Building a Digital Defense Against Bots

Welcome to the Oregon FBI’s Tech Tuesday segment. This week: building a digital defense by understanding how foreign actors use both technology and our emotions to interfere in elections. 

Let’s start with the basics. A “bot” is a program that can simulate human behavior. You likely encounter bots on a regular basis. It can be something as simple as “chatting” with a customer service representative at an online business or asking for help on a shopping site. Today, though, we are going to talk about how foreign actors use bots on social media platforms to drive discord and decision-making. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warns that bots “use artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and other programs or databases to imitate users posting content.”

The bots start by targeting divisive issues big and sm

all. The issue could be the upcoming election or the appropriate pizza topping. They don’t care about a winning side – it’s all about making people stake out very different positions.  

By getting people to respond, they are able to start building a large following. Once an influencer or a bot network identifies you as someone willing to engage, they often rename accounts and reuse them for multiple issues. 

That large following allows the foreign actors to be effective in spreading misinformation and hate speech, both of which can generate an emotional reaction by those involved in the debate. Feeling anger or extreme satisfaction can cause you to ignore signs of what’s going on and encourage you to like, repost, or share the info to even more people. 

In the end, the foreign actors and their bots impact our ability to have fair and free elections by polluting our political discussions about the candidates and the issues. What can you do? 

Be wary of accounts or profiles where the posts are only working to drive extreme views. Trolls are in it to make you mad – don’t let them. You can also check an account’s activity history. Is it very new? Was it created years ago but started posting a huge volume of content just recently? Has it changed its name repeatedly? Do some basic online research to see if you can determine if that very-American sounding group is really a legitimate organization. 

Finally, if in doubt – take your conversations off-line. Focus on verifiable facts and encourage your friends and family to do the same 

Remember your voice matters, so protect it. Go to www.FBI.gov/ProtectedVoices for more information.

The FBI has launched the “Protected Voices” initiative to help 2020 political campaigns and American voters protect against online foreign influence operations and cyber security threats. The Protected Voices campaign includes information and guidance from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. 

This FBI Portland Tech Tuesday report is adapted from the Protected Voices initiative with a focus on providing cyber security information to political campaigns as well as businesses and individuals in Oregon. More information on all aspects of the initiative, including video downloads, can be found at www.FBI.gov/ProtectedVoices.

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