Many find it sad that we see so much Cold War rhetoric now in the age of technology, peace, and communication. With the recent headlines across major news outlets, that isn’t shocking. News has come from major networks about a massive Russian attack on our sovereignty, blatant hacks of our political organizations, and propaganda perpetuated online.
Advanced persistent threats, or APTs, are going to be the next buzzword you’ll be sure to see in headlines for the coming weeks as politicians accuse each other of corruption and general shenanigans. However, how concerned should we really be to the possibility of a social engineering trick from the Russian government? How much evidence does the FBI have that there are secretive ties between Trump and Putin?
According to the FBI, there are no clear links between Russia and Trump.
That information won’t motivate news companies enough to not push click-bait-driven headlines like “FBI Investigations into Trump-Russia ties yield little,” which clearly says something similar to the originating article but has heavy implications that disagree with the FBI’s assessment.
There is a substantial amount of misinformation and propaganda spewing out of both sides of the political aisle, but how hard is it to spoof the country of origin of any piece of content or a specific post on a forum or website?
The Twitter Trial and Growth Hacking Experiment
Meet GSA SER, a piece of German-made computer software designed for posting on a massive level. GSA SER is one of the most powerful applications in its space, and the software can be used to perform this type of trolling. It is perfectly legal to own and operate.
Gaslighting is defined as the act of psychologically manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity and reality. Gaslighting is executed through a variety of tactics, one of which is called “concern trolling.” Concern trolling is where a member of one group poses online as a member of another group and voices their concern over specific questions they need answered before they can fully dedicate themselves to the cause. In reality, they are already entirely opposed to the cause, and they are tricking other members into thinking critically about a specific subject.
Using GSA SER, you can scrape or collect hundreds of thousands of proxies. These are either openly shared lists of computers with open ports or an evolving list of peoples’ computers with open sockets and ports exposed to outside connections. These computers often require no passwords to connect to, and once you connect to them, everything you do through it appears as if it is coming from that computer’s location. Within minutes of installation, you can scrape thousands of open proxies within the Russian Federation, People’s Republic of China, and the United States of America. Some of these are operated by governments and are acting as honeypots. A honeypot is essentially a trap set up by a federal government. They know people will try connecting to it and will use it for illegal purposes. They can then easily track who originally connected to the proxy to hide their activity.
This is one way you can collect, find, and use proxies to hide or misdirect the source of information. With a little research, you can find sources to rent proxies from specific countries for only a few dollars per month. Here is one for Russian proxies, priced at less than $10 per month.
With this software, anyone can pump out as much content to a wide variety of sites, however, most of the sources it can post to are essentially devoid of human readers. How can someone push an idea into mainstream media or use giant social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to expose people to ideas and content they normally would ignore?
The Social Signal Fix
Unfortunately, this is also a rather simple problem to fix. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all use advanced algorithms to detect and share news, articles, pictures, and more at the speed of light based on the social signals they generate. The more popular and relevant something is the more likes, shares, favorites, views, and retweets the article will have. Could you spoof the social signals of a specific idea or article to force these platforms into exposing you to a greater audience via the trending category?
The answer is yes. You can experiment with the variety of bots available to download, or you can outright buy likes, followers, and more directly from companies that offer them. The bots currently available on the market can create accounts, auto-load them with appropriate information for the profile and bio of the account, and even send prescribed tweets. With decent know-how and a lot of time on your hands, you can create your own virtual army to promote any cause you prefer. Alternatively, like the rented proxies, you can pay for specific social signals, some you can even automate through a subscription. Imagine guaranteeing 10 to 20 people retweet and like everything you say? In search of the truth, I decided to try this on my own account.
I tested out buying social signals on my personal Twitter Account. My Twitter account typically gets between 400 to 1,000 impressions on Twitter per tweet, and around 50 engagements per tweet. My experiment starts off small, as I decided to buy Twitter followers from Devumi and proceeded to make a single tweet. Then, I purchased a small allotment of retweets and likes, and it received more than 8,500 impressions and over 400 engagements.
In fact, this tweet stayed trending throughout the night on this special trending hashtag, #LieOfTheYear. The fact that for only a few dollars I could control a valuable portion of exposure and traffic on Twitter is astounding. The possibility for corporate manipulation, let alone government propaganda, is even easier than before.
Devumi has been around for almost a decade and has Soundcloud plays, YouTube views, Pinterest Repins, Linkedin connections, and other social signals to offer. I choose to use them for this experiment because I read reviews of Twitter follower providers and they seemed like the safest bet. I don’t want to get flagged by Twitter and penalized, as I only have a few thousand real Twitter followers. That being said, there are other companies that openly sell up-votes on Reddit and some that offer sponsored mentions. This is one of those things you never think the internet can offer.
The misconception that the decentralization of information and news via social networks will help prevent propaganda and fake news is entirely backward. Now, using simple techniques, governments and companies can control even the slightest ideas you are exposed to, and product placements can be easily snuck into the front page of the internet.
The illusion of unlimited access and control allows you to get comfortable and expose yourself to very specific ideas and unnoticed product placements. It allows you, regardless of what political leanings or religious beliefs, to live in a bubble of your own ideas. It lets you create your own echo chamber of beliefs.
I accomplished all of this with less than an hour of research and purchasing. It took longer to find a good picture to place on my selected tweet.
Putin and Russia Attack US Elections? Follow the Fake News.
Does this mean Putin or Russia did or did not hack the U.S. election? Trump is known for his success in marketing his brand effectively. There is nothing stopping him from executing a similar campaign while leaving the proxies and the blame on Russia. What is conclusive is that anyone can recreate this experiment on their own account and promote their own agenda. What are the chances that both candidates are already using tactics like these? According to a Inspector Generals report, the State Department spent $630,000 on Facebook likes to promote different pages they control.
Perhaps every celebrity, politician, government, and entertainer has their managers doing this for their public relations. Could Trump have just done a more effective job, perhaps by deliberately focusing our collective attention on his growing online presence and Twitter following? Here is just one instance where he tells the viewers how important Twitter is and reminds us how much his following is growing by each week.
The recent crackdown on fake news by Facebook and others is already drawing controversy. Even if there was a perfect way to algorithmically block fake news from the URL’s domain within Facebook and other social networking sites, it’s going to be impossible to block these social signals. Outside of an overt cooperation between governments and Facebook to only allow one exclusive account per person, there is no perfect way to distinguish a real social signal versus a social signal coming from a well-dressed fake account. Even news sites that are banned can get their ideas out in the form of graphics, or memes, and those graphical assets will still go viral.
Even if you don’t buy robotic followers, you’ll end up being followed by them. These bot accounts are designed to follow random people and celebrities so they can avoid discovery by Twitter’s algorithm. The scary part might actually be when Twitter decides to start punishing users who buy followers or engagements. They would turn into weapons that you could use on your competition, forcing Twitter to punish them. According to Twitter’s IPO filing, they estimate 5 percent of their monthly users are fake. Twitter also generates all of its income from impression-based ad revenue. If they killed off 5 percent of their users, they would lose 5 percent of their ad revenue. Don’t hold your breath waiting for an executive willing to shoot themselves in the foot for this one.
[Featured Image by John Moore/Getty Images]