23 October 2020

Foreign Meddling in Elections

Welcome back. Not long ago, I blogged about the foreign influence in online communication about vaccinations (see Vaccination Tweet Meddling). Putting aside the statistics, the key finding was Russian troll tweets exhibited the same strategy as the social-media influence campaign waged during the U.S. election--promote discord by playing both sides…with messages and conspiracy theories often tied to U.S. politics and government (e.g., “At first our government creates diseases then it creates vaccines…”).

Well, in case we don’t have enough problems with voter suppression and other home-grown goings-on in the 2020 election, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center advises us to add foreign meddling. 

To help policymakers and the public understand the threat of online foreign interference and how to mitigate it, the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services is sponsoring an assessment of the subject by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group. RAND is releasing their findings in four reports. 

Subjects covered in RAND Corporation reports on
foreign interference in U.S. elections
(from www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA704-1.html).

Given the breadth of the work, I thought I’d take this opportunity to highlight the first two reports.

Before I get started, it’s probably best to define a few terms. Internet trolls are people who misrepresent their identities to promote discord with offensive, divisive or controversial comments. An internet bot (from “robot”) is a software application that performs automated tasks. A Twitter bot may autonomously tweet, re-tweet or direct message other Twitter accounts, promoting content. Super-connectors are people with highly networked accounts that maintain contact with thousands of others.

A disguised internet troll using
(from www.genbeta.com).

Understanding Foreign Information Efforts
RAND researchers cannot definitively attribute this year's election interference to a specific actor; however, their first report describes how the online tactics mirror the strategies developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The main goal is to paralyze the American political process by driving people to extreme positions that make it more difficult to reach consensus, the foundation of U.S. democracy. Foreign interference is thus aimed at weakening the U.S.

To respond, the researchers recommend (1) taking a holistic approach that anticipates which American groups are likely to become targets (e.g., online Russian trolls have targeted white supremacists and civil rights activists) and (2) designing evidence-based preventive practices to protect them.

Tools for Detecting Online Interference
For their second report, the researchers analyzed 2.2 million tweets collected 1 January to 6 May 2020 from 630,391 Twitter accounts. They found that troll and super-connector accounts were clustered in certain Twitter communities engaged in political conversations about the election.

The pro-Trump community had the highest percentage of both types of accounts. Trolls were strongly supportive of the president and had QAnon and other content that favored Trump’s candidacy.

Apparently he's one of President Trump’s biggest supporters (from www.qatar-tribune.com/news-details/id/166186/foreign-election-meddling-is-wrong-mr-president).
The pro-Biden community also had among the highest concentrations of troll and super-connector accounts. Trolls were anti-Biden, either criticizing him or praising Bernie Sanders.

To combat this election interference, the researchers encourage social media platforms to adapt and embrace emerging detection methods, including the network analyses and machine learning employed in the RAND study. They also recommend that the threat of online election interference be publicized broadly to make Americans aware of ongoing, most likely foreign efforts to manipulate them and undermine confidence in democracy.

Wrap Up
The U.S. makes the most noise about elections given the length of the campaigns, but a recent article in the Election Law Journal explores how Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Australia and New Zealand have also struggled with foreign interference in elections.

Although the countries’ solutions vary in detail, they have much in common: Educate citizens about the threats of cyber speech, increase transparency about who is promoting online communications, build better barriers to exclude foreign funding of electoral communications and try to remove the most egregiously false statements from political discourse.

After we stop foreign meddling, maybe we can take on gerrymandering. Thanks for stopping by.

ODNI statement regarding foreign threats to election: www.odni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/item/2139-statement-by-ncsc-director-william-evanina-election-threat-update-for-the-american-public
RAND Corp. reports on foreign interference in U.S. elections:
Part 1 (28 pgs): www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA704-1.html
Article on Part 1 on EurekAlert! website: eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-10/rc-fei092920.php
Part 2 (32 pgs): www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA704-2.html
News release on Part 2: www.rand.org/news/press/2020/10/08.html
Article on multi-nation response to foreign election interference in Election Law Journal: www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/elj.2020.0683

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