At a glance.
- Lessons on disruption from the Iowa Democratic caucus.
- FBI Director says Russian disinformation continues at its 2016 pace.
- Domain names can provide resources for disinformation.
- Coronavirus epidemic spawns both censorship and disinformation.
- Social networks struggle with truth, lies, and simple error.
The fatal allure of "basically a calculator.”
The Iowa caucuses represent the first round in the US Presidential primaries, and they met Monday. As is usually the case, the party that doesn’t hold the White House is the interesting one to watch, and of course this year that would be the Democrats. As Politico noted, caucuses are unlike elections in many ways. For one thing, they've historically been lower-tech, generally not even using voting machines.
The Democratic caucus did not proceed happily. Results have remained incomplete through this afternoon. The problems aren’t attributable to hacking or foreign influence, the Washington Post reports, but to a buggy, inadequately tested app produced by Shadow Inc., effectively a for-profit tech arm for its principal investor, the progressive Washington not-for-profit consultancy ACRONYM, a Democratic-aligned shop founded to “to educate, inspire, register, and mobilize voters.”
The app that failed, IowaReporterApp, is said to have been developed in haste, a haste driven in part by fears that having precinct leaders phone their results in, as they had in past campaigns, would have been insecure. The app was finished and adopted without proper testing--for example, it wasn’t finished in time to qualify for inclusion in Apple’s store, and of course many precinct leaders use iPhones. Many of the party officials who were to use the app only sought to install it the morning of the caucus, and the difficulties were, under such circumstances, unsurprising.
Compounding the difficulties with the app is the apparent failure to prepare and exercise backups against the eventuality of exactly what happened. The state’s party leaders say they’ve got a handle on the count, which they’re confident they can complete accurately, only not as fast as they’d otherwise have been able to account for it.
Sources at the Democratic National Committee say they warned Iowa not to try to run the caucus through the app. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, has said it offered to test Shadow’s app, but that the Iowa party turned down the offer. Iowa Democrats "rebuffed" the warning from the National Committee, and according to the Washington Post, they say they didn't know about CISA's offer.
IowaReportingApp was intended to facilitate quicker, more accurate, and more transparent counting and reporting from the precincts. The Iowa caucuses in 2016 were very close, with ultimate nominee Hillary Clinton enjoying only a slim victory over Senator Bernie Sanders. Many Sanders supporters felt the results had been influenced by the party leadership, and the party was determined to avoid a repetition of such controversy this time around. Hence Shadow, and hence IowaReporterApp. It made matters worse. As the headline in a Washington Post Perspective piece put it, "Social media was a cesspool of toxic Iowa conspiracy theories last night. It’s only going to get worse."
Former Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook was widely blamed for the problems, but this seems entirely unfair, as he had nothing to do with the app. He had no connection with Shadow, but his former job sets him up as an ideal bogeyman for those Democrats who still feel the 2016 nomination was rigged for Ms Clinton.
The emerging consensus about Shadow’s IowaReporterApp is that it was hastily and carelessly put together and inadequately tested. “Clearly done by someone following a tutorial,” an “off-the-shelf, skeleton product,” and “looks hastily thrown together” are among the assessments Motherboard quotes.
Forbes summed up the general assessment of Shadow, its IowaReporterApp, and the Iowa Democratic Party: the caucus mess shows what happens when managers and developers ignore best practices. Shadow’s CEO Gerard Niemira said that his company subjected the app to rigorous, independent testing, but at this point that’s a distinctly minority view. The Nevada Democratic Party, which had also purchased the app, has already said it won’t use it when that state conducts its own primary. The Daily Beast says that the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which had been considering Shadow products, is said to have cut ties with the company.
Mr. Niemira told Bloomberg he was “really disappointed that some of our technology created an issue that made the caucus difficult,” but also defended IowaReporterApp as “sound and good.” He argued that the app worked, but that it just had problems with transmitting data. So it wasn’t the app, but just “a bug in the code that transmits results data into the state party’s data warehouse.” A data-formatting error, specifically. The app was great at adding up caucus preferences, but it just had trouble sending the numbers to caucus central. Most observers seem to regard that as a distinction without a difference.
“It’s basically a calculator, so that’s the approach we took to it," Shadow’s Niemira told Motherboard, defending the simplicity that many critics have derided.
Thus the chaos of determining the results of the caucus are ironic. Candidates were quick, once the problems were clear, to spin various levels of unsubstantiated victory or to darkly hint of chicanery. So the very steps the Democratic leaders took to clear up intraparty suspicions that the game was rigged bit back to produce the very result they were taken to avoid.
If the novel app were really "basically a calculator," it differed from a calculator in this respect: a calculator wouldn't have induced this much fear, uncertainty, and doubt. And none of the occasion for fear, uncertainty, and doubt had to come from Macedonia or St. Petersburg: this is all-American FUD, home-grown in Washington, DC, and Boulder, Colorado.
Russian disinformation continues at 2016's pace.
