Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Divide and Conquer

Watching this season's Homeland, it struck me just how easy it is to manipulate our country right now.  Not just the President, but every facet of our society.  We have become so entrenched in our petty beliefs that all it takes is a snapshot taken out of context to be distributed through social media to set off an armed conflict.  This is what Homeland showed in episode 4.  The identity of the mysterious photographer was revealed in episode 6.  Spoiler notice: the agitator turns out to be Russian.

One might call this fantasy but Russian on-line trolls tried to do just that in 2016, creating phony protests throughout the country by advertising them on social media.  In one incident, these trolls managed to stage a rally in Houston, Texas, bringing out both state secessionists and an Islamic group to the same site through phony facebook groups.  Mercifully, no major confrontation took place.  The two sides yelled at each other from across the street.  It shows how easily people can be manipulated through social media.

Recently, it was found out that the guy behind the Cambridge Analytica algorithm, which allowed the research company to harvest 50 million facebook profiles, is Russian.  Alexander Kogan presented his findings to Lukoil, a huge Russian energy firm with direct ties to the Kremlin, supposedly to help its marketing effort. Kogan is a Cambridge academic, previously from St. Petersburg.  This information was allegedly used to sway opinions on Brexit, and ultimately used to influence the American elections in 2016.  Not only that but much of the information that was harvested was used by Trump, Ted Cruz and other prominent Republicans during the campaign, through the notorious Stephen Bannon.

Of course, many companies can simply buy information from on-line retailers and social media groups, using it to target customers.  However, it seems our wily politicians with the help of Russian techies have figured out how to target potential voters in a big way.  Yes, the algorithm probably could have been developed by a "400-pound guy sitting in bed" with too much time on his hands.  However, one has to be able to quickly spread this information through the social media and it is doubtful that such a person would have these connections.

This is what Homeland is exploring this season as it charts how quickly a meme can spread through the web through a series of automated sites around the country, rapidly picked up by those on social media that feed into the views expressed.  It is a form of cyberwar that is very effective in a country as polarized as ours today.

It's not just that information is now much easier to harvest and that one can tailor make consumer and political advertisements for a specific audience, its that we have become an easily agitated mass prone to hysteria whenever a story hits a strong emotional chord.  I've seen my friends distribute these memes on facebook without thinking for one moment where these memes came from.  They simply responded to them because the images appealed to their emotional view of a subject.  All a troll has to do is find that soft spot and exploit it.

I would like to think we are wising up a little after the 2016 debacle.  Certainly, these early special elections reflect a new consciousness that has Republicans deeply worried with the mid terms right around the corner.  However, one can expect operatives to continue to use hot button emotional issues to sway close elections right down to the wire.  All it takes is a few hundred votes to tip a close election as we recently saw in Pennsylvania.

One can imagine Vlad sitting back watching all this with a big Cheshire grin on his face.

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