Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What Makes America So Uniquely Vulnerable to Outside Election Meddling?

Yes, it seems probable that Russian individuals did manipulate social media to deliver the several tens of thousands of critical votes that won Donald Trump the White House.  But, as George Washington University professor Henry Farrell writes in Foreign Policy, America's vulnerability to manipulation was largely homegrown.

Russia’s relative success in the United States is not thanks to the unique strategic insight of Putin. It is because Russian operatives have chanced upon real weaknesses in U.S. democracy, and American elites are unintentionally giving them a helping hand. While France and Germany have their own social divisions, they do not face the specific problems that America faces.

In America, more than in most other Western countries, there is a basic failure of democratic knowledge. In a well-functioning democracy, citizens agree broadly on facts and have some trust in the democratic system, allowing democracy to harness different perspectives and put them to good use. In America, in contrast, distrust and profound disagreements over facts have led to a kind of crisis of democratic knowledge that leaves democracy open to outside manipulation.

Over the last two decades, the common knowledge of American democracy has been undermined. As Alexis de Tocqueville warned could happen, the structures of shared knowledge are being weakened by democratic politics itself. Politicians — especially on the right — have cast doubt on sources of authority such as science and government, telling their supporters that they shouldn’t trust experts. Finally, the public itself, on its own initiative, has become less trusting of traditional institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church as they have revealed their feet of clay.

As a result, those who were disengaged from politics have become more so, while those who are engaged have become ever more partisan. The result is that most people don’t care about politics, and those who do are likely to have radically different understandings of the challenges faced by America.

Disaffection can be healthy up to a point. Many traditional institutions have failed badly and do not deserve people’s trust. ...Yet when people with different perspectives stop sharing a common basis of knowledge, democracy is liable to pull itself apart. Parties become enemies rather than competitors. When people stop trusting any institutions, they are likely instead to start thinking that the democratic process is rigged, and to pin their hopes instead on cranks and conspiracy mongers.

Trump and his supporters have already built an alternative reality on the right, in which America is besieged by an alliance of Muslims and liberals, who stole the popular vote by allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to vote illegally. A democracy in which both the liberal-left and the right have drifted into their own self-reinforcing mythologies will be incapable of defending the common interests of its public, either at home or abroad.


Now that the weaknesses of American democracy have been revealed, other actors — including some much closer to home than Russia — can look to increase democratic disarray for their benefit. The more likely threat that America faces is of a variety of smaller attacks on specific aspects of democratic knowledge, each aimed at particular ends, but accumulating to create massive overall damage. For example, there is nothing stopping American or foreign billionaires from undertaking further targeted attacks against aspects of public knowledge that they find uncongenial. Social media tactics could dramatically amplify attacks on scientific knowledge about global warming or efforts to undermine faith in the democratic process.

This threat model is likely to become much worse in the near future. These Russian efforts were clumsy, ill coordinated, and technically unsophisticated. The next attacks — whether they come from Russia or elsewhere, are likely to be far more technologically adept. As danah boyd, a prominent expert on social media, has argued, future attacks will likely use techniques designed to manipulate the machine learning algorithms that allow social media platforms to function, as well as carrying out their own machine learning attacks.

The attack surface is very hard to defend. Many of the underlying flaws of American democracy will take decades of work to remedy. A real cure cannot be imposed from above, since it requires a root and branch reorganization of American politics to make it more competitive, such that political parties have to fight to persuade voters rather than carving up the country into segregated ideological safe spaces. That would make it easier to build up healthier structures of knowledge, based on implicit agreement about which problems America faces, and explicit arguments over how best to solve them.


 Under a nightmare scenario, outside hacking could combine with partisan efforts to spread fear about the U.S. voting system to create disarray. The U.S. intelligence community has formally found that Russian hackers apparently tried to gain access to state electoral registries. The Russians probably did not want to secretly bias voting so much as to create a controversy over whether manipulation had happened, as they had previously attempted in Ukraine. If outside actors succeeded in this kind of attack in the future, it could serve as a massive force multiplier for partisan disagreement, leading, even in an optimistic scenario, to years of political chaos. As a group of experts has concluded: “Simply put, the attacker might not care who wins; the losing side’s belief that the election was stolen from them may be equally, if not more, valuable.

If America is not to find its democracy systematically dismantled, it needs to strengthen its structures of shared knowledge and trust in democracy as a matter of urgent priority. This most obviously involves strengthening voting systems and registries (which are now run through a mishmash of badly secured systems at the local and state level) against attack. Strengthening the census, rebuilding confidence in voting, and re-establishing knowledge structures that help partisans work in harness are usually thought of as exercises in civics. They now have crucial implications for national security, too.

This time, Russia probably lucked out. In the future, malicious actors will be able to use far more sophisticated knowledge weapons, in a country ever more shaped by Google’s and Facebook’s combination of machine intelligence and social feedback. It will be hard to think about, let alone confront these problems, if U.S. policy elites continue to allow Cold War fantasies to distract them from the fundamental weaknesses of American democracy.

1 comment:

Toby said...

"What Makes America So Uniquely Vulnerable to Outside Election Meddling?"

Poor universal education. Budget cutting has been particularly damaging. Democracy needs citizens who understand how it works.