FBI Director Wray testified before the House of Representatives Wednesday and said that Russian "information operations," that is, propaganda and disinformation, continued to run high during the 2020 election season. Fifth Domain, in its characterization of the Director's testimony, reported that the Bureau hadn't seen direct attacks on election infrastructure, which we take to mean attempts to hack voting machines or directly manipulate election results. The Russian campaign is continuous, Director Wray said, in fact, so continuous as to make it difficult to discern any significant increase during an election season. The campaign is to a significant extent driven by bots, and it makes effective use of the magnification social media affords. Its aim is still disruption by exacerbating divisions in civil society.
Domain names matter in influence operations.
While there was little-to-no evidence of foreign interference in Iowa, and no evidence of hacking, a McAfee study released this week suggests that local authorities in the US are poorly prepared to counter influence operations conducted through compromised county websites. Fixing the basic failures in website design McAfee calls out might amount to a good start.
McAfee complains of the widespread tendency many US counties have to use dot-COM, dot-NET, dot-ORG, and dot-US domains, which can be purchased without the buyer undergoing any validation. The dot-GOV domain in contrast requires such validation, but many local governments use dot-COM, dot-NET, dot-ORG, or dot-US for voting information sites even when they have a dot-GOV domain they use elsewhere.
Some states seek to establish their own naming convention for their domains, such as www dot CO dot [county name] dot [two-letter state abbreviation] dot US. McAfee thinks these conventions too inconsistent and confusing to serve as a reliable guide to information.
The study also finds that a little less than half the county voting sites even use HTTPS encryption.
If one thinks of the large number of successful ransomware attacks and website defacements local governments in the US have sustained over recent years, it’s difficult to feel entirely happy about how resilient official voting information sites would be to a campaign that aimed simply at voter suppression or disruption.
Coronavirus epidemic provides opportunities for both censorship and disinformation.
The Coronavirus, like any other matter of widespread public concern, especially disasters and epidemics, is providing an occasion for both censorship and disinformation. The purely disruptive disinformation is, as usual, likely to be more successful. Consider the case of a Lithuanian newspaper, whose website briefly displayed a story claiming, falsely, that a US soldier in that country for joint exercises had the Coronavirus. Stars and Stripes reports that the newspaper said it was hacked, and that it quickly took the story down. Who's responsible for planting the story is unknown, and skids do things like this for the lulz all the time, but it represents a damaging message that easily conduces to leading people to fear the unfamiliar foreigners in their midst.
And China itself is struggling to control the messaging about Coronavirus as it struggles to contain the epidemic itself. The messaging, according to the UPI, combines two themes. First, the epidemic is being contained. And second, the epidemic is being contained by the "grand gestures" of the state. Beijing has drastically restricted reporting on the disease, the New York Times reports. Positive propaganda in this case seems to be having some success, but propaganda with a positive goal, that is, a constructive goal as opposed to simply a disruptive one, is always more difficult, and President Xi's disappearance from the public has fostered its own set of rumors, Foreign Policy notes. Is he ill? Is he dead? Is he in hiding? It's as if there's a Second Law of Information analogous to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: in a closed system, confusion and doubt increase over time.
The difficulty of distinguishing truth, lies, and simple error.
Social media platforms, which by design lend themselves to the rapid propagation of ideas and moods--it's called "going viral," and that's oddly conceived to be a good thing, something to boast of, have tried in various ways to grapple with disinformation. They've had difficulty doing so, even in what would consider the easiest case of well-established medical science. Facebook, for example, is working to control the spread of misinformation about the Coronavirus epidemic. It's too soon to tell how well Menlo Park will succeed, and the Telegraph for one thinks that both Facebook and Twitter are currently failing to stem the wilder conspiracy theories going viral on their platforms, but they're trying.
In other, even more settled areas, social networks continue to fall far short of what many would consider a reasonable goal of filtering out nonsense and mendacity. The Huffpost complains that Instagram's flood of misinformation about vaccines amounts to a public health menace.
Social media seem to have been better at filtering for inauthenticity than for falsity. Twitter this week took down a Republican account apparently designed to be mistaken for one operated by the Democratic candidate for governor, the Union Leader writes. The Telegraph reports that Twitter also says it’s banning both deepfakes and cheapfakes, and while cases of parody and satire may be difficult to distinguish from true disinformation, there may be a reasonable prospect of identifying altered videos and images.
Distinguishing lies from opinion, or even from carefully targeted truth, is harder, as a piece in the Atlantic describing President Trump’s campaign and its social media war room shows.
And then there’s this. It took public shaming by a deadpan BuzzFeed before Facebook finally got around to removing a Business Page registered to “Samantha Rae Anna Jespersen’s Butthole.” Ms Jesperson was horrified when she googled herself in 2015 and found that this was the first result displayed. It had apparently been established in 2012 when she was 15 years old, probably, one imagines, by misguided high-school funsters. Naturally Ms Jespersen tried to get Facebook to take the page down, since in natural justice she had the rights to her own self, all of it, but her protests never got beyond, “This unofficial Page was created because people on Facebook have shown interest in this place or business. It's not affiliated with or endorsed by anyone associated with Samantha Rae Anna Jespersen's Butthole.” Facebook finally took the page down after BuzzFeed published last Friday.