Season 3 Ep. 7

What to Expect When You're Electing

The 2016 U.S. presidential election blew up our ideas about influence campaigns in the age of screens. Two years later, Veronica Belmont and Baratunde Thurston examine how the internet is changing our minds, our votes, and our democracies – all over the world.

Pulitzer prize winning New York Times reporter Scott Shane details the United States’ long history with election meddling. Paris correspondent for the Washington Post, James McAuley, shines a light on how other countries are managing the the changing dynamics of online political campaigns. And speculative fiction authors Malka Older and Genevieve Valentine describe what elections may look like in the future, with advances in technology. Show Notes

Show Notes

Baratunde Thurston has worked for The Onion and produced for The Daily Show. He’s the host of the iHeartMedia podcast Spit, and wrote the New York Times bestseller How To Be Black.

Scott Shane is a reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Have a look at his recent reporting, The Plot to Subvert an Election.

Malka Older is a writer and humanitarian aid worker. Her latest fiction book State Tectonics (The Centenal Cycle) is about how the future of democracy can be purchased. Check out Candidate Y, her speculative fiction that premiered on this episode of IRL.

Genevieve Valentine is a novelist. Her most recent book is a near-future political thriller called ICON. Read her short story “Hello, I’m Your Election” featured in this IRL podcast episode.

For more on telling fact from falsehood leading up to election cycles, watch Mozilla’s original short film, Misinfo Nation: Misinformation, Democracy, and the Internet.

This article discusses how fair elections require responsible tech. Mozilla Foundation Advocacy Lead Ashley Boyd suggests that for democracy to thrive in the internet era, we need technology that respects privacy.

And, really: it shouldn’t be hard to participate in politics. Mozilla is out to make it a little easier. Go to mozilla.org/vote to get Firefox features to help you you counter misinformation as you browse the Web and lessen the ability for those behind political ads to microtarget you on Facebook.

Transcript

President Trump: I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying, “Russia, Russia, Russia.” Maybe it was.

Hillary Clinton: The Russian government has engaged in espionage against Americans.

President Trump: The election is being rigged by corrupt media pushing false allegations.

President Obama: Of course the elections will not be rigged. What does that mean?

Speaker 1: … Saying that Clinton has called Trump to concede the election and that has-

Mike Pence: I introduce to you the president elect of the United States of America, Donald Trump.

Veronica B.: Hard to believe, but it’s been almost two years since the last American presidential election. And the world is still, well, kind of reeling. Regardless of whether or not you’re happy with how things went in 2016, the air is just thick with questions about how much Americans were meddled with. Leading up to that vote, how much of what we saw was true? How much was out and out propaganda? And most important, as we turn to new elections all around the globe, are those shenanigans going to keep on shenanaginning?

The 2016 presidential election blew up our ideas about influence campaigns in the age of screens. And now, no matter where we come from, we’re wondering, could that happen here? Did it already happen here and nobody noticed? The world looks the elections differently now. We’re asking new questions about accountability and truth and security. But the targets keep moving. For this season three finale of IRL, we’re going to try and predict the near future. How’s life online gonna mess with voting in 2018, 2020, and beyond? I’m Veronica Belmont, and this is IRL, because online life is real life.

IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla– the not-for-profit behind the Firefox browser.

If you’re listening in the U.S. it’s almost time to vote. Go to Mozilla.org/vote to check your voter registration status. You can also read reliable information from trusted sources, curated by Pocket; and download an election edition of Firefox that helps protect you on Facebook.

It shouldn’t be hard to participate in politics, and Mozilla is out to make it a little easier. Go to mozilla.org/vote to learn more.

The future is hitting us early. And in our elections, we get played by cutting edge tech, the most sophisticated campaigns and data mining and surveillance breakthroughs, because the stakes, it can’t get any higher. So bad actors, good actors, everybody is throwing everything they have at the wall. With me to sort this election chaos out, and I am so stoked that he’s here, is the one and only Baratunde Thurston. You might know him from his New York Times bestseller, “How to Be Black,” or his work launching The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He also co-founded Cultivated Wit and the About Race podcast.

Baratunde, my friend, thank you so much for coming and helping me save democracy.

Baratunde T.: Yes, let’s do this Veronica. I am up to the task. With your help, we might pull it off. Thanks for having me.

Veronica B.: We just might pull this crazy thing off. So, before we get going, I wanna get your read on something kind of big picture. We’re seeing such a dismantling of credibility and trust in the political system. And online life seems very tied to that crisis. So my question is, what needs to be fixed there? How do we use online life to even start to build trust back into our politics?

