Media expert describes age of ‘cyberwar’

  • Kathleen Hall Jamieson (Courtesy photograph) Maggie Smith—

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/1/2019 10:13:42 PM
Modified: 4/2/2019 11:43:21 AM

HANOVER — Misinformation spreading in India via WhatsApp. Fake social media accounts boosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg calling for regulation of online political ads.

“This has been one of those days,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, “where we say, if we should care about this as a global problem, the lights are starting to blink saying, this is a global problem.”

Jamieson had come to the Upper Valley to discuss her book, Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President, but she began by talking about how cyber attacks have moved well beyond those used in the 2016 U.S. election.

“As countries around the world grapple with this, and their legal systems try to adjust to these new realities, it’s important we recognize that, whether you call it cyberwar or not ... we have a new cyber order,” she said.

Jamieson spoke to about 50 people at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in a lecture sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth.

Her book describes how Russian hackers impersonated U.S. citizens on social media, pushing inflammatory and divisive messages with the intent of hurting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and helping to elect President Donald Trump.

Jamieson showed slides of Russian-created social posts of African Americans calling for an election boycott; of burqa-clad women labeled as ‘invaders;’ and an image of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan to keep Clinton from winning the presidency.

These posts were promoted using highly individualized ‘dark ads’ on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and the actual Americans who were targeted by the ads shared them with their social networks. Jaimeson reports that 126 million people on Facebook and 1.4 million people on Twitter were exposed to Russian-created posts.

“For practical purposes, the (social media) platforms were built to sell us to advertisers,” Jamieson said, adding that our capacity to review information before it becomes widely distributed to the public, “has pretty much disappeared.”

Jamieson repeatedly called out the media for focusing on campaign strategy instead of issues, and for failing to adequately source the email thefts from the Clinton campaign back to the Russians.

“The hacking wouldn’t have accomplished anything if the press hadn’t used the content, and I would argue, used the content uncritically,” she said.

“There’s a remarkable lack of self-awareness, at least in public, by the media outlets that played a role” in the 2016 campaign coverage, she said.

While Jamieson notes Facebook has made it more difficult for Russian trolls to infiltrate their site, hackers have moved on to other social media sites such as Instagram.

And with voting systems becoming increasingly digital, Jamieson expressed concerns about the integrity of future elections.

“If there’s one thing every secretary of state ought to be doing right now ... is making sure we have a paper trail on every single ballot,” she said.

Jamieson wrapped up by suggesting that nations enter into a “cyber treaty,” in which countries agree not to engage in these kinds of activities. “And if anyone engages against one, there will be a response from all.”

Ardis Olson of Hanover came to the lecture out of concern for how the failures of 2016 may be repeated in the next election. She hopes that by talking about those responsible for aiding the Russian efforts — news organizations, social media sites, and their users — we might keep it from happening again.

“We were all to blame here,” Olson said.

Matt Golec can be reached at

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