In the field of epidemiology, public health professionals encounter viruses that mutate to become stronger and more aggressive than their original strains. In the campaign field, we are seeing the same phenomenon as dirty campaign tactics transition into the digital era.
Last month, Businessweek broke the story of Andres Sepúlveda, a campaign operative who admits to manipulating top-level campaigns in Latin America for the last eight years.
Sepúlveda describes in detail how he directed hackers to steal campaign information and strategies, used social media to create the appearance of enthusiasm and distaste for candidates, and engaged in espionage by installing spyware in opposing candidates’ offices. For example, while working for Enrique Peña Nieto in his successful campaign for the Mexican presidency in 2012, Sepúlveda claims to have hacked smartphones to gain information and used highly developed fake Twitter accounts to shape the public’s perception of the candidates.
Sepúlveda’s account of his dark maneuvers is surprising and jarring. Moreover, it was incredibly detailed and forthcoming. But we shouldn’t be caught off guard by the tactics themselves. That’s because, at their base level, Sepúlveda’s tricks are nothing new. He installed spyware and hacked to unfairly gain information about opposing candidates’ strategies. Unethical operatives have long been doing the same thing through different means.
Before there were smartphones to hack, Nixon’s “plumbers” installed eavesdropping equipment at DNC headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Before digital data, there was Debategate, in which Ronald Reagan’s team used a stolen copy of President Carter’s debate briefing book to prep the Republican for the two candidates’ only debate. Before Twitter trends became the barometer of public discourse, operatives paid people to fill seats at rallies and President Johnson’s “five o’clock club” wrote fake letters to popular columnists such as Ann Landers pretending to be ordinary citizens terrified by the idea of a Goldwater presidency.
That digital dirty campaigning is fundamentally the same as old school chicanery, however, doesn’t make today’s landscape any less frightening. While methods like those Sepúlveda employed are strains of the same virus of manipulation that has always plagued democratic elections, they are mutated strains. In fact, these new strains are more aggressive and disruptive.
Advanced technology has provided new tools for campaigns to communicate internally and externally. Recent developments have ushered in a new era of campaign data and analytics. But compared to an in-person conversation in a backroom or physical briefing books locked in desk drawers, the information communicated through and stored in these relatively new mediums is significantly more difficult to protect and is vulnerable to bugs, hacks, spyware, malware, and the like. The threat of campaign espionage is pervasive, and smart staffers must be vigilant at all times.
Furthermore, the way voters receive their news is changing, as more than ever people rely on social media for information. Social media allows campaigns to communicate with voters and to gauge their opinions, but it also allows misinformation and false perceptions to spread like wildfire. Sepúlveda pounced on this reality by deploying an army of twitterbots to spread information using a program he called Social Media Predator.
Of course, Sepúlveda is not alone in manipulating Twitter, and similar incidents have been reported and suspected in the United States. As Sepúlveda eerily explained, “When I realized that people believe what the Internet says more than reality, I discovered that I had the power to make people believe almost anything.”
The mutated strains are also terrifying in that there aren’t yet any vaccines or proven cures. Campaigns can take proper precautions, but can never fully protect themselves from cyber threats. Fake Twitter accounts can often be difficult to detect, and even when they are identified there’s no simple way to counteract their manipulation. And, of course, combating digital dirty campaigning requires funding and technical expertise that’s often not available to a campaign.
As with any major disease to root out the epidemic a comprehensive effort will be required involving corporations, regulators and campaign committees. That effort has only just begun, but it cannot fail. Democracy hangs in the balance.
James Norton, president and founder of Play-Action Strategies, is a former defense-industry executive and deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security. He’s currently an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. Follow him on twitter @jamesnorton99