Baratunde T.: I thank you for asking such a simple question.

Veronica B.: Just an easy one to get us started.

Baratunde T.: It lends itself to a pithy response. A lot needs to be fixed. I think part of what has happened with our elections in the United States is existing weaknesses were exploited and we can shore up our own defenses independent of the cyber realm by, say, reducing social division, racism, things like that. If you have fewer buttons, your enemies can’t push them. So let’s work on covering up some of those buttons. And then as far as the online side of things, I think we face a real challenge of scale and speed with which bad information travels. And so we can look at what the business model and incentives are that power so much of the informational internet, or the misinformational internet, and make some adjustments there. We can educate ourselves as consumers some and heavily the folks who enable the spread of this information, the platform operators and media publishers of the world. And there’s probably some role for the government as our still last best hope of collective action to act on our collective behalf in some meaningful ways. I won’t go a whole essay’s worth in, but those are some ideas somewhat off the top of my head.

Veronica B.: Wow, those are some good ideas. And we can certainly do a little bit on the educating ourselves that you mentioned. That’s actually coming up next. And later, we’re going to look into the future of electing to try to imagine how all the trolling and data mining and online life in general might actually influence elections moving forward. We commissioned two amazing speculative fiction writers to try and describe the elections of the near future. If you know anything about me, you know I’m really excited about that. But first, I think we need to get our bearings here. So Baratunde, stick around for some historical context on all this election meddling from this brilliant mind.

Scott Shane: My name is Scott Shane and I’m a reporter for the New York Times.

Veronica B.: Scott Shane’s coverage of the 2016 US election hacking won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. Then, his coverage of the role social media played in that election won him another Pulitzer in 2018. Dude’s kind of on a roll. And part of what Scott’s found in all this reporting is that to understand the latest election problems, you have to begin by getting that it’s part of a larger, much older pattern.

Scott Shane: In the intelligence world, election meddling, election influence operations, has a long and colorful history. And I think it’s been carried out by many intelligence services, certainly led by the United States, and probably historically in second place by the Soviet Union, now Russia.

Veronica B.: You heard that right. For all our anxiety about Russian influence on foreign elections, it’s the US that’s number one when it comes to electoral meddling.

Scott Shane: The classic case was in the late ‘40s through the ‘60s, in Italian elections. The Americans were very worried that the Italian Communist party would do well. So, in those days no one was very subtle about it, they just essentially flew to Rome with suitcases of cash and delivered them to select parties and candidates to give them a boost. And in other instances during the ‘50s, the ‘60s, and early ‘70s at least, the US you could say had an even heavier hand in terms of election meddling. They overthrew elected leaders of other countries. They funded an opposition, a violent opposition and essentially financed and supported a coup against an elected leader. They did that in Guatemala against Árbenz, and they did that in Iran against Mosaddegh .

Veronica B.: So, let’s keep that in mind as we turn our gaze back to Russia. In the end, these issues were never going to be confined to a single country. Keeping elections safe, especially in the digital age, calls up questions every country has to face. That said, the Russia story is so instructive because it’s become the poster child of 21st century meddling. And the more we study it, the more we learn how much there is to learn.

Scott Shane: You know, the full story of what Russia did in 2016, we probably still don’t know. One element was the hacking. That was to hack into the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and then the emails of particular individuals in American politics, basically stole everything they could get their hands on. And I should say that at that point, everything they’d done was sort of normal espionage, the kind of thing the Russians are constantly doing and the Americans are constantly doing. But then they weaponized it and began to selectively release the material into this highly charged American presidential election. So that had a big effect.

Then it turns out that simultaneously there was a second half of the Russian operation. But instead of using hacking, it’s what they often call an information operation. And this of course was the Russian company known as the Internet Research Agency that was basically a bunch of guys and gals sitting around in St. Petersburg being paid pretty good money by Russian standards to be very, very active on social media, posing as Americans, mostly on Twitter and Facebook and also on Instagram and other platforms. And Facebook ultimately was embarrassed to acknowledge that this material had reached the newsfeeds of 126 million Americans they estimate, which is more than half of the voting population. So, it became harder and harder to dismiss this as sort of a bunch of nonsense that had no influence on the election.

Veronica B.: They spent a lot of time riling up discontent among Americans, purposefully hitting hot buttons. But check this out. Listen to how far they were able to take things.

Scott Shane: And they got so confident that they began to summon Americans to rallies and demonstrations. And so in a number of cities, they’d put out on these Facebook pages that had gotten a lot of followers, “Come to the town square on Saturday 2:00 pm and we will argue against immigration.” And people showed up. And in at least one Texas city, they summoned anti-Muslim protestors and defenders of Muslims and Islam to the same location, presumably hoping that there’d be some fistfights or something. It was really remarkable how far they got with this sort of remote control intervention in 2016.

