From Russia with fear: New tech is going to make fake news look quaint

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If you're a politically inclined technologist, this is your moment. There have never been more rewarding career opportunities for your wonky, nerdy kind.

Unless someone wants to hire you to figure out what to do about Russia. That job would suck, because it seems like nobody has any idea how to do it.

The consensus last week at CampaignTech East, a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., put on by the trade publication Campaigns & Elections, was that tech-enabled shenanigans—whether masterminded by Vladimir Putin and friends or other bad hombres—are only going to further infect the U.S. political system.

Everybody at CampaignTech seemed wracked by the worst-case scenarios that have happened already and are yet to happen. Half a dozen panels and presentations dealt with the specter explicitly—e.g., "Social Disinformation and Cyber Interference in the 2018 Midterms." And sessions not directly focused on the threat still had a tendency, at one point or another, to circle back to the topic.

Even when they attempted to strike a reassuring tone, many still sounded rather alarmed and alarming. David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, downplayed the idea that Russian hackers have been or would be able to meaningfully compromise America's local voter registration databases and electronic voting systems. Good news, right? Not quite.

"Changing elections in the United States is very, very difficult to do," Becker said from the stage. "But getting Americans to doubt their own machinery of democracy? And to start wondering whether their own vote matters? That's very low risk and very high reward. And that's exactly what's going on with Russia and perhaps other nation-states."

In other words, hacking attempts—not hacking successes—on local election systems have amounted to a sort of meta-campaign to undermine America's electoral integrity.

Another speaker, Ann Ravel, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission (a 2013 Obama appointee, she resigned a couple of months into Donald Trump's presidency), noted that when she served in Washington there was a lack of concern that U.S. laws regulating campaign finance and traditional offline advertising don't extend to the internet—throwing the door open for dark money to influence American politics in unimagined ways. Particularly foreign dark money.

"After I left the FEC," she said, "I became absolutely obsessed by this issue. And now is the time for all of us to be obsessed about the issue, because this is as if our democracy is on fire."

Perhaps we should be heartened that tech companies, particularly Facebook, have lately seemed somewhat open to regulation of online political advertising?

Well, sure, but another subtext of this D.C. gathering of campaign insiders was that we may well be missing the point in insisting on transparency around paid campaign ads. As C&E co-owner Shane Greer bluntly explained in his presentation, "Why Fake Video Should Terrify You," we're about to be inundated by a whole new level of political disinformation that has nothing to do with advertising.

As an early example of this, Greer showed that recent viral clip of Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez ripping up the U.S. Constitution, which was actually a doctored video of her ripping up a shooting-range target. Greer also showed video of a research project demonstrating "a real-time facial reenactment of a monocular target video sequence"; in it, Trump's facial expressions were instantly manipulated using what will soon be off-the-shelf software. And as an added bonus, Greer then showed a funny but jarring fake-video-awareness PSA from Jordan Peele and BuzzFeed in which Obama appears to call Trump a "complete dipshit," thanks to similar technology (see it above).

Eric Wilson, founder of the Learn Test Optimize campaign-technology newsletter, joined Greer in sounding the alarm. The evolution of fake-video and fake-audio technology is happening so rapidly, thanks to leaps forward in virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence, that, Wilson said, "we are probably within five to 10 years of being at a place where you can't trust your senses. And that's a real dangerous place to be."

In the political sphere, that'll make Russia-funded social media campaigns circa 2016 to 2018 look like child's play.

Wilson, who was digital director for Ed Gillespie's Virginia gubernatorial campaign (and before that, digital director for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign), said it's hard to squelch even today's rudimentary fake political news—for instance, a simple image of a doctored newspaper headline. "I will say from experience that trying to get this stuff off of Facebook, that they're obviously not cooperative," Wilson said. "And you can't go up against the Facebook lawyers."

Later, I asked Wilson what will happen when politically motivated fake video and fake audio starts regularly popping up on social media platforms.

"It would stay up," he said, "because it's not a violation of their terms"—because those terms, even if they're updated to add transparency requirements around paid political advertising, aren't designed to grapple with viral content of untraceable origin.

As a rule, campaign consultants and operatives are a pretty ruthless, even mercenary, bunch. But after spending two days hearing them discuss what they're up against, I felt something like sympathy for them.

Sympathy mixed with pity. And fear.

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