The M+G+R Foundation

The Strings That Move Your Vote (1)
or...
How Easy You Can Be Manipulated

A guest document by

Laura G. de Rivera


May 2019

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INTRODUCTION by The M+G+R Foundation

The purpose of our publishing this guest document - which was translated from its original version in Spanish - is to alert the reader about how, and to what extent, your mind and actions can be manipulated by third parties so that you will fulfill their agenda.

Although the author focused her article on political issues - specifically election manipulations - the information is 100% applicable to all facets in the life of a human being.



The Article

The Strings That Move Your Vote

by Laura G. de Rivera


'Bots', micro segmentation of the internet population according to their personality and interests, messages tailored to each profile, filtering bubbles, fake news, targeted propaganda - all based on sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms - serve to orchestrate our political sentiment. A weapon that, according to many, threatens the foundations of democracy.


No, the European Commission (EC) does not spend 80 million euros a year on alcoholic beverages. Nor is it true that Podemos (a leftist political party in Spain) propose that illegal immigrants collect 1,200 euros a month, nor that PP (a center right political party in Spain) senators applaud the halt to the pension hike. These are just some of the hoaxes that serve to agitate the mood on the eve of the elections. To deny fake news, or false news, as those cited above, is the responsibility of Maldita.es, a Spanish portal belonging to the IFCN (International Alliance of Independent Verifiers) from thirteen European countries.

With a view to the vote on 26 May for the European Parliament, they have created the factcheckeu.info page, where anyone can check whether certain news circulating on the networks is true or not. It is an issue that gives the EC (European Commission) a headache, so much so that this year it has invested 5 million euros in combating fake or false news (three times more than in 2018). Their concern is not unfounded, since the parties of nationalist and anti-European extreme right are those that better exploit - in their favor the - targeted propaganda. That is, the use of artificial intelligence algorithms to determine user profiles and to create messages that point to the Achilles heel of each of them. If not, ask the Americans, or the Italians, or the English with their Brexit.


Everything points to Steve Bannon, the former director of Donald Trump's social media campaign, having landed in Europe determined to make a name for himself. And that's because his digital and populist strategies work. After leaving his grain of sand in the United States, he helped the conservative Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, ascend in the Italian elections. In Spain, he has catapulted Vox (a new and extreme right poliical party) to stardom, which, as of May 2019, has more than twice as many followers in Instagram than Podemos (a leftist political party in Spain) and four times as many as the PP (a center right political party in Spain).

'The Movement', in Brussels, and 'Dignitatis Humanae', in Rome, are the European headquarters of Bannon's two think tanks to manipulate voting intention thanks to micro-targeting techniques, which allow citizens to be segmented by ideological profiles, gender, interests, location or conduct on the Net. The key is to direct poisoned darts at the audiences that are going to react the most; the more they are going to react to incendiary tweets the more they amplify their effect and advertising to the undecided sectors. In the purest Trumpian style.

Another front the EC (European Commission) fears is Russia. And it's not a conspiracy theory or a James Bond movie, no. A document published in February by the EU Council of Ministers states that "defensive efforts should be directed at Russian sources, which are increasingly deploying disinformation strategies".

In 2016, the Soviet campaign to boycott the U.S. electoral process reached 125 million users on Facebook alone, according to the report. Google and Twitter were their other two targets. But they weren't randomly fired messages; they were tailored to specific targets while being invisible to the general public. "Individual feelings about political ideas or candidates are often very impressionable and therefore easy to manipulate," say Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott, researchers in the Digital Deceit report published last year.

The targeted propaganda is based on the same artificial intelligence techniques used by personalized on-line marketing. But what happens when it's not about selling cars, but instead selling election candidates? "Digital advertising tools are perfectly legal. All those involved benefit economically in this ecosystem. They have developed brilliant strategies of active persuasion. But they have also opened the door to abuses that can harm the public interest and political culture, weakening the integrity of democracy," warns Ghosh. That is to say, the worst thing that can happen to you is no longer that you are influenced to buy a certain brand of car, but that you are manipulated in your political vision... and in your vote.


In 2017, Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured 851 others in the largest mass murder committed by a single individual in the United States. When, the next morning, the citizens wanted to expand the news on Google, they came across several web sites in the first positions of the search results that described Paddock as a liberal and anti-Trump sympathizer. In addition, they claimed that the FBI had disclosed his connection to ISIS. But it was all fake. The strategy sought to underpin Trump's popularity and foster fear of terrorist attacks. 4Chan, a chain specializing in disinformation, had spent the entire night working to pin the blame for the massacre on the Democrats. They got their false news to bypass the search engine's results selection system when someone Googled the killer's name.

