Is political hacking activism?

As  chatter regarding Bernie Sanders’ absence from the Dem ballot lit up my social accounts yesterday, I largely ignored it.

Some people cried fraud, and others agreed the late filing of paperwork was an honest mistake. Either way, we all know there’s cheating in politics these days, I thought to myself.  There’s always been cheating. With the rise of tech, though, there are just many more opportunities for pilfering data, creating fake supporters (or detractors) and rallying the power of the web for good  AND bad, depending on the hack’s beliefs.

But last night, an article about cheating and politics did pique my interest.

Bloomberg’s “How to Hack and Election” grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Except for a line about an “armed caravan including six motorcycles speeding through the capital at 60 mph,” all the finger-pointing seems legitimate (If you’ve ever been to Bogotá, you know there is no way a caravan of six motorcycles can go 60 miles per hour through the streets).

Detailing the life and work of Andrés Sepúlveda, a  Colombian who claims to have been rigging elections for years, and the man he says he worked for, Juan José Rendón, the article reads kind of like a modern-day Manchurian Candidate.

OK, that’s maybe a stretch. There are no sleeper agents, and no card games wherein a queen of diamonds activates the agent. But there are color-coded destruct sequences, bullet-proof vests, assassination attempts, and even a QR code–which is, to me, is a modern spin on the idea of a trigger.  In short, the article is a captivating read,whether you want to read up on political deception, Latin American politics, or hacking.

In one section, the writer illustrates some of Sepúlveda’s work:

“…in Tabasco, Sepúlveda set up fake Facebook accounts of gay men claiming to back a conservative Catholic candidate representing the PAN, a stunt designed to alienate his base. “I always suspected something was off,” the candidate, Gerardo Priego, said recently when told how Sepúlveda’s team manipulated social media in the campaign.”

I was struck by just how similar this act was to a less “deceptive” bit of volunteer work orchestrated by Dan Savage in 2003. Savage gracefully (IMO) redefined Sen. Santorum’s name with the help of friends and readers across the web. He did it all above the belt, by which I mean openly, not as a hack.

Now, he certainly wasn’t tg to rig a campaign.  But the work was, well, perhaps a bit damaging. Jumping ahead a few years,  the senator got himself an aide who has helped clean up the Santorum mess (pun totally intended); he too, is working technology and social media in a calculated way to manipulate outcomes. [In a final note on this aside, check out this great Mother Jones Santorum illustration from 2015]

Again, I’m not saying the work of Savage and Santorum’s aide is the same as rigging an election. But… where is the line drawn? Is there a line that can be drawn? If the Bloomberg piece leaves the reader shaking his or her head at the crookeness of politicans and the people and “the game” in Latin America, shouldn’t our own game be looked at through the same lens? You know it’s happening here, too…maybe just in a different way.

 

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