As if we needed more proof that elections are hopelessly vulnerable to manipulation, here are some excerpts from an article in Bloomberg Business Week on how a gifted hacker made use of social media to rig elections in Latin America. The article is well worth reading in full. We can expect much more of this in the future.
For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. … He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices…
On the question of whether the U.S. presidential campaign is being tampered with, he is unequivocal. “I’m 100 percent sure it is,” he says.(…)
For decades, Latin American elections were rigged, not won, and the methods were pretty straightforward. Local fixers would hand out everything from small appliances to cash in exchange for votes. But in the 1990s, electoral reforms swept the region. Voters were issued tamper-proof ID cards, and nonpartisan institutes ran the elections in several countries.(…) [so other methods became necessary]
Sepúlveda[‘s] insight was to understand that voters trusted what they thought were spontaneous expressions of real people on social media more than they did experts on television and in newspapers. He knew that accounts could be faked and social media trends fabricated, all relatively cheaply. He wrote a software program, now called Social Media Predator, to manage and direct a virtual army of fake Twitter accounts. The software let him quickly change names, profile pictures, and biographies to fit any need. Eventually, he discovered, he could manipulate the public debate as easily as moving pieces on a chessboard—or, as he puts it, ‘When I realized that people believe what the Internet says more than reality, I discovered that I had the power to make people believe almost anything.’
[in the Mexican election of 2012] Money was no problem. At one point, Sepúlveda spent $50,000 on high-end Russian software that made quick work of tapping Apple, BlackBerry, and Android phones. He also splurged on the very best fake Twitter profiles; they’d been maintained for at least a year, giving them a patina of believability.
Sepúlveda managed thousands of such fake profiles and used the accounts to shape discussion around topics such as Peña Nieto’s plan to end drug violence, priming the social media pump with views that real users would mimic. For less nuanced work, he had a larger army of 30,000 Twitter bots, automatic posters that could create trends. One conversation he started stoked fear that the more López Obrador rose in the polls, the lower the peso would sink. Sepúlveda knew the currency issue was a major vulnerability; he’d read it in the candidate’s own internal staff memos.
On election night, he had computers call tens of thousands of voters with prerecorded phone messages at 3 a.m. in the critical swing state of Jalisco. The calls appeared to come from the campaign of popular left-wing gubernatorial candidate Enrique Alfaro Ramírez. That angered voters—that was the point—and Alfaro [Ramirez] lost by a slim margin.
And so on. Sepúlveda fell foul of the ruling party in Colombia, was arrested, and sentenced to ten years jail, in return for “cooperating”. (His revelations are made with the intent to reduce his sentence.)
For every malicious hacker who is caught, how many are not found out? And if one side employs them, and the other side knows it, and knows that this gives an unbeatable advantage, how long before that side uses them too? Elections become a battle of wits between computer geeks on the social media battlefields. Unless, of course, Google Trumps them. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.)
So please keep telling me that elections are the solemn expression of the people’s will, that we use them to give our representatives a mandate, and that they permit us to make our politicians accountable. And please sing “alleluia” after each sentence.