Election security and Russian trolls


Staff & Wire Reports



FILE - This March 5, 2018, file photo show the East Front of the U.S. Capitol at sunset in Washington. Just two months before the midterm elections, bipartisan legislation to try to prevent foreign hacking into U.S. election systems is stalled in Congress as the White House and some Republicans worry it could exert too much federal control over the states. Supporters of the bill say the delay could embolden Russia, which targeted election infrastructure in at least 21 states in 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

FILE - This March 5, 2018, file photo show the East Front of the U.S. Capitol at sunset in Washington. Just two months before the midterm elections, bipartisan legislation to try to prevent foreign hacking into U.S. election systems is stalled in Congress as the White House and some Republicans worry it could exert too much federal control over the states. Supporters of the bill say the delay could embolden Russia, which targeted election infrastructure in at least 21 states in 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)


Election security bill backers say delay helps Russia

By MARY CLARE JALONICK

Associated Press

Tuesday, September 4

WASHINGTON (AP) — Just two months before the midterm elections, bipartisan legislation to try to prevent foreign hacking into U.S. election systems is stalled in Congress as the White House and some Republicans worry it could exert too much federal control over the states.

Supporters of the bill say the delay could embolden Russia, which targeted election infrastructure in at least 21 states in 2016.

A committee vote on the bipartisan bill was abruptly canceled two weeks ago after objections from some Republican senators and the states they represent. And Republicans and Democrats who are supporting the bill say they don’t know when — or if — it will be taken up again in the few remaining weeks Congress is in session before the midterms.

The delay has some concerned that Congress could punt on the only piece of legislation that is designed to fix what went wrong in 2016 — and to prevent Russia or other countries from trying again. There is no evidence that the Russian targeting of state election systems was successful or changed any votes, but lawmakers, intelligence officials and elections experts say that they believe Russia will return in 2018 and beyond with more sophisticated tools.

It also demonstrates Congress’ struggle to develop a cohesive response to the Russian interference — especially as President Donald Trump has at times questioned whether it even happened.

The White House issued a lukewarm statement on the election security bill, neither endorsing nor opposing it but saying that “if Congress should choose to continue to pursue” the legislation they want to ensure that it does not duplicate ongoing federal efforts to help states or violate the principles of federalism.

“We cannot support legislation with inappropriate mandates or that moves power or funding from the states to Washington for the planning and operation of elections,” said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.

The bill was negotiated over the last year by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Lankford says the White House did not block the bill, but that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “had concerns” after hearing from states and other interests that suddenly realized the bill was moving forward. Klobuchar similarly said concerns came from “leadership on the Republican side.”

McConnell’s office would not comment on his involvement with the bill, or whether he heard from states or other groups about concerns.

Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the House Rules and Administration Committee, the panel that canceled the vote, says Congress is sending the wrong message to Russia by delaying the bill.

By passing the legislation, “you send a message that we are beefing up going forward, as opposed to standing down, which is what this looks like,” Klobuchar said of the delay.

Maine Sen. Angus King said he thought there had been a bipartisan desire to fix what went wrong in 2016.

“It is frustrating because, to me, this is low-hanging fruit,” said King, an Independent who sits on both the Senate intelligence committee and the Rules Committee. The intelligence panel has been investigating Russia’s intervention for almost two years, and improving election security has been one of its top priorities.

Some states have objected to the legislation because it would require all states to use paper ballots as a backup to electronic systems if they want to receive federal election money for voting equipment. While many states are already using paper ballots, a small number say it’s too expensive or burdensome.

The legislation would also require that all 50 states conduct audits after elections and direct the Homeland Security Department to immediately notify any states if the federal government detects that they have been hacked. The last requirement came after Homeland Security took almost a year to notify some states that Russians had targeted them in 2016.

