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Sorry, Russia Is Not the Biggest Threat to Our Elections -- Facebook and YouTube Are

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Silicon Valley algorithms help spread conspiracy theories pedaled by sloppy American journalists.

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Americans who care about democracy and voting should stop jumping to conclusions about Russians hunkered down in Moscow cyber-bunkers, and instead look at what's happening on these shores as shoddy journalists and Silicon Valley's content curators are doing Vladimir Putin's work for him.

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Last week, a mini-drama played out in the world of American elections, Russian interference and vote-hacking conspiracies that was a microcosm of the same online dynamics that tilted and force-fed American voters seven times as much Hillary-hating propaganda on YouTube as comparable anti-Trump content.

This snapshot reveals that little has changed in the misinformation engines driving the attention economy. This is the frail state of American democracy today, where the most powerful content curators, opportunistic partisans, poorly informed journalists -- and yes, overseas adversaries -- are funneling and amplifying "divisive, sensational and conspiratorial" content, as one authoritative report put it, further undermining already shaky public confidence in voting.

"Russia probably realizes, despite what a lot of people in the progressive community and other communities probably think, it's really hard to change the outcome in a race; to change it [the count] to what they might want to occur," said a former Justice Department lawyer who now advises state election officials. "That [theft] would require a lot of Americans engaged in an active conspiracy here on the ground; thousands of people."

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"But for less money and risk, they can get us to do their job for them," he said. "They can get us to doubt our own election system; to doubt the machinery of American democracy. And they have been enormously successful in that. And I think the NBC piece [this week] is part and parcel of that. When you talk about, hysterically, risks that everyone has known about for nearly a year, and you don't talk about all the work that's been done since then, you don't interview a single election official, you're basically trying to put people into a state of hysteria about how their vote is not going to count. That's really damaging. That's going to undermine our democracy."

Misinformation Engines

Americans received more bad news about voting this week. But amid all the news -- such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying that Russia was already interfering in 2018's elections but giving no details -- one sloppy report stood out and ignited a stream of copycat and increasingly conspiratorial posts amplified by the web's content-pushing algorithms. On Wednesday, NBC News aired an "exclusive" interview with Jeanette Manfra, the Department of Homeland Security cyber security head, who reported that Russia had not targeted, but "penetrated" state voter systems in 2016.

First, NBC didn't understand what she said. "NBC chose to interpret that statement to mean 'several states' were successfully penetrated. We are still only aware of one state voter registration system that was penetrated and that office made a public statement at the time," the National Association of Secretaries of State noted on its website. Moreover, Manfra said nothing new. She repeated her testimony to Senate Intelligence Committee from June 2017, even using the same words.

Nonetheless, journalists who don't know how voting works, nor what Russia did and didn't do in 2016's elections, went wild. They quickly said what's most alarming and factually unsupported: that Russia all but stole the vote for Trump, or offered slightly less hyperbolic variations of that conspiratorial theme.

Esquire's piece ominously opened, "We are inching ever closer to the revelation that the actual vote totals were hacked -- some very smart people are already there, by the way -- and, once that happens, I don't know where we go from there." The Huffington Post began, "The Russian government successfully obtained access to U.S. voter registration databases in multiple states." Under Reddit's reposting of the NBC video was a discussion filled with gripes about how dysfunctional our elections are, all escalating and pointing to the conclusion that the system is rigged, surely hacked and democratic hopes are a mirage.

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Esquire offered no proof that the 2016 vote totals were tampered with -- because there is none. That's not what election officials and technical advisors have said. Huffington Post got it wrong because Russian hackers only got inside one state's voter registration system, not multiple states. And most of the gripes on Reddit were due to political parties running primaries and caucuses in anti-democratic ways, or elected partisans who twist the rules of voting to benefit their base.

What Did Russia Do?

These misinformed reports raced around the internet aided by algorithms that target content for people using sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. That dynamic, an accelerating spiral in which misinformation and fiction outruns and outperforms reality, is what arch partisans -- as well as Russia -- tapped in 2016 to influence voters. Yes, Russia got inside Illinois' registration database -- a non-competitive blue state in the presidential year. But its hackers didn't tamper in a way that impeded polling place voting. That's what Russia achieved on a technical level and what top federal and state officials are trying to prevent again.

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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  TomPaine.com  and many newspapers. (more...)

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