Evan Francen Joins the Paul and Jordana Show
FRSecure CEO Evan Francen joined the Paul and Jordana show on February 14, 2018 to discuss how Russian hackers used social media to influence the 2016 presidential election, and how social media users can prevent fake news from impacting their decisions. This is an excerpt from the conversation.
So, did the Russians meddle in the presidential election, or is that fake news? Who do you believe? On Tuesday, the nation’s intelligence chiefs gave senate lawmakers a stunning warning. They said meddling with America’s elections in 2016 worked like a charm for the Russians in 2016, so there is “no doubt” they will try again during the 2018 midterms. Lawmakers voiced fears that the U.S. electoral system is just as unprepared to deal with this in 2018 as it was two years ago.
George W. Bush believes it. The entire U.S. intelligence community seems to believe it. Even some members of Trump’s cabinet believe it, but according to reports, Donald Trump is still skeptical that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election. According to some sources, the President believes that accepting that the Kremlin interfered would then mean admitting that he had help to win the election. The report came hours after U.S. intelligence chiefs unanimously testified about Russian involvement in 2016. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said there should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.
Jordana: So what does meddling mean? We’re not talking about fake voting. People don’t do that. We have strict voting laws. That’s not a thing. What we’re talking about is online influence and the spread of fake news. Evan Francen is the CEO of FRSecure and a tech expert. Talk to us about what these intelligence chiefs mean? Do they mean the spread of online news that is totally false to create chaos within our system?
Evan: Absolutely. I think it’s a multi-pronged attack. I think the one that creates the best “bang for the buck” for Russians, or anybody looking to influence the elections, would be that disinformation campaign.
Jordana: Give us an example of that. Disinformation campaign. What does that mean?
Evan: The Russians (or anybody really, it doesn’t just have to be the Russians) can control millions, or tens of millions of computers and post things on Twitter, Facebook, our social media platforms, and really influence information. We’re a herd society, so you hear one thing and you tend to believe it’s true.
Paul: I’m just curious Evan, is everybody doing this? Are we doing this? Is there evidence that this is prevalent, or have the Russians just taken this to a new level? Is this just a new form of informational warfare?
Evan: I think it is a new level. Social media has never been more popular than it is today. We’re more influenced as a society by social media than we ever have been. And we are definitely doing disinformation campaigns as well. The difference here when we talk about elections is the Russian election is controlled. It’s not as open. It’s not democratic like the U.S. election, so it’s not swayed as much by the disinformation campaigns. But, disinformation has been going on ever since Russia has been an adversary since the Cold War.
Jordana: The question then becomes: What can we do about it, and what are we doing about it? We have been hearing that Facebook and Twitter are trying to crack down on fake news and fake accounts. Is that enough?
Evan: I think it is. It’s about as much as they can do. It really falls on us as members of society. And I understand the challenge. Even our news has become so politicized. You read CNN, you get one story. You read Fox News, you get another story. What is the truth? The onus is on us, before we cast our vote, to really get down to it and figure out what the truth is. You’ll just have to use your own discernment.
Jordana: How do we get educated about that?
Paul: How do we inoculate ourselves? When you’re looking at a post on Facebook anywhere, or even a tweet, how do we know it’s from a trusted source and not coming from god-knows-where?
Evan: That’s a good point. Where we consume the news, we really don’t have insight in controlling the different sources and where they’re getting their information. I don’t think there’s any real way to be certain about what the truth is. Our news has become so politicized. I don’t know of a good answer to finding the absolute truth unless you witness it first hand.
Jordana: I’ve had friends in my own Facebook circle forward me a piece someone had written or forward me an article. The one my friend sent was totally fake. I responded back to her and I said, “You need to understand that this is fake news. What you sent me is not real. I know you’re outraged by it (because you should be) because somebody made it up.” She was a little embarrassed. I was nice about it, but she said, “Wel,l thanks for telling me.” I think once you point it out to somebody that they’re propagating fake news, or they’ve been duped, they feel like, “Oh, okay. Wow, I’m a smart person. I should have known better.” I think that they are more cautious, and less willing to just “Forward! Forward! Forward!” on Facebook. I think instead of just ignoring it on Facebook from some gullible friends that send stuff, I think you should bring it to their attention. That would go a long way. I never want to be the person who spreads propaganda, so I try to vet everything. I even said to my dad, “Dad, this isn’t real. I know this was sent to you by these like uber-rightwing lunatic people, but this isn’t real, and you have to know that.” I took the piece that he sent me, and I called up a professor of political science and I said, “My dad sent this to me. Can you please explain how this is not real?”, and then I copied and pasted what he said and I sent it back to him. I said, “Please send this back to everyone that sent it to you because they need to know that this is fake news.” I mean, that’s my dad! He’s an educated man, but he got wrapped up in the politics, and people do get passionate. I think just being real with our friends goes a long way.
Paul: Evan, it’s true that we all sort of filter and, in some cases, delete evidence, news, and headlines that conflict with our worldview, political beliefs, and our biases. Everybody comes into this with their own biases. Everybody’s different. What overarching advice would you have for listeners when it comes to figuring out if the news is something they can trust? Is there a better informational hygiene that we can all take advantage of? None of us wants to get snookered by the news.
Evan: I’m a security person. I tell people all the time that we’re not normal. There are 322 million people in this country and there’s only about 700,000 people like me. I say that because I’m more skeptical than most people. So the information that you consume, there’s a healthy level of skepticism to take these things in and really make your own judgment. I’m skeptical of just about everything. It’s a fine line between skeptical and paranoia, but that’s about the best you can do. When you’re talking about your own use of computers and your own accounts, the best advice is if you notice anything that seems unusual, question it. Computers only do what you tell them to do. If somebody told it to do something that seemed a little different than it did the last time you used it, don’t just blow it off. Try to identify what the source is. Maybe one of your accounts has been hacked. Maybe someone is using your computer in a way that you didn’t intend it. Just constantly be skeptical of whatever you’re hearing.
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