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Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former President of Estonia

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former President of Estonia

When Goliath Learns to Code

At “Ballots and Bots,” top technology specialists and social scientists discussed how both disciplines are manipulated to impact elections—past, present and future.

At “Ballots and Bots,” top technology specialists and social scientists discussed how both disciplines are manipulated to impact elections—past, present and future. 

Russia and other authoritarian regimes aren’t relying on traditional warfare to weaken democracies–almost everything they need to do that is already in your iPhone, members of a panel of experts told a Santa Clara University audience recently. 

And unless democracies around the world start cooperating with each other to disrupt these tactics, they said, there is no end in sight.

As Americans head to the mid-term election polls next week, those were among the big take-aways from a day-long conference here called “Ballots and Bots: Democracy in the Age of Data.”  

The event brought together some of the world’s top technology specialists and social scientists to discuss how both disciplines are manipulated to impact elections—past, present and future.

We now know that for two years leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia used increasingly sophisticated methods through social media  sites like Facebook and Twitter to strategically sow discord among American voters by creating false narratives to reinforcing extremist views.

‘You See it in Everything’

Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team this year confirmed the Russian-led ploys in the 2016 election, and just a few weeks ago,  the U.S. Justice Department accused Russians of interfering in the upcoming midterms.

“It’s important to remember that it does not just stop with one election,” said Jane Curry, the SCU political science professor who co-hosted the conference with her colleague Ahmed Amer, associate professor of computer engineering.

The extent to which Russia wants to advance its interests by creating chaos is extraordinary, said Curry, quoting panelist Don Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat and current fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University.

“You see it in everything,” Jensen told the audience, from the election of Trump, to the Brexit vote by Great Britain to leave the European Union, to the harsh anti-migration policy espoused by Italy’s interior minister, a fan of Trump and Russia’s President Putin.

And you see it with many followers of Christian religions, said Jensen, because Russia views itself as a protector of conventional, traditional values.

“A lot of American evangelicals and Catholics see Putin’s stand (against) LGBT rights as something they can support,” he said.

Russia’s on-going efforts to undermine democracies, including neighboring Estonia, continue apace, he said. But that’s nothing new to the the tiny Baltic state, which in 2007 suffered a wave of cyberattacks traced to Russian hackers after Estonia decided to move a Soviet War memorial to the outskirts of the city.

No Bullets or Missiles, just Information

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was president of Estonia at the time, and among the SCU conference guest speakers, outlined the history of Russia’s election meddling after the fall of communism in 1991.

What he said began as crude attempts at disinformation that didn’t work out well became more effective with the advent of the digital age. And by 2008, he said, Russia began re-thinking its entire military approach.

“The smart view of the future of conflict will not take place with bullets and missiles, but in the informational realm,” he said, quoting a doctrine.

The rest of the world, however, wasn’t paying attention, said Ilves. That was particularly true in the West, which Ilves described as being “in the throes of a Pollyanna view of how wonderful the Internet is going to be” after social media was celebrated in for its impact in raising awareness about the Arab Spring.

Even Ilves acknowledged being an enthusiast, but that view ultimately proved misleading. While the Internet can have an impact for certain groups, Ilves explained, “the problem comes in when a state figures this out….and Goliath learns to code.”

After Russia began investing massive national resources, hiring people to write code, hack, and produce fake news, “then you are in a different situation and the naive optimism of, say, 2011 (the Arab Spring) is long faded.”

The country continued to refine its social media efforts, he said, devising slick, fake news campaigns as it illegally annexed the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Using the same kind of information warfare blueprint, it influenced the U.S. presidential election, catching an entire nation off-guard.

“With the rise of smartphones and social media,” said Ilves, “you can accomplish far better your political ends, whatever they may be, through political manipulation, rather than through military means.”


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