Veronica B.: What struck Scott about these latest efforts was how experimental things got. As the possibilities of digital tech exploded, the possibilities of digital influence campaigns exploded too.

Scott Shane: So, you have to say the campaign was very, very effective. But it also had the sort of feeling of entrepreneurship, that the Russians were trying different things, this had not been done before, it had not been done on this scale before.

Veronica B.: There were also attacks on election boards and other election systems in about half of the American states. But, because Americans have a decentralized voting system, that wing of the attack was fortunately less effective. Which is a telling thing in itself, right? You could call it the Battlestar Galactica rule, total connection equals total vulnerability. But since that vulnerability has been exposed, players are stepping up. It’s the start of a digital security arms race.

Scott Shane: Everybody’s much more savvy. The Democratic National Committee has been paying Crowdstrike, the cyber security firm that investigated the Russian hack, to keep its systems safe. Also, Facebook and Twitter have put huge resources, huge new resources into security, changed their behavior, changed essentially their approach.

Veronica B.: The whole world’s been watching, and we’re all, I think, trying to wise up.

Baratunde, I wanna bring you back in here. Now that Scott Shane’s given us a rundown on recent events, let’s try and look into the future. I mean, we dragged Mark Zuckerberg in front of the US Senate. But still, shady companies continue to collect data from unknowing users. Shady influence campaigns are still being waged. Do you think we’re catching up? Are we meeting the challenge?

Baratunde T.: First off, kudos on the Battlestar Galactica reference.

Veronica B.: Thank you, thank you.

Baratunde T.: I am such a fan of that. And I think it’s time to keep in mind another line from that, great piece of video literature, which is, “All of this has happened before and all this will happen again. The form changes, but the overall thrust is the same.” We are doing a little bit better. I think Zuckerberg being hauled before Congress is a good start. I’d love to see him there every Thursday and I could just set C-SPAN and popcorn and have my automated devices cue up all that so I know what I’m doing on Thursday noon eastern every week. A little bit of minor accountability for one of the greatest unofficial political leaders of our time.

We are talking about it, I think that’s big. I think we hadn’t been for a long time, and we know to be a little bit more on the lookout. But, there’s a layer to this that is only now just starting to be cracked, and it’s not just about Russian “meddling.” I also think meddling undersells it a little bit. It is an influence operation. It is an information warfare attack.

Veronica B.: It sounds like Scooby Doo, it’s like meddling kids.

Baratunde T.: Yeah. Meddling, “Oh, you little rascals.”

Veronica B.: It’s a little more big than that.

Baratunde T.: Like rascals meddle, super powers and nuclear weapons attack. So that’s a little rhetorical nudge there. But I would say we’ve had some level of complicity and conspiracy in the US context with the amplification of misinformation by major media outlets. I think it’s nice that states are starting to harden their election systems, which is something people have been arguing a long time. But I think hardening our own media environment is a much tougher challenge, and we have now created tribes of disbelief in things that are true and belief in things that are absolutely nonsense. And that’s gonna be much harder to defend against and certainly to undo.

Veronica B.: I think it’s really difficult too, especially when so much of what the media does it try to be fast and try to get the news out there as quickly as possible. And sometimes that comes at the expense of maybe reporting things that haven’t been vetted properly or haven’t been gotten enough background on. And then we have the social media effect where something gets picked up and repeated and retweeted and reposted and reshared over and over. We talked about this in previous episodes where bots actually latch onto a story and repost it from accounts that look real so when you search for it you say, “Oh, there’s 100,000 results on this bit of news. It must be true.” So I wonder, especially in your background in media, what is the fix there? Is it just that we have to be less concerned about the speed at which we receive and share information? And how is that even possible at this point?

Baratunde T.: I mean man, the fixes are difficult. I think you’re absolutely right about speed being our enemy here. And the desire and the business urgency to report first and ask questions later to share without clicking. I have a little mental mantra, which is like, “Click before you retweet. And just know what you’re sharing.”

Because those headlines can be really enticing. And the more novel they are, the faster they spread. There have been studies now that show that false information spreads more rapidly than true information. Which is a devastating indictment of the technological networked world that we’re building.

We’ve created, sadly, a very centralized internet. For all practical intents and purposes, ISPs are centralized, social media is centralized. But there a benefit to us there in terms of these operators exercising their authority. And not becoming a platform that traffic in nonsense.

