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The Future of Politics Is Robots Shouting at One Another – The Atlantic

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Presidential-campaign season is officially, officially, upon us now, which means it’s time to confront the weird and insidious ways in which technology is warping politics. One of the biggest threats on the horizon: Artificial personas are coming, and they’re poised to take over political debate. The risk arises from two separate threads coming together: artificial-intelligence-driven text generation and social-media chatbots. These computer-generated “people” will drown out actual human discussions on the internet.

Text-generation software is already good enough to fool most people most of the time. It’s writing news stories, particularly in sports and finance. It’s talking with customers on merchant websites. It’s writing convincing op-eds on topics in the news (though there are limitations). And it’s being used to bulk up “pink-slime journalism”—websites meant to appear like legitimate local news outlets but that publish propaganda instead.

There’s a record of algorithmic content pretending to be from individuals, as well. In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission had an online public-commenting period for its plans to repeal net neutrality. A staggering 22 million comments were received. Many of them—maybe half—were fake, using stolen identities. These comments were also crude; 1.3 million were generated from the same template, with some words altered to make them appear unique. They didn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny.

These efforts will only get more sophisticated. In a recent experiment, the Harvard senior Max Weiss used a text-generation program to create 1,000 comments in response to a government call on a Medicaid issue. These comments were all unique, and sounded like real people advocating for a specific policy position. They fooled the Medicaid.gov administrators, who accepted them as genuine concerns from actual human beings. This being research, Weiss subsequently identified the comments and asked for them to be removed, so that no actual policy debate would be unfairly biased. The next group to try this won’t be so honorable.

Chatbots have been skewing social-media discussions for years. About a fifth of all tweets about the 2016 presidential election were published by bots, according to one estimate, as were about a third of all tweets about that year’s Brexit vote. An Oxford Internet Institute report from last year found evidence of bots being used to spread propaganda in 50 countries. These tended to be simple programs mindlessly repeating slogans: a quarter million pro-Saudi “We all have trust in Mohammed bin Salman” tweets following the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, for example. Detecting many bots with a few followers each is harder than detecting a few bots with lots of followers. And measuring the effectiveness of these bots is difficult. The best analyses indicate that they did not affect the 2016 U.S. presidential election. More likely, they distort people’s sense of public sentiment and their faith in reasoned political debate. We are all in the middle of a novel social experiment.

Over the years, algorithmic bots have evolved to have personas. They have fake names, fake bios, and fake photos—sometimes generated by AI. Instead of endlessly spewing propaganda, they post only occasionally. Researchers can detect that these are bots and not people based on their patterns of posting, but the bot technology is getting better all the time, outpacing tracking attempts. Future groups won’t be so easily identified. They’ll embed themselves in human social groups better. Their propaganda will be subtle, and interwoven in tweets about topics relevant to those social groups.

Combine these two trends and you have the recipe for nonhuman chatter to overwhelm actual political speech.

Soon, AI-driven personas will be able to write personalized letters to newspapers and elected officials, submit individual comments to public rule-making processes, and intelligently debate political issues on social media. They will be able to comment on social-media posts, news sites, and elsewhere, creating persistent personas that seem real even to someone scrutinizing them. They will be able to pose as individuals on social media and send personalized texts. They will be replicated in the millions and engage on the issues around the clock, sending billions of messages, long and short. Putting all this together, they’ll be able to drown out any actual debate on the internet. Not just on social media, but everywhere there’s commentary.

Maybe these persona bots will be controlled by foreign actors. Maybe it’ll be domestic political groups. Maybe it’ll be the candidates themselves. Most likely, it’ll be everybody. The most important lesson from the 2016 election about misinformation isn’t that misinformation occurred; it is how cheap and easy misinforming people was. Future technological improvements will make it all even more affordable.

Our future will consist of boisterous political debate, mostly bots arguing with other bots. This is not what we think of when we laud the marketplace of ideas, or any democratic political process. Democracy requires two things to function properly: information and agency. Artificial personas can starve people of both.

Solutions are hard to imagine. We can regulate the use of bots—a proposed California law would require bots to identify themselves—but that is effective only against legitimate influence campaigns, such as advertising. Surreptitious influence operations will be much harder to detect. The most obvious defense is to develop and standardize better authentication methods. If social networks verify that an actual person is behind each account, then they can better weed out fake personas. But fake accounts are already regularly created for real people without their knowledge or consent, and anonymous speech is essential for robust political debate, especially when speakers are from disadvantaged or marginalized communities. We don’t have an authentication system that both protects privacy and scales to the billions of users.

