible have had to explain themselves before powerful government committees and face a gathering threat to their vital advertising revenue. Unilever – the world’s second-biggest marketing spender, at about €8 billion a year, one-third of it spent online – has just threatened to pull its online advertising from giant platforms that are “little better than a swamp in terms of transparency”.

Another glimmer appears in the Edelman study, which reports a striking 13-point rise in support for traditional media, while only one-quarter now trust the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for news and information.

Which brings us back to the stubby pencils and lessons learned. In the early 2000s, the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern said we were a “laughing stock” with our use of the “peann luaidhe”, and so the Fianna Fáil lads fluttered €51 million on electronic voting machines with no paper trail or independent verification. Trust the lads, was the message. Without the combined firepower of media, experts like Margaret McGaley and thinking politicians, we too might be living in terror of hack attacks on our voting system.

That €51 million pile of scrap metal remains a scandal but a cheap lesson in the end for democracy.

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