Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Opinion

How to troll the European Parliament elections

  • Old-fashioned ballot boxes, paper and pencil votes. But are they any match for disinformation via bots and algorithms? (Photo: Photo RNW.org)

European Parliament elections take place in four months' time.

Lessons from the recent presidential elections in the US and France, but also more recent examples of election meddling in the US mid-term elections show that it might not be smooth sailing for anyone holding democratic elections.

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Here are three steps on how to interfere with the May elections - with limited resources and technology:

1: Get close to your target

Social profiling is nothing new. Successful politicians tend to know their constituents, their concerns and mindset very well.

Campaign managers have developed smooth communication channels with their core electorate. However, what is new, is the possibility for any outsider to insert themselves and their messages into this privileged communication with the help of social media.

In the 2016 US presidential elections, Cambridge Analytica datasets and algorithms were used to reach millions of voters with messages that their votes do not matter and they should not even bother voting.

There was a targeted campaign conducted towards people supporting Bernie Sanders to keep them from showing up on election day to vote for Hillary Clinton.

This type of activity is likely to be successful in majoritarian elections systems and with Brexit referendum-like circumstances.

The May 2019 European parliament elections will take place in a different context – traditionally low-participation and 27 different electoral systems - a very promising ground for protest vote and extreme views.

Discontent groups in social media (such as the 'yellow vests') are exactly the target group you should be looking at and joining in.

2: Disseminate false information by using bots

Focus on the key issues causing discomfort in a society like migration, inequality or some large-scale infrastructure projects.

Make sure you present the issue in a black-or-white, right-or-wrong way with no room for nuance.

Then hire some students through online forums who would be able to put together some basic memes, provocative images and simple texts.

Set up or buy access to a botnet for supporting and escalating the fake news in social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and off you go.

A bot - basically software that imitates human behaviour - can take many forms, such as chat bots that facilitate customer support or act as personal assistants.

Political botnets are usually programmed to leave supportive comments on a politician's Facebook page, target adversaries with angry tweets and engage with a post to artificially inflate its popularity.

Bots can work 24/7 and have reached to a level of sophistication where it is hard to differentiate whether it is indeed a robot or real human being (google what happened with Nicole Mincey).

Their mission is rather clear: to post as much as possible, to manipulate public opinion and leave no traces to identify their actual operators.

With view weeks you have a platform to share your ideas and misinformation with tens of thousands of potential voters.

This is exactly the way some successful information campaigns have been conducted in recent years, with notable examples like the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency and China's '50 Cent Army', both spreading thousands of comments and memes on different social media platforms.

3: Get personal and undermine the whole electoral system

In other words, do your best to compromise others candidates and create mistrust in the actual electoral system.

Here you need some actual hacking capabilities, with a special focus on candidates profiles, emails and social media accounts.

In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential elections the compromised emails of the DNC and Clinton's campaign manager were leaked with the intent of undermining the Democratic candidate.

A similar attempt was made during the presidential elections in France in 2017.

It is also handy to conduct some DDOS attacks (denial of service) against election infrastructure, party and media websites.

These days it's possible to bring down some of the core services with very limited resources – just €400 buys you a wide-scale DDOS attack that can test the limits of the election system.

This also allows for the meddler to claim that the elections have been "hacked" to sow even more mistrust into the election process.

All these tiny activities contribute to the public discomfort and mistrust in the overall electoral system and EU.

Luckily, some of it is still avoidable though simple and robust technical measures, summarised in the EU's compendium of best practices, a must read for any expert working with election security.

However, there is no quick fix or cure for manipulating with the voter and public opinion.

Uku Sarekanno is director of cyber security at the Estonian Information System Authority

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