View profile

America holds its breath

A little over a year ago, I found myself growingly concerned with the unintended consequences of our
November 6 · Issue #241 · View online
The Interface
A little over a year ago, I found myself growingly concerned with the unintended consequences of our biggest social platforms, particularly with respect to how they could be contributing to a global decline in democracy. I started writing about the subject every day in hopes that some good old-fashioned blogging could help bring shape to that discussion as we learned more. More than anything, I wondered what we would see in the months leading up to our US midterm elections. How would platforms transform in the wake of the 2016 disaster? And how would their adversaries adapt?
We won’t have a definitive answer to that question today. But what happens will go a long way in shaping the discussion around these platforms in the next two years. If Democrats manage to take back at least one house of Congress, I expect that concerns about the effectiveness about misinformation and online voter suppression efforts may relax somewhat as reporters turn their attention to the change in power. Facebook may face less scrutiny over the viral spread of fake news over the next two years — but more scrutiny from newly empowered Democrats, of the regulatory variety.
If on the other hand the Democrats fail, and the political status quo is maintained, journalists will have ample time to investigate everything that went wrong in the 2018 election, both online and off. As voters head the the polls today — and if you are a US citizen and haven’t voted, please proceed directly to your polling place — here are the biggest storylines I’m watching — in roughly descending order of how important they are.
Voter suppression. Bad people are trying to intimidate or trick people into not voting. Tony Romm has an overview of platforms’ efforts to thwart voter suppression in the Washington Post; Reuters reported that Twitter has deleted more than 10,000 accounts attempting to mislead people about what day the election is on. NBC’s Ben Collins finagled his way into a far-right Discord chat and found that trolls were complaining about Twitter deleting their accounts urging people to vote on the wrong day — but also found that they were growing more sophisticated in creating fake accounts in which they masquerade as middle-aged women by adding Snapchat filters to other people’s photos that they find online.
Most of the voter suppression efforts reported over the past week have targeted Democrats in an effort to persuade them not to vote. But in North Dakota, Jane Lytvynenko found that Democrats ran a misleading Facebook ad which targeted hunters in an apparent effort to suppress Republican turnout.
Misinformation and disinformation. Deceptive information about issues and candidates continued to thrive on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose has been regularly tweeting the most viral stories and memes of the day, many of which are deceptive or outright hoaxes. In an overview of the paper’s findings, he writes that readers submitted more than 4,000 examples of misinformation over the course of the campaign.
Sarah Frier finds that Facebook has had some limited success in suppressing the reach of fake news, but that hyper-partisan content — which may prove to be even worse for the country in the long run — continues to thrive. And it’s not just Facebook, of course: trolls have lately come to favor LinkedIn for its more permissive rules and lax approach to enforcement, Craig Silverman reports.
Jonathan Albright finds that Facebook’s system for managing public pages allows foreign users to take over domestic pages and run ads. Arguing that the situation is ripe for election interference, Albright calls on Facebook to expand its reporting about managers and their geographic locations.
Infrastructure hacking. Efforts to disrupt voting machines and election websites are fully underway. In the Boston Globe, Jana Winter reported on what the Department of Homeland Security has detected so far. There have been more than 160 reports of hacking to date, with much of it believed to originate from Russia:
The hackers have targeted voter registration databases, election officials, and networks across the country, from counties in the Southwest to a city government in the Midwest, according to Department of Homeland Security election threat reports reviewed by the Globe. The agency says publicly all the recent attempts have been prevented or mitigated, but internal documents show hackers have had “limited success.”
The recent incidents, ranging from injections of malicious computer code to a massive number of bogus requests for voter registration forms, have not been publicly disclosed until now.
Meanwhile, late Monday, Facebook disclosed a potential new effort to disrupt the election. The company said it had taken down 30 Facebook accounts and 85 Instagram accounts taking part in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” It’s not clear whether they were Russian in origin, but Facebook’s blog post took the unusual step of saying it would update its post if “these accounts are linked to the Russia-based Internet Research Agency or other foreign entities.”
Depending on what happens Tuesday, the United States could retaliate against Russia and has been preparing a digital counterattack, Zachary Fryer-Biggs reported.
Ad warfare. It wouldn’t be an election if there weren’t a lot of terrible ads. The 2018 election was only novel insofar is was the first time in modern history that major networks and Facebook had to pull an ad from a sitting president because it was too racist.
Facebook’s dark money issues persisted. An unknown group used Bernie Sanders’ image to urge Democrats to vote for the Green Party this year. Authentic sentiment or attempted voter suppression? You tell me. Meanwhile, the liberal activist organization MoveOn developed hundreds of ads featuring real voters and is blasting them at Facebook users with targeting techniques reminiscent of Cambridge Analytica. (The main difference being that they are doing this in accordance with Facebook’s rules and describing their methods publicly to Wired.)
But hey, don’t let the massive uncoordinated attack on democracy get you down too much. According to early Facebook backer Yuri Milner, it’s all much ado about nothing:
“I don’t agree that it’s an existential crisis, I think it’s a little bump in the road,” Milner said during an interview with Bloomberg TV. Facebook is an evolving system continuously responding to challenges and there will “always be bad actors who are testing different products,” he added.
I hope you’re right, Yuri. And if not, can I live in your underground panic bunker?
As for me, I’m spending Election Day on a (delayed!) flight to New York for an election event with Tech:NYC — say hi if you’re there. Meanwhile, Bloomberg is live-blogging the cyber-security aspects of the election — follow along, if you dare.

Facebook referred to EU watchdog over targeting, fake ads
Facebook admits failings over incitement to violence in Myanmar
Amazon, Facebook and Google are all being looked at for antitrust violations, Trump says
The 2018 Facebook Midterms, Part I: Recursive Ad-ccountability
Podcasts help extremists get their message out
Weibo Gives Media, Government Power to Quash ‘Rumors’
Alex Jones banned from Facebook? His videos are still there — and so are his followers
How Right-Wing Social Media Site Gab Got Back Online | WIRED
Hate Speech on Live ‘Super Chats’ Tests YouTube
HQ Trivia was a blockbuster hit — but internal turmoil and a shrinking audience have pushed it to the brink
How pro-Trump Facebook pages make a living.
Sen. Mark Warner on breaking up Facebook and Congress’s plan to regulate tech
Deepfake-busting apps can spot even a single pixel out of place
Facebook tops 3,000 Seattle-area employees as major hiring spree continues
'Shows for nobody': Facebook Watch has moved away from early short-form video formats
TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat & YouTube in downloads last month – TechCrunch
Is Celery Juice Good for You?
Facebook launches retail pop-up stores ahead of holiday season
Instagram prototypes bully-proof moderated School Stories
Facebook Didn't Sway the 2018 Midterms
Don’t Give Up on Snap ($)
And finally ...
Scientists say mysterious 'Oumuamua' object could be an alien spacecraft
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and proof that you voted:
Did you enjoy this issue?
If you don't want these updates anymore, please unsubscribe here
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here
Powered by Revue