23 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2020
Date Written: July 22, 2020
The 2016 U.S. presidential election is seen as a masterpiece of effective disinformation tactics. Commentators credit the Russian Federation with a set of targeted, effective information interventions that led to the surprise election of Republican candidate Donald Trump. On this account, Russia hacked not only America’s voting systems, but also American voters, plying them with inaccurate data—especially on Internet platforms—that changed political views.
This Essay examines the 2016 election narrative through the lens of cybersecurity; it treats foreign efforts to influence the outcome as information hacking. It critically assesses unstated assumptions of the narrative, including whether these attacks can be replicated; the size of their effect; the role of key influencers in targeted groups; and the normative claim that citizens voted against their preferences. Next, the Essay offers examples of other successful information hacks and argues that these attacks have multiple, occasionally conflicting goals. It uses lessons from cybersecurity to analyze possible responses, including prevention, remediation, and education. Finally, it draws upon the security literature to propose quarantines for suspect information, protection of critical human infrastructure, and whitelists as tactics that defenders might usefully employ to counteract political disinformation efforts.
Keywords: fake news, hacking, disinformation, Russia, Trump, Clinton, Putin, cybersecurity, Internet, platform, social media, election, critical infrastructure, exploit, voting, remediation, content moderation, Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube
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