Dark Matter: A risk assessment of computational propaganda in the 2018 election cycle

Anton Denikin, Recruiting poster for Russian Civil War  Translation:"Why aren't you in the army?"

Anton Denikin, Recruiting poster for Russian Civil War
Translation:"Why aren't you in the army?"

Our first project at Rogue Metrics is perhaps, unfortunately, a timely one.

For over a year, we've watched as Russian interference in the 2016 elections seemed like a weird outlier, and then started to seem obvious, and then became a matter of broad agreement in our national intelligence community.

At the same time, we observed an electorate become more polarized and divided, and as a result, more vulnerable to methods like those deployed by Russian intelligence. Computational propaganda, botnet attacks, and a new evolution of astroturfing, are all deployed as a regular effort to spread chaos and sway public opinion about highly visible, spectacular events like domestic terror attacks, protests, or the partisan release of classified information. Throughout 2017, more and more information was revealed about what bad actors were up to during the 2016 election cycle.

We’ve also observed the partisan adoption of Russian computational propaganda methods by domestic entities. These developments have created not just a set of political risk factors, but a risk environment in which fundamental, long-understood truths about how politics works and how people receive information are not only challenged, but destroyed.

The greatest and most obvious risk is that no significant commitment is required by agitants in order to take advantage of a polarized communications and media infrastructure within American society. The divisive, rancorous atmosphere and inherent, mounting effects of cognitive bias are startlingly easy to leverage.

This is not an overstatement. The apocalypse cannot be prevented, because it has already happened. 2016 was the primary American experiment for the Russians (merely a beta test) and it was hugely successful. This example is already being followed by non-Russian actors, and their competency and sophistication with these tools will only increase over time.

With no regulation or institutions available or inclined to save us, this risk will increase dramatically before it gets better. The 2018 cycle will be far worse and more destabilizing than 2016. The good news is that there are ways to combat and mitigate this risk. By accepting the terms of how the world works now and then diligently working to defend ourselves, we can create opportunities to proactively combat computational propaganda.

Much of what currently dominates our politics can be detected but not directly observed. The reality of how the world works now is an invisible, roiling background of bias and noise — one that distracts and destroys details, but also creates entirely new realities. This is the environmental force that is currently shaping our reality. For that reason, we call our new effort the "Dark Matter" project.

You can read the first full report of the Dark Matter project by downloading the PDF.

(Header Image Credit: By Anton Denikin - Public Domain)