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Senator Mark Warner: The 21st century’s wars will be fought with misinformation

With the 2020 election on the horizon, one of Washington’s best minds on regulating tech shares his fears about social media manipulation and discusses Congress’s failure to tackle election security and interference.

Senator Mark Warner: The 21st century’s wars will be fought with misinformation
[Photo: AP/Shutterstock]

Senator Mark Warner has proved himself to be a sort of braintrust on tech issues in the Senate. Through his questioning of tech execs in hearings and the oft-cited white papers produced by his office, the Virginia Democrat has arguably raised the Senate’s game in understanding and dealing with Big Tech.

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After all, Warner and tech go way back. As a telecom guy in the 1980s, he was among the first to see the importance of wireless networks. He made his millions brokering wireless spectrum deals around FCC auctions. As a venture capital guy in the ’90s, he helped build the internet pioneer America Online. And as a governor in the 2000s, he brought 700 miles of broadband cable network to rural Virginia.

Government oversight of tech companies is one thing, but in this election year Warner is also thinking about the various ways technology is being used to threaten democracy itself. We spoke shortly after the Donald Trump impeachment trial and the ill-fated Iowa caucuses. It was a good time to talk about election interference, misinformation, cybersecurity threats, and the government’s ability and willingness to deal with such problems.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Fast Company: Some news outlets portrayed the Iowa caucus app meltdown as part of a failed attempt by the Democratic party to push their tech and data game forward. Was that your conclusion?

Mark Warner: I think it was a huge screwup. Do we really want to trust either political party to run an election totally independently, as opposed to having election professionals [run it]? We have no information that outside sources were involved.

I think it was purely a non-tested app that was put into place. But then you saw the level and volume of [social media] traffic afterwards and all the conspiracy theories [about the legitimacy of the results]. One of the things I’m still trying to get from our intel community is how much of this conspiracy theory was being manipulated by foreign bots. I don’t have that answer yet. I hope to have it soon. But it goes to the heart of why this area is so important. The bad guys don’t have to come in and change totals if they simply lessen American’s belief in the integrity of our voting process. Or, they give people reasons not to vote, as they were so successful in doing in 2016.

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The bad guys don’t have to come in and change totals if they simply lessen American’s belief in the integrity of our voting process.”

Senator Mark Warner

FC: Do you think that the Department of Homeland Security is interacting with state election officials and offering the kind of oversight and advice they should be?

MW: Chris Krebs [the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in DHS] has done a very good job. Most all state election systems now have what they call an Einstein (cybersecurity certification) program, which is a basic protection unit. I think we are better protected from hacking into actual voting machines or actual election night results. But we could do better.

There were a number of secretaries of state who in the first year after 2016 didn’t believe the problem was real. I’m really proud of our [Senate Intelligence] committee because we kept it bipartisan and we’ve laid [the problem] out—both the election interference, and the Russian social media use. I don’t think there’s an election official around that doesn’t realize these threats are real.

But I think the White House has been grossly irresponsible for not being willing to echo these messages. I think it’s an embarrassment that Mitch McConnell has not allowed any of these election security bills to come to the floor of the Senate. I think it’s an embarrassment that the White House continues to fight tooth and nail against any kind of low-hanging fruit like [bills mandating] paper ballot backups and post-election audits. I’m still very worried that three large [election equipment] companies control 90% of all the voter files in the country. It doesn’t have to be the government, but there’s no kind of independent industry standard on safety and security.

FC: When you think about people trying to contaminate the accuracy or the legitimacy of the election, do you think that we have more to worry about from foreign actors, or from domestic actors who may have learned some of the foreign actors’ tricks?

MW: I think it’s a bit of both. There are these domestic right-wing extremist groups, but a network that comes out of Russia—frankly, comes out of Germany almost as much as Russia—reinforces those messages. So there’s a real collaboration there. There’s some of that on the left, but it doesn’t seem to be as pervasive. China’s efforts, which are getting much more sophisticated, are more about trying to manipulate the Chinese diaspora. There’s not that kind of nation-state infrastructure to support some of this on the left. Although ironically, some of the Russian activity does promote some of the leftist theories, some of the “Bernie Sanders is getting screwed” theories. Because again, it undermines everybody’s faith in the process.

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FC: Are you worried about deepfakes in this election cycle?

It undermines everybody’s faith in the process.”

Senator Mark Warner

MW: The irony is that there hasn’t been a need for sophisticated deepfakes to have this kind of interference. Just look at the two things with Pelosi—the one with the slurring of her speech, or the more recent video where they’ve made it appear that she was tearing up Trump’s State of the Union speech at inappropriate times during the speech. So instead of showing her standing up and applauding the Tuskegee Airmen, the video makes it look like she’s tearing up the speech while he’s talking about the Tuskegee Airmen.

These are pretty low-tech examples of deepfakes. If there’s this much ability to spread [misinformation] with such low tech, think about what we may see in the coming months with more sophisticated deepfake technology. You even have some of the president’s family sending out some of those doctored videos. I believe there is still a willingness from this administration to invite this kind of mischief.

FC: Are there other areas of vulnerability you’re concerned about for 2020?

