Welcome to the state of the cloud, Cloudwards.net’s monthly column where we take you through the news of the month that’s been and tell you our opinion on it. In our October edition we predicted it would be an interesting month, and boy, were we right. It’s been a crazy few weeks in techland and we’re relishing the chance to shine our light on it.
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Facebook will be making an appearance (we’ll pause as you recover from your surprise), we’ll have more proof that Google is evil and we have some sundry news, too. However, we’ll kick off with the big one: social media and elections. Though the U.S. midterms are getting the most attention, there were some eyebrows raised in Brazil last week, too.
The Social Media Samba
The winner of the Brazilian presidential elections, Jair Bolsonaro, is often compared to Trump: he’s charismatic, unconventional and speaks his mind. He’s also seems to have been the only person in the presidential race who truly understood the power of social media. For example, he largely ignored debates, preferring to sway voters with a torrent of Facebook posts that brooked little argument.
Bolsonaro used this advantage to good effect. Not only was his campaign focused on spreading messages that underlined the breakdown of social order (the mainstay of populists everywhere), there was also plenty of “fake news” disseminated. We should note here that at Cloudwards.net we prefer to call it “disinformation,” because, well, that’s what it is.
This disinformation wasn’t very subtle: the left-wing party contending for the presidency suffered from some serious credibility issues after the “car wash” corruption scandal and the Bolsonaro camp exploited this by faking pictures hinting at voter fraud by the left wing (the Poynter Institute has some good examples).
Not that Bolsonaro’s opposition were made up of choir boys: this piece details how Twitter bots worked overtime in the 2014 election as well as the 2018 one for all sides. It’s not that Bolsonaro was the only one using this new arsenal, it’s just that he employed it better. It didn’t hurt that he had some powerful backers, too, who spread WhatsApp messages on his behalf.
Disinformation and Society
Now, Brazil is far away and there are probably plenty of people skeptical of the influence of social media on elections. I mean, we all have easily influenced family members, say, but people like that are an inconsequential minority, right? Right? Wrong.
The linked study has proven that social media campaigns, both positive and negative, work, and work well, too. Data analytics come into play, too, as well as other forms of digital voodoo, but the upshot is that we cannot ignore the part social media and digitally disseminated information play in our lives anymore.
In India, for example, the problem with WhatsApp whipping up crowds to mete out some good old-fashioned mob justice is so bad that the company has put together a theater group to tour the country and tell people to not believe everything they read. It might sound crazy, but people have died there due to malicious rumors spread over social media.
So far, nobody has died in the west due to disinformation, but Americans did elect The Donald so the moral high ground is more a gentle elevation than anything else. However, there is a chance the U.S. presidents power could be curbed next week if Congress can be stacked against him, which brings us to another important social media battlefield.
Democracy Digitally Diddled
In the U.S., presidential terms are four years per go. Halfway through each, there is an election, called a midterm, where Americans can vote for the lower house in Congress as well as half the seats in the Senate. As presidents can be hamstrung if the electorate votes for the opposing party in midterms, they’re a pretty big deal.
As you can imagine, having a president as polarizing as Trump makes for a very exciting midterm. If the Democrats can get majorities in either house (preferably both, of course), they can turn The Donald into a sitting duck president who can’t do much. If the Republicans keep their majorities, it’s a fiat of current policy.
Currently, the administration has a pretty low approval rating, but that’s not the only indicator of how the election could turn out. One of the most important things is making sure the right people show up at the polls, while the wrong ones stay home. There are plenty of ways to do this, tactics include gerrymandering and voter suppression, but social media disinformation has become a major factor.
In the 2016 presidential election, for example, the Russian troll army focused on messages that they figured would keep black and muslim voters from showing up. These groups as a whole generally vote Democrat, so having them lose interest in going to the polls meant a shift toward whichever Republican was running.
Another tactic is to declare the race won for an opposing candidate. It sounds counterintuitive at first, but if you time it right, people who were going to vote for that candidate don’t show up, figuring they don’t need to. Let’s be honest, voting is a pain in the neck, so why go if you don’t need to?
