The Meaning of Meddling — Trump’s Fake Followers — Ethiopia in Crisis

Hi there,

In this Tuesday’s Signal we define “election meddling”, inform you that the Pope has a higher percentage of fake Twitter followers than Donald Trump, and take a look at the deepening political crisis in Ethiopia. Also, we ask your kids to draw something for us.

Enjoy, send us love/hate and tune in to CBSN at 9:30am EST where I’ll be carrying on about any/all of this.

- Alex Kliment (@Saosasha)

THE MEANING OF MEDDLING

As we continue to learn more about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, let’s clear up a few things about what it actually means for a foreign power to hack an election. There are, broadly speaking, three different ways to do it:

1) Hack the vote by penetrating the voting systems and changing the actual vote tallies.

2) Hack the voters by spreading false information designed to shape their perceptions and influence their choices on election day.

3) Hack the mainframe of democracy itself by inflaming social tensions and sowing doubts about the integrity of the electoral process altogether, ensuring that whoever wins struggles to govern.

According to the latest Mueller indictment, there’s no evidence of Russian vote tampering — a point on which President Trump is particularly fixated — but Russians with Kremlin ties did, it would appear, do an awful lot of #2 as part of a broader effort to do #3.

Whether the Trump campaign knowingly helped Russians with any of it is still a question to which only Bob Mueller can give us a definitive answer. And he may yet do so.

But more immediately there are two crucial questions:

The first is if and how to punish foreign powers for election meddling. There are sanctions sitting on President Trump’s desk, but they have so far not been implemented.

The second is how to prevent meddling from happening again. To defend against efforts to hack the vote, you can beef up cyberdefenses.

But repelling efforts to hack voters is much more difficult. One way is to regulate and police online content, but that raises thorny questions about the balance between freedom of speech and national security.

But there’s a deeper question here: why do so many people lack the skills, or even, it seems, the willingness, to discern between fake news and real reporting anyway? The underlying problems of socioeconomic polarization, plummeting trust in traditional media, and broader disillusionment with democracy itself are what makes the ground so fertile for influence operations in the first place. Addressing those is a much broader challenge. It’s not clear that the US, or anyone else, is close to figuring that out.

GRAPHIC TRUTH: FAKE FOLLOW THE LEADER

A recent New York Times expose uncovered the vast, and lucrative, market for the creation of “fake followers” on Twitter and other social media platforms. Well, we decided to take a look at the Twitter accounts of some of the world’s most “followed” leaders to see how many of their followers are real and fake. Alf mabrouk to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for being the realest on Twitter! Full disclosure, I am almost positive that more than 100% of my 2,500 followers are extremely very real.

MUNICH SECURITY DISSONANCE

Over the weekend, many of the world’s foreign policy decision makers gathered for the annual Munich Security Conference to discuss the most pressing global security challenges. The dissonance between major powers was particularly salient this year, highlighting the almost complete lack of consensus on key issues.

Three that came up…

North Korea: Nowhere is the failure of multilateral cooperation more glaring than on the Korean peninsula. The US says give up all of your nukes. North Korea says make my day. China will only push so far, fearing the consequences of a regime collapse. Meanwhile, US and Russian officials in Munich spent more time bickering over Russian election meddling than they did discussing Pyongyang. No new diplomatic proposals are forthcoming, it seems. More nuclear tests, it stands to reason, are.

Syria: The civil war in Syria has entered a new, more dangerous phase as the various external actors — Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, US — are locked in an increasingly dangerous final scramble for leverage ahead of any peace negotiations. Turkey and the US are this close to open conflict in Northern Syria. US forces have already killed Russian nationals. And Iran and Israel are for all intents and purposes at war in Syria now too. Meanwhile, the regime is pounding the last strongholds of rebels and jihadists. Where, exactly, is the “international community” of which we used to speak?

Cyberwar: As actual conflict rages in the Middle East, a more nebulous battle is playing out in cyberspace where — by comparison with conventional war — there are still relatively few rules of the game. Beyond gamely broaching the subject, there’s little desire among the major cyber powers to cooperate in limiting this new form of conflict.