We can hope that our ability to identify artificial personas keeps up with our ability to disguise them. If the arms race between deep fakes and deep-fake detectors is any guide, that’ll be hard as well. The technologies of obfuscation always seem one step ahead of the technologies of detection. And artificial personas will be designed to act exactly like real people.

In the end, any solutions have to be nontechnical. We have to recognize the limitations of online political conversation, and again prioritize face-to-face interactions. These are harder to automate, and we know the people we’re talking with are actual people. This would be a cultural shift away from the internet and text, stepping back from social media and comment threads. Today that seems like a completely unrealistic solution.

Misinformation efforts are now common around the globe, conducted in more than 70 countries. This is the normal way to push propaganda in countries with authoritarian leanings, and it’s becoming the way to run a political campaign, for either a candidate or an issue.

Artificial personas are the future of propaganda. And while they may not be effective in tilting debate to one side or another, they easily drown out debate entirely. We don’t know the effect of that noise on democracy, only that it’ll be pernicious, and that it’s inevitable.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Bruce Schneier is a fellow and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World and Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-Connected World.

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Is it time for Anwar Ibrahim to step aside? – Aljazeera.com

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s perennial prime minister-in-waiting, is facing questions over his leadership after a humiliating performance by his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in recent state elections.

The lack of votes left many wondering about its chances of success in national elections expected as early as next year.

Pakatan Harapan has been in opposition since a power grab in February 2020. Disgruntled elements within the coalition allied with politicians defeated in the historic elections of 2018 led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the government’s collapse.

Anwar, who was Mahathir’s designated successor, has been trying to win back power ever since, but last month suffered an enormous setback with a hefty defeat in the Melaka state elections.

The PH coalition only managed to retain five seats in the 28-seat state assembly, while allies, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), won four and Amanah, one. Anwar’s party, the People’s Justice Party or PKR, failed to win a single seat despite fielding 11 candidates.

The dismal performance sent Anwar trending on Twitter with thousands of Malaysians panning him over poor electoral strategies, and some urging him to retire to make way for younger leaders.

Analysts say voters punished PH for fielding controversial figures, including former Chief Minister Idris Haron who had been sacked from the PKR rival, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), after he withdrew his support and helped trigger the collapse of the state government in October.

Political analyst Bridget Welsh told Al Jazeera, Anwar, in particular, should be blamed for the poor strategy to field “frogs” – a term used for party hoppers – especially Idris, who had been vilified by PH on their way to victory in the state back in 2018.

“He (Anwar) is the one who advocated for the ‘frogs’, he pushed to accept the ‘frogs’ and he insisted on Idris Haron contesting. These people are tainted. Idris Haron was the reason Melaka was won by Harapan in GE14 (the 2018 election) and what does Anwar do now, pick him as the candidate. Anwar clearly has no understanding of the ground,” she said.

Anwar Ibrahim (second right) has been a prominent figure in Malaysian politics since he was recruited to the United Malays National Organisation by Mahathir Mohamad (centre). Anwar’s downfall in 1998 fuelled calls for reform and led to the development of an opposition that was finally able to win power in 2018 [File: Reuters]

Anwar has been one of Malaysia’s most prominent politicians for nearly 40 years. He emerged as a firebrand student leader, rose through the ranks in the UMNO, and was sacked from his position as deputy prime minister and finance minister by Mahathir in 1998 at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis.

The country watched agog as he was accused of sodomy and put on trial – a stained mattress hauled into court as a key piece of evidence.

Anwar ended up behind bars and has been jailed several times since, but his downfall and the protests that followed helped drive the rise of Malaysia’s first effective opposition.

Collective decision

Anwar’s wife founded PKR while Anwar was in jail – its flag a representation of the black eye he suffered at the hands of the country’s police chief while in custody.

Out of prison, Anwar transformed the party into a formidable force, building a coalition that put in an increasingly strong performance in elections throughout the 2000s.

In 2018, in the wake of the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal, and once again allied with Mahathir, Anwar’s former mentor, Pakatan Harapan was finally able to claim victory.