There’s a lot more going on than simple campaign messages being spread online. It’s a psychological game that transcends the simple “our guy is best so vote for us” message that we would expect during campaigning season.
Because it’s so subtle, it’s also hard to expect every single voter to keep an eye out for it. Regular people are busy with their own concerns and can’t be expected to each and every one be a razor-sharp analyst of all the information they receive in any given day. Which is why politicians have shifted that responsibility to the social media companies, with mixed results.
The Role of Business
You’ll probably be shocked to hear that we haven’t too much faith in these companies’ ability to save our democracy. As we’ve documented in earlier state of the cloud articles, they are mostly interested in making money — which is fine — and much less so in a better world, their promises notwithstanding.
Google, Twitter, Facebook and a few others have all been called in front of hearings where they had to either defend themselves against accusations of bias against conservatives, or assure politicians that they’re all they can against influence by troll armies — Russia isn’t the only country that employs them.
However, it’s a massive task and these hacker types aren’t fools, either. Squelched in one spot, they’ll set up shop in another. The scale of the disinformation networks makes you wonder whether it’s fair that the sole responsibility for fighting them is put with social media companies and whether governments aren’t simply using them as scapegoats for a problem they have no clue on how to combat.
Hacks, Lies and Meeting Notes
Not that Facebook doesn’t have any problems of its own. Besides still swatting away accusations of election meddling and data pandering, the company has also been the victim of cybercrime. Hackers targeted Facebook’s databases and made off with the details of up to 50 million people. A nice haul, especially as this includes logins to other sites.
We’ll pause here for a quick bit of shameless self-promotion: rather than use FB logins, just use one of our best password managers instead. They do a better job than anything the Zuck puts out and they don’t need to cost you anything.
Because, basically, Facebook cannot guarantee either your privacy or security, making it a really bad bargain for people that seem to want to share things with the world at large (we realize that having our own Facebook page while saying that makes us hypocrites, thankyouverymuch).
However, Facebook isn’t the only internet firm in the spotlight right now. Google is drawing lots of attention for its stated goal of entering the Chinese market with a censored search engine, code-named Dragonfly (even Google execs are watching too many Hollywood films, it seems).
However, as we’ve detailed in earlier editions of this column, this isn’t exactly a popular project among the public, politicians or Google employees. Bad enough in itself, but October saw the leak of a transcript of a project Dragonfly meeting that contradicted the official company line, which claimed that Google would respect freedom of speech.
Some very bad PR there. Then again, if even Mike Pence thinks what you’re doing is wrong, you should probably reconsider doing it.
California’s net neutrality bill is being put on hold for now. After some back and forth between the Golden State’s government and the federal Department of Justice, it has been decided that a suit against the FCC filed by tech companies takes precedence for now. A blow for lovers of a free internet, but time will tell what’ll happen.
Bloomberg made some serious waves by reporting on the presence of chips in CPUs that had allegedly been put their by Chinese operatives. Both the Chinese government and U.S. officials as well as the chipmakers in question denied the allegation, but at time of writing Bloomberg has yet to stand down or provide hard evidence.
Privacy advocate and accused sex offender Julian Assange will soon have to give up his digs in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The South American nation is turfing the internet’s darling out after eight years basically for being the worst roommate ever. We’ll just have to see if and when he’ll be arrested once his eviction is completed.
Mozilla will be integrating a virtual private network into its Firefox browser in the near future. The pilot program is already being released to a select number of American users and will likely cost around $10 per month. The VPN in question is ProtonVPN, which is a solid choice though not without some notes. Read our ProtonVPN review for the details.
We’ll end this State of the Cloud with an Apple entry: apparently iOS 12’s parental controls apparently block any and all anatomical information from being seen by your precious children (including basics on reproduction and the like) but do allow all kinds of bloody awfulness in the form of terrorist websites and the like. Whoops!
As we said at the beginning, October was a very busy month and we likely skipped a few stories that others may have deemed more important. Feel free to point out any glaring omissions in the comments below and then sign up for the newsletter so you can watch us backpedal in real time.
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Thanks very much for reading our take on October’s news. We hope you join us again in a month’s time. Until then, good luck and stay safe.