And they’re increasingly stepping up. We’re seeing moves to deplatform obvious slanderers, libelers, hoaxsters, pranksters and misinformation artists. I think that’s a good thing, I think these companies are starting to ask and answer, “Do we want to be in the business of destroying democracy?”

That’s kind of what they’ve been doing. And the profit has been so high, and the measurable impact, the visible impact so low that they could pretend that they were neutral. But it turns out, by not making a choice, you’re still making a choice, as you’re kinda siding with insanity when you let some of this nonsense fly. And they’re doing that decreasingly.

So I think that’s a part of what we’ll need to do.

Veronica B.: It sounds like there are some definite changes being made that we can be a little bit optimistic about. But at the same time, we can never relax, we can never become complacent. And I’m going to bring back Scott Shane here for a second to explain why.

Scott Shane: American Intelligence officials have testified before Congress that they are seeing signs that the Russians are continuing to be active and that they expect to do in 2018, or to try to do in 2018 what they did in 2016. But I would say what the Russians did in 2016 was really impressive. And really terrifying. Because it just opened up a whole new set of channels for influence.

And so I actually think in that sense, things are getting steadily worse.

Veronica B.: A whole new set of channels. And all of us racing to figure out the risks.

Here’s something else: these changes are not America centric. The 2016 US Presidential Elections took up a lot of space in the media, but dig a little deeper, and you find the same new channels of influence are spreading out and complicating elections all around the world.

I want to bring in James McAuley to elaborate. He’s a Paris correspondent for the Washington Post, and he can give us an idea of how different countries are responding to the same crisis.

In France’s 2017 Presidential Election, James saw some eerily familiar things.

James McAuley: As we say elsewhere in the western world, there was a very similar anti establishment and very strong anti establishment sentiment that saw, essentially, the collapse of the two kind of age old, storied, center left and center right political parties that had more or less run France since 1945.

We saw, for the first time, a completely upstart candidate, known as Emmanuel Macron, and this sort of, what at the time seemed a grassroots kind of renewal of democracy.

He was seen as this new force in French politics. He was young, he was photogenic. And so it seemed like it was a new age. Or this was a new prospect for a new future. And on the other side of the coin, of this sort of anti establishment fervor was Marine Le Pen.

Veronica B.: In France, Marine Le Pen was naturally associated with her father, Jean-Marine Le Pen. This is a guy who regularly traffics in holocaust denial.

James McAuley: And you have his daughter, from whom he was nominally dissociated running for president, who represented, in many ways, the opposite of the Macronian image, which was, Macron, you know, was an advocate of Europe. Marine Le Pen was a protectionist.

Macron was cosmopolitan, Le Pen was nativist and nationalist.

Veronica B.: The similarity with the 2016 Election in the US goes deeper though.

James McAuley: Before the first round of France’s Presidential Election, there was a massive email dump of Macron’s campaign and his private communications of the Macron campaign into the public sphere.

Veronica B.: Well, that sounds familiar.

Donald Trump: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.

Veronica B.: When the email dump happened in France, just days before the election, we were reminded that data can be weaponized in any election, anywhere. But that’s not to say every country reacts in the same way.

In France, it’s illegal for broadcasters to delve into things just days before an election.

James McAuley: People watch sports or sitcoms on public TV. There’s no more campaigning. It’s not like it is in the US.

The French data dump just didn’t work. The public wasn’t set up to be as reactive. And beyond that, the public just didn’t buy it.

James McAuley: Media literacy in France is fairly high. You have newspapers like Le Monde, France’s leading daily newspaper. They have these programs that help, they’re interactive programs that help readers ascertain what is real and what is fake.

And it’s basic stuff like, “Look at the date an article was published on. What kind of sources does it have?” And it helps people in this face-paced news environment that we live in maybe be a little bit more perceptive of what is happening.

Veronica B: Macron defeated Le Pen in a landslide despite the email hack. Whoever wanted to hack France’s election, well, it just didn’t happen.

James McAuley: Putin came to Paris just a few weeks after Macron’s election. Macron stood right next to him in the very opulent and very symbolic Palace of Versailles and blasted Russia’s state-owned media. And the quote is: “Organs of influence and propaganda.”

It was for Macron a chance to project an image of strength right after he was elected and to set a tone with Putin on that terrain.

Veronica B: So that’s how things played out in the presidential election in France. It was a political contest that had many similar elements to the US Presidential Election of 2016, even though the results were quite different.

The thing is, those elements: email dumps, hacks, and fake twitter accounts. Those are all likely to be with us in future elections, too.

What matters now is how prepared we are to actually meet those challenges.