Anwar was pardoned and released from yet another prison stint shortly afterwards, and Mahathir named Anwar his successor.

But the transfer of power never happened.

After the PH government collapsed, it was veteran politician Muhyiddin Yassin who was deemed to have the backing of MPs and was sworn in as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister.

PKR Communications Director Fahmi Fadzil insists Anwar should not be blamed for the Melaka debacle.

“It is a collective decision, any decision made in PH is made collectively. At that point in time, to back Idris was a collective decision,” he told Al Jazeera.

The People’s Justice Party was founded by Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail after Anwar was sacked, accused of sodomy and jailed. The flag symbolises the black eye Anwar developed after being beaten in custody [File: Lai Seng Sin/AP Photo]

It is not the first time that Anwar has failed to deliver.

Last September, the former deputy prime minister claimed he had a strong, formidable and convincing majority to form a government, but only saw his plan fail.

And after Muhyiddin resigned after losing support in August, Anwar again claimed a majority to form government – only to lose out to UMNO Vice-President Ismail Sabri Yaakob who became the country’s ninth prime minister.

Indeed, Anwar has been claiming to have the numbers as far back as 2008 when he gathered a mass rally claiming he had enough support to replace then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but nothing came of it.

Al Jazeera requested for an interview with Anwar, but his office had not responded by the time of publication.

Among those seen as potential successors to Anwar are younger, fresher faces, such as his own daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, and PKR Vice-President Rafizi Ramli.

After the defeat, Rafizi, who has maintained a low political profile for the past few years, tweeted that he hoped Pakatan leaders would study the result, “reject ego”, and do better in the next general elections.

Even the DAP’s Anthony Loke, a former transport minister, hinted PH should not be insistent on naming only Anwar for the top post, suggesting other names be considered too.

Pro-Anwar group, Otai Reformasi jumped to Anwar’s defence, saying he should not be made the “black sheep” for the outcome of the Melaka elections.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Amanah Communications Director Khalid Samad said Anwar had weaknesses but that did not mean he needed to go, especially given his contribution to changing the face of Malaysian politics.

“Anwar has his weaknesses but nobody is perfect. If we make a decision based on weakness, there will be no perfect candidate. We must sit down together and make a decision,” he said, referring to the coalition’s choice for prime minister. He did not elaborate on what he considered Anwar’s weaknesses to be.

Reform was part of the appeal for those who voted for the Pakatan Harapan coalition. But conservatives fought against change, and the government backed away from signing the United Nation’s anti-discrimination convention after thousands of ethnic Malay Muslims, the country’s majority ethnic group, protested against the plan [File: Mohd Rasfan/AFP]

Khalid, who represents the city of Shah Alam, was coy on who Pakatan should name to take charge in the run-up to the 15th general elections, but said it would be a collective decision of all PH parties.

“The PH presidential council will decide when the time comes. We are fighting for certain ideals, not certain individuals. Whoever brings these ideals and can bring all parties together is the obvious choice,” he said.

Finding a vision

The Melaka results have highlighted the problems facing the coalition as it tries to win back power in a country, which is 60 percent Malay Muslim, but has large communities of people of Chinese and Indian descent as well as Indigenous ethnic groups. An election in the Borneo state of Sarawak will take place later this month.

Analysts say that the top of the agenda is to win the ethnic Malay vote after the departure of Bersatu, once Mahathir’s party, but now under Muhyiddin and currently part of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government.

Ei Sun Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, says Anwar, who is often seen as too liberal by Malays and too religiously conservative by non-Muslims, had failed in his appeal to the Malays.

“The voters voted for PN which contains both a racialist Bersatu and a religious PAS. It is mainly the dilemma faced by a supposedly progressive and liberal PH that finds it difficult to capture an increasingly conservative, racialist and religious Malay voter base, old and young alike,” he told Al Jazeera.

Politicians within Pakatan are also concerned.

“The voter base is saying something. PH is in a quandary, we have no nationalist Malay party as we did in 2018 with Bersatu,” said DAP’s Klang Member of Parliament Charles Santiago.

Other than capturing Malay votes, PH also has to try and lure young people to the cause.