Surprising as it may seem, disinformation is protected by freedom of expression, which is why it is so difficult to stop. What can be stopped are techniques like the one that worked in the Paddock news. 'Black Hat SEO' is designed to trick Google's search algorithm for a few hours before it can correct the distortion. It's a critical weapon in the arsenal of targeted propaganda. Search results on topical issues play a key role in shaping public opinion. That's why their manipulation is a danger to the integrity of the political debate," denounces Ghosh, who was also a technology advisor at the White House during Barack Obama's term. For example, when you want to find out what a particular candidate said in his recent public appearance and you Google his name, 'Black Hat SEO' can make that the first positions of results be of pages with lies to discredit the character in question.

Imagine that this doesn't just happen to you, but to millions of other people at the same time. Suppose, moreover, that deceptive news is so plausible and attractive that you not only believe it, but share it and tweet it to your friends. That's multiplied by millions. In less than it takes you to take a nap, it's already gone viral. The shock wave is so immense, to begin with, because Google is the information search method used by 85% of the world's Internet users. And because the top five search results take 75% of the traffic on the Net. And the first, 95%.

More sophisticated is another tool that earned Obama a landslide victory in 2012, Trump a landslide victory in 2016, French President Emmanuel Macron a landslide victory in 2017, supporters to the Brexit campaign and President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya a landslide victory in 2017. We are talking about Social Media Management Software (SMMS), which determines which groups of people are best suited to address them.

After collecting personal data from millions of users, either through their purchase in the information market or harvested online, this software segments the population to decide how to show them a particular message.

This is what happened in Trump's campaign: "Eleven very refined versions of each candidate's phrase were made, for psychologically different profiles. When I know your personality, I know your fears, and that's the key, that's where the brainwashing starts. This is called populism, not democracy. It's adjusting my talk to what you want to hear," says Martin Hilbert, professor of communications at the University of California and technology advisor to the U.S. Library of Congress.

In the same vein, the so-called filter bubble identifies the part of the electoral program with which you might agree, and bombard you with that idea alone. This is what was done with great success in Obama's campaign, as Hilbert tells us, where they created a database of 16 million undecided voters, in order to send them tailor-made propaganda and win them over for their cause. "You could disagree with his political program by 90%, and agree with only one of his electoral promises. If they show you all the time - on your Facebook feed, on Twitter, etc.. - you end up thinking, 'Look, Obama is so good. The filter bubble is so powerful that they changed the opinion of 80% of the people who were attacked in this way. That's how Obama won the election," Hilbert emphasizes.

The cherry on the cake is that the social networking services also help fine-tune the messages.

"For example, if a lot of people started tweeting negative feelings about a comment made by Hillary Clinton, the SMMS would direct its pro-Trump propaganda to those users," Ghosh explains. Key here is the role of artificial intelligence algorithms that make complex decisions in real time to determine what kind of content they send to what segment of the population.


Those algorithms know you better than your own mother. The psychometric expert Michal Kosinski, now a researcher at Stanford University, is well aware of this. One day, when he was working at Cambridge, he decided to check how much you could know about a person's psychological profile by studying their activity on Facebook, specifically, the entries that they clicked on 'I like it'.

He experimented with millions of volunteers: he gave them psychological tests and studied their behavior on the social network. From there, he created increasingly refined drafts of an artificial intelligence algorithm capable of making an X-ray of your personality and behavioral patterns, just by having access to your Facebook page.

With 68 likes, Kosinski showed that his program could predict a person's personality with reasonable certainty, including a person's skin color - with 95% success -, their sexual inclination - 88% - or their political affiliation - 85% . Not satisfied with that, he found that with 150 'I like it', the algorithm could deduce how someone was better than his own parents. That included his most intimate needs and fears and how he was expected to behave.

The young Kosinski immediately sensed the danger that this tool could have in the wrong hands. If someone was able to get to know everyone in the ocean of Facebook users so deeply, they could use that knowledge to direct them to fine-tuned persuasion techniques... or to persecute homosexuals, liberal Arab women, dissidents in totalitarian regimes... etc.

His findings could pose a threat to the well-being of an individual, his freedom or even his life - Kosinski himself began to notice in his scientific publications. And that is precisely what happened, at least as far as freedom of thought is concerned.

Although this researcher was not willing to sell his algorithmic program for commercial or political purposes, his collaborator Aleksandr Kogan, who signed an agreement in 2014 with the British company Cambridge Analytica to provide them with a similar program, did - according to The Guardian. To do so, they collected from Facebook a database of millions of U.S. voters, without warning as to the purpose for which they were going to be used. The plot was not discovered until 2017, somewhat late, because the invention had already been successfully tested by Cambridge Analytica in two of the most famous campaigns for which it has been hired for: the presidential campaign of Trump and that of Brexit in the United Kingdom.


"I have the honor to speak to you today about the power of big data and psychometrics in electoral processes," announced its brand new CEO, Alexander Nix, at a conference at the 2016 Concordia Summit, where he boasted of possessing "a model to predict the personality of every adult in the United States. In their databases, they had 220 million subjects catalogued in 32 personality profiles.

