Hackers weren’t able to change the vote counts in the last American presidential election, the US’s intelligence agencies agree. But their influence was no less palpable, according to these experts, for being less direct; it would seem that the hackers didn’t hack the elections so much as they hacked the electorate.
The cornerstone of democratic elections is the informed voter—that is (as defined by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities), the voter who is knowledgeable about the issues, and the positions of candidates; who is able to make decisions without being unduly influenced by outside factors meant to sway those who may not completely comprehend a candidate’s platforms or ideas.
The key concepts there are, first, “knowledgeable about the issues”; second, “undue influence by outside factors”; and third, that those outside factors are “meant to sway” those with insufficient knowledge. Social-media hacking checks off all those boxes.
Ask anyone who claims to be well-informed about the issues of the day, where he gets his information from. Chances are that he will mention Twitter or Facebook. This means that this person’s definition of being well-informed (and most likely, yours, as well) is defined by what shows up on his or her social-media feed. Unfortunately, our social-media feeds are not pristine founts of information—rather, they are algorithmically curated streams of articles, viral moments, and pictures, crafted precisely to appeal to what interests us.
As a result, we are fed a steady diet of “news” that only reinforces what we already believe; denying us information that contradicts our preconceived notions or tells us that we might be wrong. Sure, it makes for a more enjoyable social-media timeline, but it doesn’t make us well-informed.
To take advantage of this, social- media hacks do two things: first, using algorithms, they segment the users of their platforms into “categories” and identify which ones can be influenced, and then counted upon to spread whatever propaganda they’re pushing; and second, once identified, these susceptible users are then fed articles and messages that trigger them and inspire them to repost, retweet, or reblog the propaganda. This is helped along by automated programs, called “bots”, that mindlessly share articles and posts 24/7. The end goal is simple: get enough people believing in the false messages—also known as “fake news”—and, therefore, make them no longer “knowledgeable about the issues”.
When the broader public is no longer “knowledgeable”, it becomes extremely prone to manipulation.
No one votes in a vacuum. Every voter putting pen to ballot is under the influence of his family, his friends and his mentors, just to name a few. And that’s fine. But when the influence comes as a result of a deliberate attempt to shape the final outcome—how the voter votes —using means that take advantage of the voter’s lack of knowledge, then the influence becomes malignant; it becomes manipulative and therefore foul.
To achieve this, social-media hacks inundate the timelines of their primary targets—those susceptible social-media users identified by algorithms, remember?—with messages that inspire to action, most typically to vote a certain way. And to reinforce this message, no effort is spared to reduce political opponents to caricatures of themselves, worthy only of scorn and sometimes even outright hatred. In effect, by undercutting a political opponent’s credibility, social-media hacks discourage any effort by the voter to independently try to understand their positions better.
If you’re able to deploy even just a small group of people doing nothing but churning out your propaganda online, the bandwagon effect quickly takes over. People exposed to enough of these subtle influences either begin to question their own conviction or find resonance in them for their own, previously unarticulated, frustrations. This is how invisible propagandists have coopted social media and ended up influencing the elections, without having to change a single voting result.
Using cutting-edge algorithms and good old-fashioned messaging chops, they created a legion of unwitting catspaws only too eager to vote for whoever the propaganda machine says. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the electorate gets hacked.
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