In the weeks and months and years ahead, as people who care about such things debate how, in the twenty-first century, the American people elected a demagogue to the presidency, they will be invoking—blaming—the usual suspects: the pollsters with their broken models, the out-of-touch campaign advisers, the complacent or complicit mainstream media, the misguided electorate, the uninspiring candidate, and so on. They won’t be wrong: there is plenty of blame to go around. It is an open question whether this gnashing of teeth will lead to a different outcome four years from now—if that is even an option. But what is missing from these analyses is a recognition of the outsized influence the Internet has had in this election, influence that may be less susceptible to fixing than, say, tweaking polling methods or replacing political consultants.
Many have lamented the demise of legacy journalism, as local and national daily newspapers go out of business or get bought by billionaire moguls with undisguised political agendas. And much has been made of the migration of “news” to the web—news conveyed via social media, Facebook and Twitter especially, but also through partisan websites that, while devoting little or no resources to fact-based reporting, have followed the Fox News playbook of taking on the appearance of traditional news-gathering operations. While it is true that this can be confusing to some readers, who are led to believe that the sites they rely on for information are honest and objective when, instead, they are designed to throw poisonous content into the news cycle, the actual effect is even more insidious: it has created an equivalence between those ideological sites and traditional journalism. In the Internet world, there is no difference between The New York Times and Breitbart. To many Breitbart readers, it’s the Times that is pushing a particular point-of-view. And in certain ways, as we saw with the coverage of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, one might have to agree with them. Still, the machinations of the ideological “press” are not the same as the noblesse oblige permeating traditional news organizations, however misguided it may be.
By now, nearly a quarter-century into our Internet dependency, it is well-known that many people—and I would not exempt myself—gravitate toward online news sources that confirm our own biases. We also tend to relay what we’re learning to our friends, and since our friends tend to hold the same biases, those biases fade to invisibility. This is how echo chambers are created. This is how tribalism or Balkanization become pervasive. According to a recent Pew study, 62 percent of Americans now get their news via social media, with Facebook topping the list. Facebook shows you what it “thinks” you want to see, which is what your friends are seeing, too. Reaching a vast audience that even the largest news organizations can’t rival, it’s become the most powerful purveyor of self-reinforcing news consumption. If, on election day, your Facebook newsfeed had post after post from some of the more than one million members of the “secret” feminist Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, you would have been shocked when more than 50 percent of white women—the majority demographic, it seemed, of people posting on Pantsuit Nation—voted for Trump. Social media envelop users in a false reality. But of course there is no such thing as a false reality, there is only real reality, as we learned the other night.
Add to this the strange, largely hidden power of automated “Twitter bots,” the computer-generated social media posts unleashed into the global conversation by untraceable agents, governments, political parties, individuals, and organizations among them. Last May, after the Nevada primary, Wired magazine noted that many members of Trump’s Twitter cheerleaders, despite their stereotypical Hispanic names, were actually non-humans impersonating Hispanic voters at a time when the candidate needed to demonstrate his appeal to Latino voters, the very group he had been delighting in denigrating.
Writing in The Atlantic the following month, reporter Andrew McGill pointed to an analysis of five hundred pro-Trump Twitter accounts that had encouraged voters to lodge complaints with the FCC about the Cruz campaign, the majority of which had previously tweeted “17 Marketing Tips for B2B websites.” In other words, they were fake supporters bought and deployed to push a message and look like a small army of concerned citizens while doing so. According to the website Twitter Audit, 4,645,254 of Donald Trump’s 11,972,303 Twitter followers—about 39 percent—were bots, compared to 524,141 of Hillary Clinton’s 10,696,761, or just 5 percent. Here was another way that Trump triumphed.
After studying four million election-related tweets created between September 16 and October 21, the University of Southern California computer science professor, Emilio Ferrara, and his colleagues, determined that one in five were generated by bots. And once they were, they were retweeted again and again by actual humans, who sent them ricocheting around the web, especially those that were antagonistic; in earlier work, Ferrara’s group found that negative tweets traveled 2.5 times faster than positive ones. “As a result, [the bots] were able to build significant influence, collecting large numbers of followers and having their tweets retweeted by thousands of humans,” and leading to the “spreading of content that is often defamatory or based on unsupported or even false, claims.” Ferrara further noted that, “previous studies showed that this systematic bias alters public perception. Specifically, it creates the false impression that there is grassroots, positive, sustained support for a certain candidate.”
At the same time that hundreds of thousands of bots were working at warp-speed to influence Internet users, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks necromancer, was demonstrating that the reach of the Internet is now so great that a single person can hack an entire country. By hack I mean upend a democratic election, inserting himself between the candidates and the electorate. Though self-exiled in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London with little more to amuse himself than a treadmill and a laptop—and, in recent weeks, ostensibly without an Internet connection—his gleeful release of thousands of private stolen emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta was sufficient to reinforce the image of Hillary Clinton and her advisers as corrupt and venal, even when, for the most part, the emails showed little, if any, actual malfeasance, just the cynical plotting and vacuous ambition that has come to characterize much of contemporary politics. The echo in the chamber grew ever louder as Assange dribbled out Podesta’s emails, and in the last days of the campaign—following FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that his agency had found hundreds of thousands more Clinton emails on the unsecured computer of the repulsive cybersex addict Anthony Weiner—little else could be heard over it.
Expect more hacking in the future. That was the message on October 21, when whole swaths of the Internet went dark after someone or some group used publicly available malware to take over refrigerators and baby monitors and other connected devices to launch a distributed denial of service attack on one of the companies that manages domain names for some of the biggest players on the net. At the time, the fear was that this was a rehearsal for a bigger, broader attack on election day. That didn’t happen, and it didn’t need to happen for democracy to be undercut by the increasingly routine practices of our digital life.