About Renee DiResta

Renee DiResta is an Editor-at-Large for ribbonfarm. She writes about techno-sociological weirdness, with a focus on digital mass manipulation.

The Digital Maginot Line

There is a war happening. We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality. The conflict is still being processed as a series of individual skirmishes – a collection of disparate, localized, truth-in-narrative problems – but these battles are connected. The campaigns are often perceived as organic online chaos driven by emergent, bottom-up amateur actions when a substantial amount is, in fact, helped along or instigated by systematic, top-down institutional and state actions. This is a kind of warm war; not the active, declared, open conflict of a hot war, but beyond the shadowboxing of a cold one.

Section of the Maginot Line, 1940 (Public Domain)

We experience this as a state of continuous partial conflict. The theatre opportunistically shifts as geopolitical events and cultural moments present themselves, but there is no sign of abatement — only tactical evolution as the digital platforms that serve as the battlespaces introduce small amounts of friction via new security checks and feature tweaks. As governments become increasingly aware of the problem, they each pursue responses tailored to the tactics of the last specific battle that manifested in their own digital territory; in the United States, for example, we remain focused on Election 2016 and its Russian bots. As a result, we are investing in a set of inappropriate and ineffective responses: a digital Maginot Line constructed on one part of the battlefield as a deterrent against one set of tactics, while new tactics manifest elsewhere in real time.

Like the original Maginot Line, this approach is about as effective a defense as a minor speed bump.

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There are bots. Look around.

“There are idiots. Look around.”

So said economist Larry Summers in a paper challenging the idea of efficiency in financial markets, a cornerstone of American capitalism. We’ve hit a point where the same can be said of efficiency in a cornerstone of American democracy, the marketplace of ideas:

“There are bots. Look around.”

The marketplace of ideas is now struggling with the increasing incidence of algorithmic manipulation and disinformation campaigns.

Something very similar happened in finance with the advent of high-frequency trading (the world I came from as a trader at Jane Street): technology was used to distort information flows and access in much the same way it is now being used to distort and game the marketplace of ideas.

The future arrived a lot earlier for finance than for politics. There are lessons we can take from that about what’s happening right now with bots and disinformation campaign. Including, potentially, a way forward.

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Crowds and Technology

“There is no other hope for the survival of mankind than knowing enough about the people it is made up of.” – Elias Canetti

Two closely related themes have proved very newsworthy over the past several months: the candidacy of Donald Trump, and harassment mobs on the Internet. The overlap between them is interesting because in the past we haven’t typically associated American Presidential campaigns, no matter how close or contentious, with online mobs. This time, however, we have stories about the election intersecting with the rise of online harassment mobs, anti-Semitic Twitter trolls, and even Kremlin influence bots.

Illustration by Grace Witherell

Illustration by Grace Witherell

Although this weird election cycle has made them more newsworthy, mobs, demagogues, and populist movements are obviously not new. What is new and interesting is how social media has transformed age-old crowd behaviors. In the past decade, we’ve built tools that have reconfigured the traditional, centuries-old relationship between crowds and power, transforming what used to be sporadic, spontaneous, and transient phenomena into permanent features of the social landscape. The most important thing about digitally transformed crowds is this: unlike IRL crowds, they can persist indefinitely. And this changes everything.

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