The bill has several prominent Republican supporters, including Lankford, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri and Senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina. But other Republicans, including some in states that don’t have paper ballots, have objected to the cost and what they say would be added paperwork.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts said he heard from Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach with concerns about the bill and he is not supporting it. He said county officials are already doing a good job and “don’t want to be loaded down with paperwork.”

Kansas only partially uses paper ballots currently.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said he too has problems with the bill.

“This is a big step, the federal government moving in there,” Shelby said.

Roberts and Shelby both sit on the Senate Rules Committee, the panel that canceled the vote.

Several of the states that don’t use paper ballots are now in the process of replacing their machines, including Louisiana, South Carolina and Delaware, among others. But others have said it is too expensive or have objected to the legislation setting a new federal mandate.

“Although there has been considerable debate regarding the pros and cons of various voting systems, we believe this is a decision that should be left to state legislatures,” Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett said in a statement. Tennessee only partially uses paper ballots now.

Texas has also objected to the bill, saying they would need more federal money if the federal government required new machines.

Lankford says that most states are already using paper ballots, so those who don’t do it now should be able to figure it out as well.

“We’re not trying to federalize elections,” Lankford said. “That’s the last thing we want to do.”

Separately, the bill has also lost some support from some election integrity groups who said the final, compromised language did not include strong enough requirements for the state audits.

Blunt has not yet said if there will be another vote in the Rules Committee. In a statement, he pinned the bill’s hopes on a classified election security briefing that happened Aug. 22, the same day the vote was canceled.

“If that changes enough minds to have significant bipartisan support for the bill, we will report it from the committee,” Blunt said.

Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Boston, Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Hannah Grabenstein in Little Rock, Ark., Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tenn., Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, and John Hannah in Topeka, Kan. contributed to this report.

This story has been corrected to show that Shelby is from Alabama, not Mississippi.

The Conversation

How views on priestly celibacy changed in Christian history

September 5, 2018

Author

Kim Haines-Eitzen

Professor of Early Christianity, Cornell University

Disclosure statement

Kim Haines-Eitzen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

The recent report of widespread sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania has fueled increasing turmoil within the leadership of the Catholic Church. In July this year, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, resigned following allegations against him.

Opponents of Pope Francis are urging him to resign in light of allegations that he knew about McCarrick’s behavior.

At a moment when a culture of secrecy, and what appear to be systematic cover-ups are leading to a crisis of faith, some people are asking whether priestly celibacy is at the root of these scandals.

The fact is for a long time the Catholic Church struggled with its interpretation of Scriptures on priestly celibacy. It wasn’t until the 12th century that priestly celibacy became mandatory.

Scriptural basis for celibacy

In the middle of the first century, Paul, the most influential apostle of the early Christian movement, wrote a letter to a congregation of Jesus followers in Corinth, Greece. It contains the earliest record of a discussion about celibacy and marriage among “believers,” as Christians were called at the time.

‘Saint Paul Writing His Epistles.’ Valentin de Boulogne

Apparently, the members of the church had written to Paul what appears to be a simple and specific argument in favor of celibacy: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” they write. We do not know who wrote these words to Paul or why they made this claim.

But Paul’s response to their claims provides a basis for later Christian views on marriage and celibacy, sex and self-control, and ethics and immorality.

He writes,

“Because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. … Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set of time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command.”

For Paul, marriage was a concession: He appears to view it reluctantly as merely an acceptable choice for those who cannot control themselves.

He goes on to say, “I wish that all were as I myself am,” implying at the very least that he is not married. And he confirms this in the passage that follows,

“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

Marriage, in Paul’s view, is the lesser choice. It is for those who cannot control themselves. Although difficult, remaining unmarried and choosing celibacy, seems to be the higher ideal.

Interpretations of Paul

As a a scholar of early Christianity, I know that Scriptural interpretations are always dynamic; Scripture is read and understood by different Christians in different time periods and places. So, it is not surprising that a short time later, Paul’s writings found new meaning as asceticism – the practices of self-control that included fasting, celibacy, and solitude –began to spread within Christianity.