Another similar company, which also worked for Trump in the U.S. elections, is Harris Media LLC, based in Texas. According to the civil rights group Privacy International (PI), Harris Media was hired in the Kenyan elections in August 2017 by the ruling party and used data from social networks to target specific audiences. "We are concerned about the role and responsibility of advisors working on political campaigns in Kenya, where tribal affiliation and religion of origin are politically sensitive data," the ONG (PI) denounced in a statement to Reuters. False news and trolls dominated public discussion and fueled tension and ethnic clashes in the days leading up to the polls.

Then there are the 'bots'. In August 2017, Trump thanked one Nicole Mincey in a tweet for congratulating him on "working for the American people". With 150,000 followers on Twitter, Mincey seemed to be, by her comments and her photo, an African American follower of the Republican leader. But it turned out that, in reality, it was nothing more than the avatar of a computer program - just another 'bot'.


Trump himself acknowledged that he wouldn't have won the election without Twitter. But, perhaps, it was not because of the support of Internet users, but because of the army of 'bots' that amplified his reach. These are accounts that do not belong to real users: they are managed by software that mimics human behavior - the 'bots'. In May 2017, a study by the University of Georgia showed that they can serve to spread political messages on a massive scale and turn them into a trending topic in just a few hours, pretending that it is real people who are sharing their feelings or opinions.

The Russian agency Internet Research, also known as Kremlinbots or Olgino Trolls, specializes in these techniques. His 'bots' farm produced and disseminated thousands of Facebook and Instagram posts to support the blonde magnate's campaign in the last U.S. elections, as Wired magazine reported in depth. In fact, in February 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice condemned this agency for having interfered with its political processes.

Similar methods are used in China and Russia to support the regime's ideas or divert attention from sensitive issues. And they have come to the forefront in many other countries, such as France, where they made a failed attempt to discredit Macron before the last elections.

Political 'bots' are very useful for spreading hundreds of thousands of comments in support of a candidate or for harassing an opponent or an angry activist with a flood of aggressive comments. "Their mission is to deceive the public, to make them believe that it is real people who are expressing themselves on the Internet and that their messages represent the opinion of a majority of society," warn experts in the field Renée DiResta, John Little, Jonathon Morgan, Lisa Maria Neudert and Ben Nimmo, in an article published on Motherboard.

To make matters worse, the artificial intelligence program of these automats can also include the ability to search for and detect individuals on the Internet who are related to a certain ideological line, in order to connect with them and send them their propaganda, since these new human allies will be more likely to spread it later - without knowing that they are being manipulated by 'bots', of course.

When the apparently endless Brexit campaign began in the United Kingdom, the victory of the independentists was not so clear. What's more, the first polls claimed that the proposal would not win: staying in the EU had many important defenders. But he didn't have a good targeted propaganda company by his side. This is one of the subjects studied in depth by Vyacheslav Polonsky, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, who analyzed 28,000 entries on social networks and some 13,000 hashtags to draw his conclusions.

"We realized that people skeptical of the EU and those who bet on Brexit dominated the debate and were more effective in their use of Instagram to activate and mobilize people across the country. They also tended to be more passionate, active and extroverted in their online behavior. On average they generated almost five posts per head more than their opponents," he says. AggregatIQ, a Canadian subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica, was hired by Brexit advocates for the campaign. His messages could reach up to seven million people, according to a March article in the Spanish daily El Mundo, taking advantage of the niche of the undecided and those who felt resentment toward immigration.

Another case that Polonsky has examined is the success of Macron's online campaign in the Gallic elections of May 2017. "All interactions with sympathizers were recorded and analyzed semantically using advanced algorithms to extract keywords that resonated with voters. These keywords were then used by Macron in his speeches, adapted to different audiences and regions. The rallies were broadcast live on Facebook, while a team of content creators assembled each tweet with an artisan dedication," explains Polonsky.

So, there is no doubt that the new strategies of targeted propaganda are here to stay. We find ourselves, in Ghosh's words, in "the age of algorithmic disinformation". According to Polonsky, "we are witnessing the dawn of a new frontier, where politics is war and big data is one of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal. That implies that whoever dominates the new weaponry will lead the political discourse and hearts of the people in the new and dubious digital democracy. Because, as this expert reminds us, "on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, everyone can speak, but not everyone can be heard". And it's no longer about having charisma or quality political discourse: the key is to have the best algorithm experts on your side.

______________________
(1) Source: Muy Interesante magazine (Spain) - Número 456 - Mayo 2019
The article in Spanish:  "Los hilos que mueven tu voto" de Laura G. de Rivera, pp. 22 a 28.



Published on June 19th, 2019, with the authorization of Ms. Laura G. de Rivera, the author of the original Spanish version.

  © Copyright 2019 by Muy Interesante. Spain.


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