Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Building better rat traps to catch Russian election meddling

A version of this was published in the Sky Hi News  Oct 4, 2017 and the blog was updated Oct.5 to reflect information released by the Senate Committee investigating Russian meddling. 

During the summer of 2016 a friend of mine who follows politics called me and said “did you hear? Hillary Clinton……” and she relayed the contents of an ad that popped up on her computer that appeared to give “proof” of Hillary’s   deviant  life” .  What was the source of that ad?  I asked. Who paid for it? In  political ads in traditional media  there is regulatory requirement for  a disclosure of the name of some political committee who paid for for it.  There was none, she said. I smelled a rat and told her she should, too.   Thanks to Congressional Committee investigations into Russian election meddling,we are learning  rats were running  rampant in 2016. We may  need to build some better rat traps.

What has been revealed so far  by both Senate and House committees investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and the testimony from Facebook executives is that social media advertising had been bought by Russians or related entities. A Twitter account was  even paid  in rubles. In one Twitter account,  the sender neglected  to remove the location of the organization placing posting tweets, which was Vladivostok, Russia.   That is only a tidbit  released to the public of what the Committees have learned  so far. What they have disclosed,  ads were carefully  targeted to those  voters Russians  believed  were gullible enough to accept them as truth since they likely  fortified their existing suppositions.   The subject matter was not always about negative, fabricated   stories that made Hillary Clinton look bad, but also the  ads  were  about issues which would intensify existing partisan feelings about immigration and  racial hatred..

Whether a large enough  number of voters who fell for the Russian disinformation campaign to swing the election to Donald Trump, we will never know because there were so many factors that led to his electoral victory, if not the popular majority but Oct 4, the Senate Committee had no evidence Russian meddling swung the election to Trump. What we do know so far, the Russians were actively engaged in helping Donald Trump get elected, but that most of their ads were to intensify anger about issues such as racism and immigration and were targeted with sophistication.  Collusion and conspiracy of the Trump campaign may or may not be proved.   What is more important is that voters need to become educated about warning signs and  learn  how they can tell  that some foreign  force is playing with their heads.  The best public education service those Congressional committees can provide is to let the public hear and see  the actual  contents  of ads which were traced to Russian funding and to point out the  disinformation techniques they were using.  It would be an effective  wake-up call for the yet unconvinced that interference  happened.

Public education is not enough. It is only human that people  believe what they want to believe, but still  healthy, informed  scepticism works for more than a few. As the Committees learn more, an outcome is likely to be regulation of social media advertising.. Neither Twitter nor Facebook nor other social platforms have been put on the same  regulatory footing as other media advertising. Ads placed by foreign entities on US based social media should be  forbidden by regulation just as they are
on other media.     Social platform political advertisers  should be required by regulation  to  know and publish the source of all  ads and  need to coordinate  with our intelligence agencies as part of their vetting process.  http://www.npr.org/2017/10/05/555796348/sen-amy-klobuchar-on-social-media-political-ad-disclosure US social platforms must  take responsibility to  self police posting contents and  their sources, too,      Non- partisan, non -profit fact checkers   can play a very important role in helping the public sort truth  from disinformation that is not put in  paid ads  and they deserve higher profiles and media exposure of sources and facts.




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