A second-century expansion on the story of Paul, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, a largely fictional story about Paul’s missionary efforts in what is now modern Turkey, casts Paul primarily as a preacher of self-control and celibacy. In this story, Paul blesses “those who have wives as if they have them not.”

Such a phrase may sound strange to modern readers. But as monasticism grew within Christianity, some married Christian couples were faced with a problem: They did not want to divorce their spouses, because Scripture spoke against divorce. And yet they wanted to choose the life of celibacy. So these Christians chose to “live as brother and sister,” or “to have wives as if they had them not.”

At the same time, stories of failures to keep vows of celibacy abounded: stories of monks and nuns who lived together and bore children, stories of monks who took mistresses, and stories about behaviors that today would be considered sexual abuse.

These stories emphasized that temptation was always a problem for those who chose celibacy.

Celibacy and crisis

In the Middle Ages, the celibacy of the priesthood became a source of conflict between Christians. By the 11th century, it contributed to the formal schism between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

But the issues were far from resolved. Divergent views on mandatory celibacy for priests contributed to the reform movements in the 16th century. Martin Luther, a leader of the Protestant Reformation, argued that allowing priests to marry would prevent cases of sexual immorality. He drew upon Paul’s letters for support of his views.

On the other hand, leaders of the Catholic Church’s “Counter-Reformation,” a reform and renewal movement that had begun before Martin Luther, did not advocate marriage, but sought to address corrupt practices among the clergy.

Desiderius Erasmus, for example, a 16th century Catholic scholar, wrote a powerful critique of corruption in the Catholic Church. His views may well have been shaped by the fact that he himself was the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest.

One of the most important developments in this period was the creation of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, which sought to reform the priesthood in the face of accusations of sexual relations and corruption by, in part, improving the education of priests. In the founding rules of the Jesuit order, emphasis was placed on the importance of celibacy, training and preparation for missionary work, and serving the directives of the pope.

A man holds placards as he takes part in a protest during the visit of Pope Francis to Dublin, in August 2018. Can Pope Francis bring reform? Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Pope Francis too is a Jesuit and has a long church history and tradition that he could draw from. The question is, at a time when the church is facing a crisis, will he show the way towards renewal and reform?

Propaganda-spewing Russian trolls act differently online from regular people

September 5, 2018

Authors

Savvas Zannettou

Ph.D. Student in Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering and Informatics, Technological University of Cyprus

Jeremy Blackburn

Assistant Professor of Computer Science, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Disclosure statement

Savvas Zannettou receives funding from EU project “ENCASE” Grant Agreement number 691025.

Jeremy Blackburn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

As information warfare becomes more common, agents of various governments are manipulating social media – and therefore people’s thinking, political actions and democracy. Regular people need to know a lot more about what information warriors are doing and how they exert their influence.

One group, a Russian government-sponsored troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, was the subject of a federal indictment issued in February, stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian activities aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Our recent study of that group’s activities reveals that there are some behaviors that might help identify propaganda-spewing trolls and tell them apart from regular internet users.

Targeted tweeting

We looked at 27,291 tweets posted by 1,024 Twitter accounts controlled by the Internet Research Agency, based on a list released by congressional investigators. We found that these Russian government troll farms were focused on tweeting about specific world events like the Charlottesville protests, specific organizations like ISIS and political topics related to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

That finding fits with other research showing that Internet Research Agency trolls infiltrated and exerted influence in online communities with both left- and right-leaning political views. That helped them muddy the waters on both sides, stirring discord across the political spectrum.

Distinctive behavior

We also found that these troll-farm accounts behaved differently from regular people online. For example, when declaring their locations, they listed a country, but not any particular city in that country. That’s unusual: Most Twitter users tend to be more specific, listing a state or town, as we found when we sampled 1,024 Twitter accounts at random. The most common location designation for Russian troll accounts was “U.S.,” followed by “Moscow,” “St. Petersburg,” and “Russia.”