The coalition has seen its support among the youth evaporate, largely due to their failure to implement promised reforms when they were in power, such as the repeal of repressive laws like the Sedition Act, abolishing student loans, and acceding to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The plan was dropped after a mass protest by ethnic Malays.

PH’s former poster boy for youth, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, has also left the fold to found Muda, his own youth-based party. The party has yet to secure official registration, but has created a new rival in Pakatan’s efforts to attract young voters.

Young people have found their political voice in Malaysia, but have been critical not only of recent governments, but the opposition Pakatan Harapan as well [File: Arif Kartono/AFP]

With Malaysia finally set to lower the voting age to 18 – a reform pushed through by Syed Saddiq when he was youth and sports minister – the youth vote is set to expand the electorate from 14.9 million during the 2018 elections, to 22.7 million in 2023, the deadline for the next elections.

DAP’s Assistant Political Education Director Ong Kian Ming says PH should push out a more youth-oriented narrative focusing on jobs, technology and education opportunities to capture the young people’s vote.

“PH has to regroup to present a new and more compelling narrative moving ahead. PH leaders must show vision and direction to the voters in Malaysia in order to change the current sentiment that is lukewarm and not supportive of PH,” said Ong, who is a member of parliament for Bangi on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

For analyst Welsh, the key is Anwar.

She says the 74-year-old veteran has to make way for those with more dynamic ideas – if PH is to challenge effectively in the next election.

“The issue here is he (Anwar) is clearly not willing to give way. A lot of people think it is about his personal ambition and he is losing the support of party members and the political base.

“You have to position younger leaders and rebrand as a coalition. In short, Anwar has to lay out an exit plan,” she said.

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U.S., S.Korea to update war plans while urging diplomacy with N.Korea

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The military chiefs of the United States and South Korea said on Thursday they plan to update contingency war plans and review their combined military command while urging North Korea to return to diplomacy.

North Korea’s missile and weapons developments are increasingly destabilising for regional security, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said after talks with his South Korean counterpart, Suh Wook.

Austin and U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were in Seoul for the first such annual military talks with South Korean officials since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January, and the last before South Korean President Moon Jae-in leaves office in May.

North Korea has continued to rebuff U.S. entreaties for diplomacy since Biden took over from Donald Trump, who had three summits with leader Kim Jong Un.

The United States calls on the North to engage in dialogue, Austin told a news conference, saying diplomacy is the best approach to pursue with North Korea, backed up by a credible deterrent.

The changing security environment prompted the United States and South Korea to agree to update longstanding operational planning for a potential conflict with North Korea, as well as review their combined military command, Suh said.

The United States stations around 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice but not a peace treaty.

Currently, the United States would command those troops in the event of war, but South Korea has been seeking to gain “operational control” (OPCON).

Suh said the two sides made progress on meeting conditions for OPCON transfer to South Korea.

The United States has pledged to maintain the current level of U.S. troops in South Korea, he added.

This week the Pentagon released a global posture review that calls for additional cooperation with allies and partners to deter “potential Chinese military aggression and threats from North Korea,” including a previously announced decision to permanently base an attack helicopter squadron and artillery division headquarters in South Korea.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Phil Stewart; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Stephen Coates)

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U.S. defense secretary eyes international response to Russia on Ukraine

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday suggested any U.S. response to Russia’s actions towards Ukraine would be carried out in conjunction with the international community, as he called on Moscow to be transparent about its military buildup.

Austin, during a visit to South Korea, also voiced hope that the United States and Russia could work to “resolve issues and concerns and lower the temperature in the region.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned Moscow to pull back its troops from the Ukrainian border, saying a Russian invasion would provoke sanctions that would hit Moscow harder than any imposed until now.

Asked whether fallout on Russia would be strictly economic, Austin declined to answer directly, saying only that the “best methods” would be used.

“Whatever we do will be done as a part of an international community. The best case though is that we won’t see an incursion by the Soviet Union into the Ukraine,” Austin said, accidentally calling Russia the former Soviet Union.

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that aspires to join the European Union and NATO, has become the main flashpoint between Russia and the West as relations have soured to their worst level in the three decades since the Cold War ended.

Ukraine says Russia has deployed more than 90,000 troops near their long shared border.

Moscow accuses Kyiv of pursuing its own military build-up. It has dismissed as inflammatory suggestions it is preparing for an attack on Ukraine but has defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it sees fit.

 

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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