So Baratunde, I mentioned earlier that we commissioned a couple pieces of speculative fiction. It’s our way to try and peek into the future of elections. That’s what we’re diving into next.

Baratunde T: Yay.

Veronica B.: Have a listen. I want to hear what you think.

This first piece of political sci-fi comes from Malka Older. Her short fiction has appeared in Wired, 12 Tomorrows, Reservoir Journal, and others. Her sci-fi political thriller, “Infomacracy,” was named one of the best books of 2016 by Book Riot and the Washington Post.

Now this story looks at things from the politician’s perspective. A politician who wants to use data mining to help her game the system and craft her message.

Malka herself narrates the story. It’s called, “Candidate Y”

Malka Older: “Welcome! Come in, come in,” the electoral counselor stood to greet Jisela Amu. “There’s tea, coffee, water, juice, over there. Please help yourself.” When Jisela had collected and customized her Earl Gray, the counselor waved her into a seat. “I hope you’re well?”

“Pretty good,” Jisela settled herself. “I’m afraid I haven’t been paying as much attention as I’d like to.”

“That’s fine. Nobody can. That’s what I’m here for. So, have you got any thoughts so far?”

“Yes. But I don’t feel confident about my choice yet.”

“Do you want to talk about the candidates? Or work the other way around from your preferences?”

“The latter I think.”

“Wonderful. I’m already up-to-date on all of your external data. I’ve done the calculations for your tax bracket, age, employment history, and assets, to figure out which of the stated economic plans is projected to bring the most gains. Cross referenced with projections for the main social programs that you use and benefit from. What I need from you now is to hear about the parts that aren’t readily apparent to me. What you hope for? What you worry about? What you believe in? What you want to see for society in general. The future you want for this jurisdiction.”

Jisela answered, watching as the counselor noted down her responses with check marks or little scribbled phrases or icon.

“How do you know how much weight to give each answer?” she asked.

The counselor nodded seriously. “We don’t. But for the most part, there’s enough substantive difference among the candidates that we don’t have to be exact about it. And, in any case, this is an iterative process. We help you narrow it down and try to give you all the relevant data about our recommendation. But if it doesn’t feel right, we’re happy to discuss further. Or you can just make your own decision, of course. Nothing that happens in here is binding.”

“What about,” Jisela avoids the counselor’s eyes. She doesn’t want to seem like she’s challenging her. “What about the candidates that want to end this counseling program and move the money elsewhere?”

“As a matter of fact, that characteristic is masked in our data,” the counselor offered a professional smile. “It’s a relatively small amount of money, so it doesn’t have much of an impact on the big picture.” She glanced at her tabulations. “I’m all set here for an initial pass. Do you want to tell me who you had in mind?”

It was harder than Jisela expected to say it, “I was thinking about maybe Candidate Y?” She winces hearing her voice go up in a question. She thought she had trained herself out of that.

There was an odd pause. It was only after the counselor started speaking again that Jisela realized it was the space for, “That’s great, but…” Or, “Really?” Or, “Excellent choice.”

As it was, the counselor’s tone had no inflection at all, as she showed Jisela a plotted and color-coded graph. A messy Venn diagram. “Candidate Y falls here, well within the trapezoid, I guess, of your preferences, needs, and interests.”

Jisela felt ridiculously pleased. As though it were surprising that she knew what she wanted.

“I do want to point out a few things,” the counselor went on. “in terms of your personal outcomes, you might consider Candidate K or B. Remember, of course, that stated campaign policies are not guaranteed to function as in projections.”

“I understand that,” Jisela said, waving those concerns aside with a swell of pride in her own altruism. “But I think I’d like a little more weight on outcomes for others.”

“In that case,” the counselor spun the graph, “perhaps Candidate O or G? Both of these align more closely with your ideals than Candidate Y. Here, and here.”

Jisela’s smile fluttered. Anonymity as a candidate meant she didn’t have much practice in hiding her reactions. “Tell me more.”

When Jisela left the counselor, she walked four blocks to the rendezvous where she was picked up by her campaign manager.

“Well?”

“Useful,” Jisela said. “I think we should recommend that everyone on staff visit an electoral counselor. How much they share with us is up to them, of course. And we’re going to have to make a few changes in the platform. Nothing drastic, we’re close. But,” she smiled slightly as they turned toward the quiet office building that served as Candidate Y’s unmarked headquarter offices. “The least I can do is make sure that I would want to vote for myself.”

Veronica B.: That’s author Malka Older, reading her short story “Candidate Y,” commissioned for IRL. I’ve got links to Malka’s story and her books in the show notes at irlpodcast.org.