MW: One of the areas that I’m particularly worried about is messing with upstream voter registration files. If you simply move 10,000 or 20,000 people in Miami Dade County from one set of precincts to another, and they show up to the right precinct but were listed in a different precinct, you’d have chaos on election day. I’m not sure how often the registrars go back and rescreen their voter file to make sure people are still where they say they are.

One area I want to give the Trump administration some credit for is they’ve allowed our cyber capabilities to go a bit more on offense. For many years, whether you were talking about Russian interference or Chinese intellectual property thefts, we were kind of a punching bag. They could attack us with a great deal of impunity. Now we have good capabilities here, too. So we’ve struck back a little bit, and 2018 was much safer. But we had plenty of evidence that Russia was going to spend most of their efforts on 2020, not 2018.

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That’s all on the election integrity side. Where we haven’t made much progress at all is with social media manipulation, whether it’s the spreading of false theories or the targeting that was geared at African Americans to suppress their vote in 2016.

FC: We’ve just come off a big impeachment trial that revolved around the credibility of our elections, with Trump asking a foreign power to help him get reelected. As you were sitting there during the State of the Union on the eve of his acquittal in the Senate, is there anything you can share with us about what you were thinking?

MW: In America, we’ve lived through plenty of political disputes in our history and plenty of political divisions. But I think there were rules both written and unwritten about some level of ethical behavior that I think this president has thrown out the window. While a lot of my Republican colleagues privately express chagrin at that, so far they’ve not been willing to speak up. I’m so worried about this kind of asymmetric attack from foreign entities, whether they’re for Trump or not for Trump. If Russia was trying to help a certain candidate, and the candidate didn’t want that help and that leaks out, that could be devastating to somebody’s chances. [Warner proved prescient here. Reports of that very thing happening to Bernie Sanders emerged days later on February 21.]

If you add up what the Russians spent in our election in 2016, what they spent in the Brexit vote a year or so before, and what they spent in the French presidential elections . . . it’s less than the cost of one new F-35 airplane. In a world where the U.S. is spending $748 billion on defense, for $35 million or $50 million you can do this kind of damage. I sometimes worry that maybe we’re fighting the last century’s wars when conflict in the 21st century is going to be a lot more around cyber misinformation and disinformation, where your dollar can go a long way. And if you don’t have a united opposition against that kind of behavior, it can do a lot of damage.

FC: Do you think Congress is up to the task of delivering a tough consumer data privacy bill anytime soon?

MW: We haven’t so far and it’s one more example of where America is ceding its historic technology leadership. On privacy, obviously the Europeans have moved with GDPR. California’s moved with their own version of privacy law. The Brits, the Australians, and the French are moving on content regulation. I think the only thing that’s holding up privacy legislation is how much federal preemption there ought to be. But I think there are ways to work through that.

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I do think that some of the social media companies may be waking up to the fact that their ability to delay a pretty ineffective Congress may come back and bite them. Because when Congress [is ready to pass regulation], the bar’s going to be raised so much that I think there will be a much stricter set of regulations than what might’ve happened if we’d actually passed something this year or the year before.

I’ve been looking at what I think are the issues around pro-competition, around more disclosure around dark patterns. I’ve got a half dozen bills—all of them bipartisan—that look at data portability, [data value] evaluation, and dark patterns. I’ve been working on some of the election security stuff around Facebook. We are looking at some Section 230 reforms. My hope is that you have a privacy bill that we could then add a number of these other things to, because I think the world is moving fast enough that privacy legislation is necessary but not sufficient.

FC: You’re referencing Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which protects tech companies from being liable for what users post on their platforms and how they moderate content. To focus on the Section 230 reforms for a moment, are you contemplating a partial change to the language of the law that would make tech platforms legally liable for a very specific kind of toxic content? Or are you talking about a broader lifting of tech’s immunity under the law?

MW: Maybe Section 230 made some sense in the late ’90s when [tech platforms] were startup ventures. But when 65% of Americans get some or all their news from Facebook and Google and that news is being curated to you, the idea that [tech companies] should bear no responsibility at all about the content you’re receiving is one of the reasons why I think there’s broad-based interest in reexamining this.

I think there’s a growing sensitivity that the status quo is not working.”

Senator Mark Warner

I think there’s a growing sensitivity that the status quo is not working. It’s pretty outrageous that we’re three and a half years after the 2016 campaign, when the whole political world went from being techno-optimists to having a more realistic view of these platform companies, and we still haven’t passed a single piece of legislation.

I’ve found some of Facebook’s arguments on protecting free speech to be not very compelling. I think Facebook is much more comparable to a cable news network than it is to a broadcasting station that does protect First Amendment speech. And the way I’ve been thinking about it is that it’s less about the ability to say stupid stuff or racist stuff—because there may be some First Amendment rights on some of that activity—but more about the amplification issue. You may have a right to say a stupid thing, but does that right extend to guaranteeing a social media company will promote it a million times or 100 million times without any restriction?

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This story is part of our Hacking Democracy series, which examines the ways in which technology is eroding our elections and democratic institutions—and what’s been done to fix them. Read more here.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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