Why manipulation campaigns are the biggest threat facing the 2020 election

This era of political espionage is rooted in manipulative ads, fake news articles and other forms of digital content. It's one of the nation’s greatest threats, especially as we approach the 2020 presidential election.

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Parker Johnson / Markus Spiske

Although political espionage has been around for hundreds of years, technological advancements and the widespread use of smartphones and social media have given rise to a new type of propaganda campaign.

This era of political espionage is rooted in manipulative ads, fake news articles and other forms of digital content, which are hardly distinguishable from facts and truths. Today’s espionage is one of the nation’s greatest threats, especially as we approach the 2020 presidential election, and leaders across industries and sectors need to take action now. 

Recent research by the Oxford Internet Institute found that computational propaganda and social media manipulation have proliferated massively in recent years and are now prevalent in more than double the number of countries compared to two years ago. We’ve entered an era where the threat of manipulation on the internet is constant. With the 2020 presidential election looming, it is not only up to the federal government to protect the nation against manipulation campaigns -- the private sector must do its part as well.

Lessons learned from the past four years

The impact of political manipulation came to the forefront after the 2016 presidential election when congressional investigators exposed evidence of meddling by Russian parties and other foreign groups.

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]In October 2017, The Guardian reported that Russian trolls and automated bots used social media to sow social divisions in the US by triggering disagreement around various controversial topics. Creating distrust and dividing the U.S. on social and political issues through fake ads and posts is precisely the motive of these attackers. Understanding this is one key lesson learned, but the landscape of online manipulation remains complex and unknown.

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Big Tech is undoubtedly a target for these cyber attacks and slowly, the platform leaders have begun to set an example for the rest of the private sector, as well as for governmental organizations. Over the past few months, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have reported several instances of shutting down thousands of accounts for manipulating its platform.

Microsoft also experienced an attack on its chatbot recently, which helped the artificial technology learn racial slurs and inappropriate language. The tech giant promptly shut it down. To avoid the issue altogether, Spotify announced it would not allow political ads on its platform. While the companies’ timely actions represent a commitment to protecting consumers from online manipulation, these incidents serve as examples of the industry’s unpreparedness - even for the biggest and best-known tech companies - and overall lack of knowledge of how to prevent attacks in the future.

The reality is that sophisticated manipulators are properly equipped to adapt and advance their approaches by learning from the outcome of previous attacks. The biggest lesson that has come out of the manipulation campaigns of the last four years is that to fight this battle, the U.S. will have to come together in an out-all effort by citizens, business leaders, big tech, and officials both U.S. and abroad.

Taking action to soften the blow

However unprepared the nation is for the type of cyber attack that we will inevitably face as the 2020 presidential election ramps up, there are initiatives and actions the private and governmental sectors can take to strengthen the defense.

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On the Federal government’s side, it is critical that committees build easy ways for organizations and individuals to report suspicious activity -- whether it be online or elsewhere. One roadblock the country faces with implementing a system like this is the overall lack of knowledge that U.S. citizens have of what irregularities like this might look like, especially as technological advances continue to open up access to social media across demographics. The more educated the U.S. population becomes on the topic, the less they will fall prey to manipulative online campaigns. 

With a strong reporting system in place, the private sector could be better prepared to combat malicious behavior online. Not only would this assist Big Tech in fighting off threats and protecting consumers, but it would help leaders in other industries - such as the energy industry - build their own playbook for targeted manipulation campaigns as well. 

Ultimately, a successful defense against these cyber attacks will be the result of teamwork on a local, national and even global level. In an ideal world, officials, business leaders and citizens across the globe would be safer from these cyber attacks with an international accord in place.  A coalition of nations willing to allocate resources and expertise on election security, and security in general, would be the most effective method to ward off manipulation and digital propaganda. However, this is an effort that will need time to develop.

The U.S. and other countries will undoubtedly face manipulation online by foreign groups, and the sophisticated nature of these campaigns make them unavoidable and risky as we enter the thick of the 2020 presidential election. The private and governmental sectors must come together to inform US citizens of the threat the nation faces and work to fight against the growing cyber risk.