In addition, the troll accounts were more likely to tweet using Twitter’s own website on a desktop computer – labeled in tweets as “Twitter Web Client.” By contrast, we found regular Twitter users are much more likely to use Twitter’s mobile apps for iPhone or Android, or specialized apps for managing social media, like TweetDeck.

Working many angles

Looking at the Internet Research Agency accounts over 21 months, between January 2016 and September 2017, we found that they frequently reset their online personas by changing account information like their name and description and by mass-deleting past tweets. In this way, the same account – still retaining its followers – could be repurposed to advocate a different position or target a different demographic of users.

For instance, on May 15, 2016, the troll account with the Twitter ID number 4224912857 was calling itself “Pen_Air” with a profile description reading “National American news.” This particular troll account tweeted 326 times, while its followers rose from 1,296 to 4,308 between May 15, 2016, and July 22, 2016.

But as the U.S. presidential elections approached, it changed: On September 8, 2016, the account changed its name to “Blacks4DTrump” and its profile description to “African-Americans stand with Trump to make America Great Again!” Over the next 11 months, it tweeted nearly 600 times – far more often than its previous identity had. This activity no doubt helped increase the account’s follower count to nearly 9,000.

The activity didn’t stop after the election. Around August 18, 2017, the account was repurposed again. Almost all of its previous tweets were deleted – leaving just 35. And its name became “southlonestar2,” with a description as “Proud American and TEXAN patriot! Stop ISLAM and PC. Don’t mess with Texas.”

In all three incarnations the account’s tweets focused on right-wing political topics, using hashtags like #NObama and #NeverHillary and retweeting other troll accounts, like TEN_GOP and tpartynews.

These troll accounts also often tweeted links to posts from Russian government-sponsored organizations purporting to be news.

Fighting trolling

Though our research focused on Twitter, the Internet Research Agency didn’t. It even expanded beyond Facebook: In early 2018, Reddit announced that Russian trolls had likely operated on its site as well. That report highlights the fact that the companies hosting social media and online discussion sites are the best informed about what’s happening on their systems. As a result, in our view, the platforms’ companies should provide technical solutions, analyzing activity and taking action to safeguard users from secret influence campaigns from government agents.

Yet even if the large platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit were somehow able to completely eradicate trolling by professional government agents, there are many smaller communities online that may remain vulnerable. Some of our previous work has shown how ideas that first emerge on fringe sites like 4chan can rapidly make it to mainstream discussions online and in the real world. Russian trolls could take advantage of that tendency to infiltrate these smaller sites, like Gab or Minds, influencing real people who also use those systems – and getting them to spread propaganda and disinformation more widely.

It’s clear to us that technological solutions on their own cannot solve the problem of government-sponsored trolling online. The trolls’ efforts take advantage of weaknesses in society; the only fix for that is for people as individuals and collectively to think more critically about online information, especially before sharing it.

FILE – This March 5, 2018, file photo show the East Front of the U.S. Capitol at sunset in Washington. Just two months before the midterm elections, bipartisan legislation to try to prevent foreign hacking into U.S. election systems is stalled in Congress as the White House and some Republicans worry it could exert too much federal control over the states. Supporters of the bill say the delay could embolden Russia, which targeted election infrastructure in at least 21 states in 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2018/09/web1_121289290-68405429610f4e4997db345b8be90710.jpgFILE – This March 5, 2018, file photo show the East Front of the U.S. Capitol at sunset in Washington. Just two months before the midterm elections, bipartisan legislation to try to prevent foreign hacking into U.S. election systems is stalled in Congress as the White House and some Republicans worry it could exert too much federal control over the states. Supporters of the bill say the delay could embolden Russia, which targeted election infrastructure in at least 21 states in 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Staff & Wire Reports