On Sept. 25, ePluribus co-founder Aidan McCarty spoke to the Mills College community about the havoc fraudulent social media is wreaking on the American democratic process. Proposing a solution, he introduced his company’s tech-based platform for more credible civic engagement.
On the heels of election interference in the 2016 presidential race, McCarty and his brother, Liam McCarty, spent the subsequent summer (on an OZY Genius Award Grant) in Washington D.C. To dig deeper into the issue, the brothers talked with more than 200 elected officials, staffers, lobbyists, public relations (PR) firms and political entrepreneurs.
“If you are [an] elected official, how do you know what’s real and what’s not?” McCarty asked. “That’s the fundamental problem we’re trying to solve.”
The conversations highlighted that representatives’ constituent management systems are easily deceived, and that “black magic PR firms” engage in astroturfing. In this practice, the origins of an organization’s agenda are disguised; so-called black magic PR firms generate false public participation so that political interest appears to be coming from grassroots participants.
“If you go to a representative’s contact page today, the way they ask you to verify is by entering your address…They literally have an address in their district at the bottom of their page, which is their office in their district,” McCarty said. “If you copy and paste that into their forum, they think you’re a constituent. So, it’s an incredibly easy system to spoof.”
The Pew Research Center found that, in 2017, 94% of 21.7 million consumer comments that the FCC received about net neutrality were fraudulent or duplicated. In fact, on nine separate occasions, more than 75,000 comments were submitted at the exact same time. The end result of fake engagement and accounts is immense distrust in public messaging delivered electronically.
Therefore, to build a bridge between the technology of Silicon Valley and the politics of Washington D.C., McCarty and Liam McCarty created the ePluribus platform for constituents to send digital messages to their elected officials more easily and effectively. Their goal also includes combating fake civic participation and helping restore integrity to the democratic process.
“Contrary to popular belief, engagement is actually not the problem,” McCarty said. “The problem instead is that this activity doesn’t matter, because it reaches the representatives and they can’t tell what’s real, which means that those people are not being heard.”
Pew Research reported that social networking in on a steep rise; the number of such online users increased from 33% in 2008 to 69% in 2012. In conjunction, 34% of adults surveyed had contacted a government representative via the internet.
The technology can be accessed for free through a mobile app, an embeddable widget or a Chrome extension that integrates with Facebook, Twitter and news sites. Once downloaded, users create a unique “civic ID” that confirms them as a real person and an actual constituent. Representatives can, therefore, trust in what is being sent to them through the platform.
ePluribus relies on another McCarty founded application, Unum ID, to enable identity verification. Using state-of-the-art blockchain technology, this second platform authenticates users through name, email, home address and phone number.
“This is only becoming possible today,” McCarty said. “The emerging standards for this sort of technology has been funded by the Department of Homeland Security, and other major government institutions, but have been enabled only by recent tech developments. We’re playing off of those.”
Furthermore, Unum ID offers a decentralized infrastructure, meaning that each user’s civic ID is verified and encrypted on their device. In this set-up, users can control when and where their personal data is applied and, on the other end, recipient organizations can quickly affirm a person’s identity.
McCarty explained that this is far more secure than a centralized model that stores huge amounts of user data in one place. For instance, in the 2017 Equifax data breach hackers stole the information of up to 145.5 million consumers from one web application. In the case of Unum ID, those hackers would have to breach not one, but 145.5 million user devices.
“Our vision is not only to have Unum ID in ePluribus, making sure you can reach representatives as verified constituents, but to work with local governments, state governments, federal agencies, other civic tech platforms to make sure that every aspect of your life is secure, and verified,” McCarty said. “That’s the long-term goal.”
Originally from the swing state of Wisconsin, both McCarty brothers came to California to attend Stanford University. Liam McCarty is a Physics alum; McCarty majored in biochemistry but dropped out to focus on ePluribus, Unum ID and the general issue of identity fraud in politics.
“[People thought] that I was crazy. For sure. This was a problem that we wanted to solve, but [also] we needed to solve” McCarty said. “Finally, [we] raised a little bit of money to get the thing off the ground…that’s what made my parents say ‘hey, you can leave school.’ Definitely it’s a hard road, but it’s very rewarding.”
Multiple federal intelligence agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, found the Russian government orchestrated a large-scale cyber operation to obstruct the 2016 U.S. presidential election, encouraging political and social discord. Russia has denied all claims of election interference.
“How did American politics go insane?” McCarty asked. “Trump was rising in the polls. A lot of people didn’t even think he should be eligible to run for president, as someone who was such an ideologue. Congress was at a standstill yet again, with Democrats and Republicans not working together and refusing to find common ground.”
The Russian Internet Research Agency created thousands of bogus social media accounts and used them to fake American support of radical political groups, supporting Donald Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton. In addition, Russian-controlled media outlets spread fabricated articles and disinformation through social media. This interference reached millions of social media users between 2013 and 2017.
Computer hackers, associated with the Russian military intelligence service, breached the servers of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Clinton’s campaign. During the campaign season, DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks released the files and emails that had been stolen.
“If you make it harder for people to meddle in politics, you make it such that they would have to spend billions instead of millions to fake identity,” McCarty said. “That’s how you make this democracy more secure.”
For more information about ePluribus, visit their website at www.epluribus.io.