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A Test of Meddle

A Test of Meddle

Fake news and election interference crashed back into the headlines this week. Early on Tuesday, Microsoft said it had found fake websites and other evidence suggesting that Russian hackers are expanding their list of potential political targets ahead of the 2018 US midterms. Later, Facebook revealed details of a suspected Iranian influence operation targeting people in the US, UK, Latin America, and Middle East. The social network also said it had removed hundreds of accounts linked to apparent Iranian and Russian misinformation efforts – showing that the private sector is casting a wide net in its search for potentially malicious activity.


We can expect more of this kind of thing as we head towards November. Unlike two years ago, when Russia’s attempts to swing the election through disinformation and hacking went unchallenged until it was too late, today the US government and private sector tech companies are on high alert, scanning the horizon for signs of underhanded foreign influence. With the US also signaling a more aggressive stance on broader cyber policy, this raises an important question: where do governments draw the line between mere “meddling” and “interference” that demands a response?

Way back in February, fellow Signalista Alex Kilment described three broad approaches to election interference: hacking the vote, by directly targeting voting machines and tallies; hacking the voters, by spreading false or inflammatory information to influence their choices on election day; or hacking democracy itself by raising doubts about the legitimacy of the entire process.

These are very different things, yet they tend to get lumped together in discussions about how to avoid a repeat of 2016. All three represent big problems for democracies around the world, but grappling effectively with the threat – and avoiding an over-reaction – may require distinguishing more carefully between them.*

Disclosure: Microsoft is a sponsor of GZERO Media.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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