So, Baratunde, there is a data mining angle here. We’ve got a politician scamming the system, figuring out how she can micro target voters. How much do you think politicians, in any party, really, are using data harvesting to just tell people what they want to hear?

Baratunde: I’m sure they’re doing it a lot. I love this story. Mild disclaimer, I went to college with Malka Older. And I was like–

Veronica B.: Yeah, I hear.

Baratunde: …“I recognize this name, yeah, we’re in the same class.”

Veronica B.: That’s so cool.

Baratunde: So it’s a brilliant piece of writing, if I may say so. The fact that the candidate was using it to try to understand where she fell within the recommendation spectrum and how her platform was subpar to a few other candidates, maybe she would adjust it. That is only a bad thing if she doesn’t intend to follow through on those policies. And if they’re lies.

But if she’s adjusting the platform with the intention of enacting them as policy, then she might just becoming a better politician. So I’m going to choose to see that as a potentially positive thing and not a dystopian, horrible, terror future.

In terms of candidates using this stuff, we have a history of our candidates telling people what they want to hear, or saying things differently to different crowds. And there’s a whole hidden camera period, Mitt Romney’s campaign essentially got derailed because of his comment about 46% of the American public being takers and not contributing anything to society.

So I’ve even imagined an algorithmic candidate of the future, where there’s not two or three different versions, but there’s 400 versions of a candidate. And because we see everything through a mediated screen, it’s sort of a technical experience, you can imagine we’re all hearing what we want to hear. But it’s personalized in the same way our Netflix experience is.

Veronica B.: Yeah.

Baratunde: And that’s terrifying. Because then you don’t know. This person doesn’t stand for anything except their own power. And that’s a not good thing.

But the last positive thing I can imagine out of this is if we are starting to use .this data for ourself and for things other than purchasing decisions, that can be a good thing. One of my deep frustrations with the data universe we have is that it’s just to sell us stuff. We’re using smart machines and brilliant people to move ads, and that’s pretty uninspired, but if we could measure not only what politicians say they want to do, but what they actually do and what the effect of these policies really is, then it could scale up what it means to be an informed citizen, in the same way that it scaled up the ability of an advertising agency to manipulate our purchase power.

Veronica B.: That idea of personalized politics seems totally possible and totally creepy. It’s one thing to, I don’t know, only see Meryl Streep comedies and never see the dramas because an algorithm out there knows I always click on comedies, but the political equivalent means I could be voting for someone who’s got a whole side I’ve never even seen.

Genevieve Valentine is our second author. She’s a Nebula-nominated novelist and comic book writer who’s written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and NPR. In Genevieve’s story, a man heads to the voting book and finds his citizenship called into question. What you get in this story is a serious dystopian breakdown in democracy, and that’s why I love this story. It pushes things to the nth degree. It shows us what might happen if our elections really did break down, and democracy was replaced with an authoritarian state that uses tech to help it dress up as democracy. So, without further ado, this Hello, I’m Your Election.

Betsy Ross: Hello. Welcome to election 2040. I’m Betsy Ross, your ballot assistant. Thank you for coming out to vote. Let’s get started. Please transmit your citizen ID number.

Jeff Jacobs: Jeff Jacobs, 19800514.

Betsy Ross: Welcome, Jeff Jacobs. Thank you for being a citizen. Confirming facial recognition. Please look into the camera and repeat, “For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.”

Jeff Jacobs: For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.

Betsy Ross: Okay, got it. Thank you. Please indicate your political party.

Jeff Jacobs: Old faithful.

Betsy Ross: Great. Thank you. Before we get started voting, a few questions to verify your identity. Please list your city of residence.

Jeff Jacobs: Madison, Wisconsin.

Betsy Ross: Okay. Thank you. Did you file taxes for calendar year 2039?

Jeff Jacobs: Yes.

Betsy Ross: Great. Let’s check some receipts to verify your activity. Did you make a purchase from Bluebird Café, Rockford, Illinois on August 15, 2039? Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Please repeat. You can say yes, no, or I don’t know.

Jeff Jacobs: I don’t know.

Betsy Ross: All right. Let’s look closer. Did you purchase egg sandwich, cheese, mayo, and coffee, milk, sugar, decaf from Bluebird Café, Rockford, Illinois on August 15, 2039?

Jeff Jacobs: I guess.

Betsy Ross: I’m sorry. I didn’t catch that. Here is a photo of the Bluebird Café in Rockford, Illinois. Does this look familiar?

Jeff Jacobs: Sure.

Betsy Ross: Okay, great. Thank you. Did you attend any demonstrations of descent against the current administration in 2039?

Jeff Jacobs: No.

