Category Archives: Domestic politics and elections

Victory lap for the EIP

Today, I followed the webcast featuring the initial wrap-up of the Electoral Integrity Partnership (I have discussed their work before). All the principal institutions composing the partnership (Stanford, University of Washington, Graphika, and the Atlantic Council) were represented on the panel. It was, in many respects, a victory lap, given the consensus view that foreign disinformation played a marginal role in the election, compared to 2016, also due to proactive engagement on the part of the large internet companies facilitated by projects such as the EIP.

In describing the 2020 disinformation ecosystem, Alex Stamos (Stanford Internet Observatory) characterized it as mostly home-grown, non-covert, and reliant on major influencers, which in turn forced platforms to transform their content moderation activities into a sort of editorial policy (I have remarked on this trend before). Also, for all the focus on social media, TV was seen to play a very important role, especially for the purpose of building background narratives in the long run, day to day.

Camille François (Graphika) remarked on the importance of alternative platforms, and indeed the trend has been for an expansion of political discourse to all manner of fora previously insulated from it (on this, more soon).

Of the disinformation memes that made it into the mainstream conversation (Stamos mentioned the example of Sharpie-gate), certain characteristics stand out: they tended to appeal to rival technical authority, so as to project an expert-vs-expert dissonance; they were made sticky by official endorsement, which turned debunking into a partisan enterprise. However, their very predictability rendered the task of limiting their spread easier for the platforms. Kate Starbird (UW) summed it up: if the story in 2016 was coordinated inauthentic foreign action, in 2020 it was authentic, loosely-coordinated domestic action, and the major institutional players (at least on the tech infrastructure side) were ready to handle it.

It makes sense for the EIP to celebrate how the disinformation environment was stymied in 2020 (as Graham Brookie of the Atlantic Council put it, it was a win for defence in the ongoing arms race on foreign interference), but it is not hard to see how such an assessment masks a bigger crisis, which would have been evident had there been a different victor. Overall trust in the informational ecosystem has been dealt a further, massive blow by the election, and hyper-polarized post-truth politics are nowhere near over. Indeed, attempts currently underway to fashion a Dolchstoßlegende are liable to have very significant systemic effects going forward. The very narrow focus on disinformation the EIP pursued may have paid off for now, but it is the larger picture of entrenched public distrust that guarantees that these problems will persist into the future.

Robocalling campaigns

Politico‘s Morning Tech reports that the Trump campaign has launched a poll on its website to gauge sentiment as to Twitter’s anti-conservative bias. There is nothing particularly scientific or informative about the poll. In fact, MT speculates that the main purpose of the stunt is to get respondents to agree, in passing, to have their phone numbers robocalled by the campaign (this kind of data-collection-and-authorization has been done before). Robocalling is one of those annoying-but-effective psychological prods, like canned laughter. Participants in the Twitter poll can safely be considered strong fans of the President, but even they might not consent to being robocalled if asked directly, hence this circuitous route. It is remarkable, though, how outrage is commodified as data harvesting, or –seen the other way– how subjection to invasive marketing is the price of interaction with curated forms of political venting.

Media manipulation

Earlier, I attended an online workshop organized by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Technology and Social Change Project on media manipulation in the context of the 2020 US presidential campaign. Very productive conversation on the tailoring of disinformation memes to the various minority communities. I also learned about the Taiwanese “humor over rumor” strategy…

Authoritativeness of intelligence briefings

Good article about the politicization of the US Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence briefings with regard to alleged Russian disinformation activities during the presidential campaign. Beyond the merits of the specific case, it is interesting that within the federal system a chief purpose of DHS’s intelligence gathering is to provide broader context for local law enforcement; however, given the competitive nature of the US intelligence ecosystem, perceived politicization of one agency leads to a loss in authoritativeness compared to other parts of the intelligence community. This would be a self-correcting mechanism. If, on the other hand, such briefings were not primarily intended as a guide for action but as an instrument for the steering of public debate, a sort of public diplomacy, their perceived internal authoritativeness would not matter so much: they would still provide official cover for decisions taken along sympathetic ideological lines. One single tool cannot fulfil both these tasks well, and shifts in public perception are extremely hard to reverse.

Panel on election disruption

Yesterday I attended an online panel organized by the Atlantic Council with government (Matt Masterson of CISA), think-tank (Alicia Wanless of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Clara Tsao of the AC’s DFRLab) and industry figures (Nathaniel Gleicher of FB and Yoel Roth of Twitter) on steps being taken to guarantee the integrity of the electoral process in the US this Fall. The general sense was that the current ecosystem is much less vulnerable to disinformation than the last presidential cycle, four years ago, and this despite the unprecedented challenges of the current election. However, the most interesting panelist, Wanless, was also the least bullish about the process.