So what Are We Going To Do About Election Interference?
This is around the same time 4 years ago that stuff started leaking, bots started botting, and fake accounts started fake accounting.
So maybe because of that, Joe Biden posted to Medium this week about what he’d do—should he be elected—to prevent outside governments and other bad actors from interfering in U.S. elections.
Problem is, in order to do that, he’s going to have to win this one first. And with a current President who’s not all that interested in blocking overseas meddling, assuming—probably correctly—that pretty much all of it will accrue to his benefit (except perhaps by Kpop fans on TikTok, which is why he may try to ban TikTok under the umbrella of punishing China for Coronavirus).
So what can be done to fight the influence of overseas intelligence services and hacking efforts in the absence of a lot more money going toward election security?
So far, most of the efforts have come in the form of influential people signing on to letters and statements, think tank reports, and Democratic politicians making noise. Requesting specifically that they (and the public) be updated on this topic by FBI Director, Christopher Wray.
All these are good things to do. It’s very important to document what has absolutely gone on and what is likely to happen this time around. It might even translate to a little more money being thrown at a very real problem that is being next to ignored, widely and deliberately.
It’s just that we’ve been in situations at many times in our careers where we knew we had a vital task to perform, and also that we weren’t going to get the funding to do it properly. And 0% of the time is the answer to finding yourself in that situation to write a letter or issue a policy statement about how you’d handle it differently or do a report. Instead, it becomes even more important to act, even if it causes trouble; to figure out how to achieve your objective in a different way. And in a not-inferior way if you can, but sometimes all you can do is your best.
We don’t believe the kind of election interference from overseas governments we saw 4 years ago gets voters to change their minds. What it does seem to be really good at though is getting people more excited about actively supporting their candidate (or less, depending upon the objective), and connecting with voters swiftly at the onset of any moment of doubt, and targeting people at exactly the right time to make sure the momentum those outside forces had been helping to build (or reduce), turned into an actual vote (or a no-vote).
Not everything’s exactly the same as it was 4 years ago. Facebook, for instance, has gotten rid of some—but not all—of the features that allowed overseas agencies to amplify their incendiary and misleading messages. As an example: Facebook no longer explicitly shuttles us to a bunch of near-identical stories when we open and read a story on our news feed. But Facebook still “congratulates” us when our friends share content we shared with them. We always think this is kind of funny, especially when the content is something we wrote, because Facebook is simultaneously restricting access by our friends to some of this same material because we refuse to pay them to make it more visible. For someone who is actually willing to pay to boost their “content”? Well, that opportunity is still absolutely there.
So are there any options for keeping election interference to a minimum that don’t require a lot of money?
- A lot of these bad actors have “signatures”, and while some will be sophisticated enough to find new ways of doing things, many will be arrogant enough to just continue what they were doing last time around, since it worked last time around. Identifying and calling out these signatures or tells, even if it’s only through your own social media channels, could make a difference.
- “If you see something, say something” applies here too. Media will cover election interference, but will need to be pushed. It won’t be enough to call in with a tip or a suspicion. You’ll need to do enough “citizen journalism” to provide some evidence, or a source. This isn’t because reporters are lazy. It’s because their resources—even at the biggest and most serious news organizations—are limited. So in order for a reporter to convince an editor they should be devoting their time to one story over another, they’ve got to be almost certain ahead of time their reporting will pay off. (It’s kind of like in Hollywood where you can have the best screenplay in the world, but it’s still really hard to get a movie made unless you have a star “attached”.)
- A third thing we wanted to mention that’s happening in other countries and we’d hoped to see more of in the U.S. by now, is reporters who are trusted and liked crowd sourcing funds for their reporting on certain stories. For instance: “Anyone interested in a story about ‘X’? I can do it with $’X’”. But unfortunately we haven’t seen this concept really take off here.
Look, Russia’s efforts to get Trump elected in 2016 regardless of the magnitude of the impact they may or may not have had on the election itself, paid off beyond Putin’s wildest dreams. Especially in terms of achieving their primary objectives of destabilizing democracy inside the U.S., as well as cross-Atlantic political, military and economic alliances.
So it was a fantasy of ours, especially when it looked like Trump was going to raise tariffs on China forever and to infinity, that this year’s election might come down to Russia vs. China going toe to toe in terms of political interference. But now we’re not so sure that China isn’t also a fan of Trump being re-elected.
Yes, we know Trump just threw a bunch of China’s diplomats from its consulate in Houston out of the country, accusing them of spying. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech at the Nixon library in California, in which he contends that President Nixon’s good intentions in opening China to the world should now be regarded as completely failed policy. And of course, Trump’s not going to stop laying 100% of the blame for COVID-19 (or as he regularly calls in now: the “China virus”), on the Chinese government in order to obscure his own slow response. But even that doesn’t seem to come—at least not yet—with any form of direct “punishment”, which is unusual for Trump.
Trump only really seems to care about China’s unslakable propensity for scientific and corporate espionage, which is completely valid. But that only underscores the fact that China’s walked all over him. Sure they made some small trade concessions, but nothing close to the grand deal Trump envisioned, and sure Trump is interfering a little with their spying. But espionage is always a crap shoot in terms of results, and China’s been able to get away in recent months with a lot.
- Cracking down on Democracy in Hong Kong, which Trump did mention at the start of a recent news conference, and then quickly moved away from.
- Brutally clamping down on Uighurs in Western China.
- Behaving increasingly aggressively militarily in the Pacific, even as Trump continues to threaten to slash U.S. troop numbers in the region.
- Forming cozier relationships with countries in Western Europe and Africa, even as Trump’s “America First” policy threatens alliances in Europe, and virtually gives up on an entire continent, which at one time was very much poised to lean toward the U.S.
Right now, the opportunity to handle with impunity social, regional and human rights issues is far more important to China than anything else. So Trump’s “America First” attitude may actually be helping China solidify regional and global economic ties, at the same time as the U.S. is giving them up or losing them.
Meanwhile, Trump has already revealed a blueprint for at least some of the kind of election meddling he’d like to see this time around. Just like he suggested Russia try hacking into Hillary Clinton’s emails, he’s now going around suggesting—often!—that foreign governments will print out counterfeit mail-in ballots. Including in recent Tweets like this:
And remember that Trump’s Tweets are often wishes.
Now, election experts say that’s nonsense and would never work, because mail-in ballots have to be signed and matched against voter records, and often involve stricter verification than in-person voting. So even if there were a bunch of counterfeit ballots floating around out there and sold on street corners by inner-city youths (as Trump has also suggested), they could never be used.
But that’s missing the point. This isn’t about proof at all. Experts can offer all kinds of proof that fraudulent mail in voting can’t happen on a large scale, and it won’t make a bit of difference.
Because the President never cares about proof. All he’s about is casting doubt. If Trump’s intention really was to prove President Obama was not born in this country when he was doing his “birther” thing, he would’ve actually sent private investigators to Hawaii, instead of just saying he did.
And there’s a lot of doubt to be had if—as he’s already suggesting—stacks of counterfeit ballots somehow turn up somewhere. Even if they’re unused. Perhaps in a huge warehouse that could be dramatically raided by the Justice Department. Even better if the warehouse is somehow connected with some enterprise in China.