Betsy Ross: Thank you, patriot. Did you attend any demonstrations of descent against a third or miscellaneous party?

Jeff Jacobs: Yes.

Betsy Ross: Details, please?

Jeff Jacobs: Protest against Coffee Coffee Café.

Betsy Ross: What date?

Jeff Jacobs: Late July, whenever they started covering gay insurance.

Betsy Ross: I found a protest that took place in Madison, Wisconsin on July 29, 2039, with a facial recognition matched to your citizen ID number. Is this your protest?

Jeff Jacobs: Yeah.

Betsy Ross: Okay, great. Thank you. Did you attend any demonstration of support for the current administration?

Jeff Jacobs: Yes.

Betsy Ross: Details, please?

Jeff Jacobs: A Decade of Progress, a pre election rally.

Betsy Ross: I found one, A Decade of Progress public rally in Rockford, Illinois on October 6, 2040 with a facial recognition matched to your citizen ID number. Is this your rally?

Jeff Jacobs: Yes.

Betsy Ross: Okay, great. Thank you. Please hold while I crosscheck this information for you, and then we’ll get your set to vote. This might take a few moments.

Jeff Jacobs: Why would it take so long? I voted in the last election.

Betsy Ross: Please hold. Your vote is important to us.

Jeff Jacobs: It usually doesn’t take this long. What the …

Betsy Ross: Hi. I have your results. Treasonous activity detected.

Jeff Jacobs: What?

Betsy Ross: Booth has been locked. Arrest beacon activated. Please remain calm.

Jeff Jacobs: Wait, no. Wait a minute. I didn’t do anything. What are you talking about?

Betsy Ross: Undisclosed travel across state lines for purchase of goods on August 15, 2039, smuggling, class E felony. Unauthorized boycott of Coffee Coffee Café, a Forbes 500 corporate. Larceny, class A misdemeanor. Unauthorized travel across state lines on October 6, 2040 for political purposes. Sedition, class C felony.

Jeff Jacobs: But I went there for the president. I got an email about the rally.

Betsy Ross: Criminal activity lifetime limit exceeded. Citizenship revoked.

Jeff Jacobs: What the fuck? You can’t do that. I want manager. I want to speak to a manager, supervisor.

Betsy Ross: I’m sorry. Managerial assistance is not available to non citizens.

Jeff Jacobs: No. I have the number. Let me speak to a manager. I’m a citizen.

Betsy Ross: Citizenship not found.

Jeff Jacobs: I just need to speak to a supervisor, somebody.

Betsy Ross: Arrest beacon activated. Remove and detain. Remove and detain.

DCF17: Confirmed pickup. Voice ID, Delta Charlie Foxtrot 17.

Betsy Ross: Thank you, Delta Charlie Foxtrot 17. Arrest confirmed. Thank you for removing and detaining a traitor. American depends on you. Voter record deleted. Next voter, please. Hello. Welcome to election 2040. I’m Betsy Ross, your ballot assistant. Thank you for coming out to vote. Let’s get started.

Veronica B.: All right. So, as with all the best speculative fiction, this story is pushing things beyond where we’re at today. It reminds us that there’s a reason why it’s all worth this effort to help the election process stay healthy. If the election process were to break down entirely, well, that leaves us open to dystopias like the one we just peeked into. A data-mining government uses its surveillance to suppress the wrong kind of voter.

It reminds me of a recent new story, actually. Facebook allows for a lot of data-driven profiling, and in this case, an algorithm marked 65,000 Russians as, quote, interested in treason. You can imagine a world where an authoritarian government uses that kind of labeling to just deconstruct democracy itself, choose who gets to vote, and who doesn’t. So, Baratunde Thurston, it’s not hard to imagine this stuff kind of going off the rails, is it?

Baratunde T.: No, it’s not. I mean, this is like the DMV meets Skynet. That was horrifying.

Veronica B.: It felt very Harlan Ellison, I think.

Baratunde T.: Yeah, and it’s infinitely believable, in part because we have voter suppression campaigns happening today from people in office who are afraid of potential voters. We have over-policing today. I mean, basically, what we just heard was like everybody gets treated like a black American in the future. Right? Where all of your actions are over-scrutinized and funneled into a police response.

Veronica B.: I laugh, but not because it’s funny, because it’s sad and true.

Baratunde T.: No, because it’s sad. Yeah. Sometimes that’s the only response, and I also recognize in that story, in that alleged fiction, the pretense of democracy. Right? There is a ritual of voting taking place, but what’s actually taking place is the suppression of a vote and the revocation of a citizenship status and the incarceration of a formerly free person, but the election results will then be skewed by the removal of this participant in society, and that’s a version of what we’re doing today, when we’re denying people access to the ballot, when we’re denying citizenship status for various reasons. So, this is so plausible. Yeah, I’m terrified. Thank you so much for that. I don’t know what else to say.

