How to hack an election

There’s a fantastic piece on Bloomberg about Andrés Sepúlveda, who is going to be utterly unknown to 99.9% of people because what Sepúlveda did was to use his computing skills to help rig elections in Mexico. The way he did so is a fascinating read, as well as being utterly terrifying in that anyone can do what Sepúlveda did if they’ve got the ability and the equipment.and there’s one part of this great article that should get the hairs prickling on the back of people’s necks here in the UK.

As for Sepúlveda, his insight was to understand that voters trusted what they thought were spontaneous expressions of real people on social media more than they did experts on television and in newspapers. He knew that accounts could be faked and social media trends fabricated, all relatively cheaply. He wrote a software program, now called Social Media Predator, to manage and direct a virtual army of fake Twitter accounts. The software let him quickly change names, profile pictures, and biographies to fit any need. Eventually, he discovered, he could manipulate the public debate as easily as moving pieces on a chessboard—or, as he puts it, “When I realized that people believe what the Internet says more than reality, I discovered that I had the power to make people believe almost anything.”

Anyone with experience of the Scottish independence referendum campaign with the horde of Better Together Twitter accounts that sounded the same, or have delved into the quagmire of UKIP/Britain First or the far right will recognise the scourge of the fake Twitter account. Of course there’s genuine people out there, but there’s also a number of obviously fake accounts any activist or protester has to deal with. It means you develop a bit of paranoia when dealing with political activism be it on social media on on message forums.

The fact is it’s getting harder to spot some of the online dark arts political parties and powerful groups engineer, and this isn’t the sort of thing you generally consider grassroots activists doing as this takes not just expertise, but serious money and resources.

So the lesson is, trust no one.


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