So far, somewhat miraculously, none of these crises has resulted in a direct, sustained conflict between major powers, in part because the international system is proving just resilient enough to prevent catastrophe. But in a world of increasingly fragmented prerogatives and interests, how long can that hold?

GZERO WORLD WITH IAN BREMMER: THE RESCUE SITUATION

Today, conflict has forced more people from their homes than at any time since the end of World War II. On the latest GZERO World, Ian sits down with International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband to chat about dealing with a global refugee crisis in an age of political polarization.

TROUBLE’S ON THE HORN: ETHIOPIA IN CRISIS

South Africa’s Jacob Zuma wasn’t the only beleaguered leader of a major African economy to resign last week. At the other end of the continent, Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down amid a deep political crisis that has roiled the East African nation for three years now.

The roots of the crisis combine two things: perceptions of political marginalization among the country’s two largest ethnic groups (the Oromo and the Amhara), and broader frustrations with a political system that has remained deeply repressive even as economic growth soared in recent years. The government’s release of several hundred political prisoners earlier this year failed to defuse the crisis.

Whether Hailemariam’s resignation opens the way for a more inclusive and stable political system — or merely provides the ruling EPRDF with a chance to install a more effective hardliner — is a critical question for the country, and for the region. Ethiopia is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but it’s in a tough neighborhood — it borders the near-failed state of Somalia to the East and war-wracked Sudan and South Sudan to the West.

More broadly, East Africa has become a critical security focus as jihadist militants from ISIS and other groups transit the region to reach other destinations in North and West Africa. Watch this space closely…

Bonus track: Ethiopia’s most famous musician (unless you count The Weeknd as Ethiopian, which I don’t) is Alemayehu Eshete. He’s been called the Ethiopian James Brown. I’ll let you decide who’s the king of soul, but while you ponder it, kick back and lounge to this.

AND BECAUSE WE LOVE THE KIDS…

Kids across Russia are drawing portraits of Vladimir Putin as part of a nationwide drawing contest meant to coincide with the upcoming presidential election which Putin is 100% assured of not losing. The winning entries will be announced on election day and hung in the Kremlin. You can see the early submissions here. We are particularly fond of Putin rendered in a crazy wolf headdress and Putin with six arms (one of which holding a hockey stick, naturally).

So we at Signal are doing our own contest. If you have a kid and can get your kid to draw a portrait of a world leader by 18 March, we’ll run the best submissions to coincide with the Russian election too. Send us your junior masterworks at signal@eurasiagroup.net.

And now, for some hard numbers…

HARD NUMBERS

2,000,000: Bangladesh needs to create roughly 2 million new jobs every year to keep pace with an expanding population. But job growth in the country’s most important industry, textiles, is getting clobbered by automation. As robots get better at light industrial tasks like apparel manufacturing, whole swaths of the developing world are about to get stretched tight.

92: Some 92 percent of Brazilians are worried about the inability to discern fake news from real news online, according to a poll done late last year. That is the highest percentage of any country surveyed. Germany, as it happens, is the only country where a majority of citizens are not worried about this problem. The Brazilian government is currently cobbling together a strategy to fight fake news ahead of the country’s pivotal presidential election this fall — but is it too little too late?

81: The US government tried to influence democratic elections in other countries 81 times between 1946 and 2000, according to a recent study from a Carnegie Mellon professor. The tally for the Soviet Union and Russia is just 36 over the same period, though that count is certainly incomplete. #glasshouses #stones

61: Although Turkey’s ruling AKP party is often characterized as an Islamist party, 61 percent of its members say Turkey should be a secular state with no official religion, and an astounding 80 percent revere Kemal Ataturk, the ruthlessly secular founder of modern Turkey. A reminder that in Turkey Islamism, conservatism, and nationalism may overlap, but they aren’t the same thing.

33: About a 33 percent of Italian voters are still undecided ahead of pivotal elections in two weeks. Whether those voters end up siding with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the anti-immigrant Lega Nord, or the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, will ultimately determine who plays the role of political kingmaker. Into the wolf’s mouth with all of them…

This edition of Signal was prepared with editorial support from Kevin Allison (@KevinAllison), Gabe Lipton (@gflipton), and Leon Levy (@leonmlevy). Spiritual counsel from Willis Sparks. Give a friend the Signal here.

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