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The 2024 Social Media Race
The 2024 Presidential race also happens to coincide with the AI explosion as well as new accounts of former President Trump’s politicization of cybersecurity.
Yesterday, Politico's Ben Schreckinger proclaimed that the 2024 social media race has officially begun. And he is quite correct. DeSantis has already blown one of the biggest moments of his campaign, on (of all places) Twitter Spaces. The first GOP debate will be streamed on Rumble. The 2024 Presidential race also happens to coincide with the AI explosion as well as new accounts of former President Trump’s politicization of cybersecurity. Schreckinger singles out Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and his “anti-gatekeeping ethos” for the disorienting pace thus far. Biden, perhaps taking these variables into account, has dramatically increased his digital ad spends this election cycle.
America, despite its superpower status, is particularly vulnerable to cyber threats through its variations in voter infrastructure. We have a decentralized system of thousands of local voting jurisdictions. “The differences and complexity introduced by this decentralization can lead to uncertainty in the minds of voters; uncertainty that can be exploited by malicious actors,” warns the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Just last year, days before the midterms, more than a hundred state and local jurisdictions were languishing on a waitlist after reaching out for help in ensuring the security of their systems.
Julia Ainsley and Kevin Collier reported then for NBCNews:
The vast majority of voting machines are not connected to the internet, meaning a credible threat to the election system by foreign hackers as a whole is practically impossible. But some election information does run through the internet, like voting registration, official information about how and where to vote, and election officials’ email systems. So it could be possible to delete voters from rolls or change the way a website projects an election winner, creating chaos and confusion.
Deepfakes are already a serious problem. Donald Trump, Jr — surprise, surprise — is already heavily trafficking in them. “There have been three times as many video deepfakes of all kinds and eight times as many voice deepfakes posted online this year compared to the same time period in 2022, according to DeepMedia, a company working on tools to detect synthetic media,” write Alexandra Ulmer and Anna Tong of Reuters.
DeepMedia estimates that about 500,000 video and voice deepfakes will be shared on social media sites around the world this year. And from Ayanna Alexander of Reuters:
While such synthetic media has been around for several years, it's been turbocharged over the past year by of a slew of new "generative AI" tools such as Midjourney that make it cheap and easy to create convincing deepfakes, according to Reuters interviews with about two dozen specialists in fields including AI, online misinformation and political activism.
"It's going to be very difficult for voters to distinguish the real from the fake. And you could just imagine how either Trump supporters or Biden supporters could use this technology to make the opponent look bad," said Darrell West, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation.
Unfortunately, this is only the beginning. What if an adversarial government dropped a deepfake the day before a closely contested Presidential election? In 2020, 20,682 votes separated Biden from Trump in Wisconsin. In the words of NPR's Domenico Montanaro, "just 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin separated Biden and Trump from a tie in the Electoral College." Knowing what we know now, what if a foreign adversary dropped a compelling deepfake targeting those three states a few nights before Election day ‘20? Would the outcome then have been as certain as it is now?
It is also impossible to imagine this not escalating. We are in already in a proxy war with Russia in the Ukraine. Further, in 2020, Iran attempted to intimidate voters in swing districts to vote (strangely) for Trump. North Korean hackers have been increasingly busy this year, thus far. And just last week, the State Department issued a warning about a Chinese cyber-espionage campaign aimed at military and government targets in America. All or some of these actors are almost certain to interfere in election 2024 in some capacity.
Finally, Trump, like it or not, is our first social media President in much the same way that JFK was our first television age President. Each medium is different and each conjured up a President after its own essence. JFK’s sunny optimism, perfect for the visual medium, contrasts sharply against Trump’s lacerating cynicism, perfect for the age of digital shamelessness. Trump’s blunt, highly polarizing style is amplified by social media engagement with his insulting postings — on Twitter, but now his own company, Truth Social. As Barbara Bickart, Susan Fournier, and Martin Nisenholtz wrote in an influential 2017 article for Harvard Business Review on how Trump used social media to drive attention:
During the Republican nominating contests Trump vanquished 16 opponents while spending virtually no money on ads. On television advertising, for example, he spent about $2 per vote he won in the primaries, a fraction of Chris Christie’s $257 per vote (the highest among Republicans), Lindsey Graham’s $247 per vote, and Jeb Bush’s $241. In the general election Hillary Clinton outspent Trump almost three to one on television advertising — $211.4 million and $74 million, respectively, through October 2016. And although Trump did increase his ad spending in the closing weeks of the campaign, much of it went to social media.
Six years later, Trump is only more adept at using social media to drive attention. More adept and even more shameless. And he has at least two cyber superpowers — Russia and quite possibly Iran — looking, for whatever domestic reasons, to restore him to the White House.
Jen Psaki’s Message to Trump and DeSantis About Their Social Media Visibility: ‘That Alone Does Not Win Elections’ (The Wrap)
“Last week, I spoke with Newman about his work on homelessness, Neely’s homicide, and the failure of institutions to catch people in distress.” (CJR)
“The series finale of HBO's prestige drama ‘Succession’ ended on a high note, drawing 2.9 million viewers on Sunday night.” (Reliable Sources)
The meat magnate who pushed Putin's agenda in Germany (Reuters)
Bakhmut falls silent as Russia and Ukraine trade air raids (Al Jazeera)
Meet the world's first openly gay president (semafor)
20 Years On: The Rise and Fall of the Hipster (Vice)