Veronica B.: Of course. We said it was genre fiction, but really it was horror.

Baratunde T.: Yeah.

Veronica B.: Here’s the thing, though. I wonder how much longer that’ll seem like a horror story. Right? At what point does the fiction become reality and we didn’t even notice? Like just an example of how sci-fi things can already get, we’ve got bots telling NRA subcultures when to have a rally. Do you think the line where this gets uncomfortable is shifting, though, like they’ll keep on weaponizing our data, and it’ll only shock us for 15 minutes before suddenly it’s normal?

Baratunde T.: I hope not. I fear yes, and as far as the NRA goes, I think as we continue to learn, it wasn’t just the NRA. It was also Russia. Right? Anything we’re seeing now, it’s like, “Was Russia involved in that,” because they apparently put a lot of money in, allegedly. So, here’s what is my hope for this, because we have become inoculated to a bunch of different types of influence, and we’ve also found ways to account for it and counter and still preserve some sense of agency and self-determination in the process.

So, if we are entering a world where every impression that we receive is mediated by some network technology and it’s funded by someone with an agenda, okay. That’s the new given. Then it will also need to be a given that we know who they are, what their positions are, what their economic interests are, what they’ve said and done before, so that we can balance out those impressions that we’re receiving with real information.

There’s a level of transparency. There’s almost a labeling system, the same way we have with our food or with lead-certified buildings, where we have to add a credibility factor to the impression that we’re getting through all this micro-targeted media. Otherwise, anything is anything, and we have manipulated Photoshops and deepfake videos and faked audios, and what’s the point of even living? I don’t want to live in that world. So, I’d rather not assume that worst case and say, “Well, here’s what we might need to do to be able to survive that world and maybe thrive.”

Veronica B.: So, in other words, we all need to level up. Bad actors want to influence us. There’s nothing new there. It’s the ways they’re coming at us that are new. So, it’s up to the rest of us to get media literate, get smart about the risks, and also, here’s just a thought, we can elect governments that protect a healthy digital culture, because obviously we need all the help we can get when we’re figuring out what’s real and what’s just messing with our heads.

Baratunde T.: Look. Part of the reason that we are susceptible to misinformation is that these new platforms make all information look equal. A New York Times article looks the same as a Breitbart article in the share model of a Twitter or a Facebook. We have flattened years of distinction of quality and accountability and credibility to make everything look the same. So, to restore some context to the information to understand that, “Oh, this is from an institution that’s received Pulitzer Prizes and actually pays journalists and has fact checkers on staff,” versus, “This was made from a content farm in another country that’s been flagged three times for monetizing misinformation.”

I think that’s really valuable, and so it’s not about punishing media, but it is about honestly acknowledging that just because something says it’s information, doesn’t make it so, and because we move at such speed and we’re being bombarded constantly, we’re gonna need some tools, probably machine-enhanced tools, to help us respond to and fight back against machine-enhanced attacks on our democracy and on our psychology.

Veronica B.: Well, listen. I don’t know if we’ve completely saved democracy here today, but this has been a good start, I think. Thank you so much for joining me, Baratunde. It’s been awesome to have you, to have your insights and your wit guiding us along here. I hope you’ll come back in another seasons and do this with us again sometime.

Baratunde T.: I would do this any time you ask. I’m a big fan of you. I love Mozilla. I love this show. I love the idea of it, so consider me on call. Thanks so much for having me.

Veronica B.: A decade ago, the world got its first real social media politicians, and that came with a lot of optimism and hope. Maybe politics was going to be more open and accessible. But that promise only becomes reality when media-savvy citizens know how the game works, and know when the online tools start working against their own interests. If we’ve got that covered, if we’re keeping on top of what’s real and what’s just manipulation, then elections and democracy at large can stay strong. It all starts with that simple thing that we can’t take for granted, an informed citizenry heading to the polls. That’s you and me and everyone we know voting.

IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, which is pushing for a future where technology always answers to users instead of just profits. For example, on their Firefox browser, you can grab a Facebook Containers extension that’ll make it a lot harder for Facebook to track your activity on other websites via third-party cookies. Check it out at Mozilla.org. Meantime, season four of IRL is already in the works. It all kicks off on November 12th. If you’re subscribed, you’ll be the first to know. I’m Veronica Belmont, and I’ll see you online until we catch up again IRL.