Mark Twain’s 1897 quote had it right: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” One possible Truth in the current fracas involving Russians, Trump’s campaign team for the 2016 presidential election, and social network companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter is that this is an early example of wars that are fought by hackers and the Internet rather than soldiers and guns. Numerous semi-fiction books could be written or movies created about this craziness. One possible plot is that the Russians knew how unusual (AKA weird) Donald Trump is, and preferred him to Hillary Clinton as president because they could exploit that unusualness (AKA weirdness). A bunch of congresspeople are calling for regulation of these giant Internet-based companies. So are the media, who are far more regulated than Facebook, Google, and Twitter. These are crazy times, and the Russians and other enemy nations must be enjoying all the gyrations that the US is going through.
Even more dangerous to individuals, America, and the whole world, are the loopholes in the processes at internet giants like Facebook and Google. Technology is evolving faster than it can be controlled by either man or machine. And since these companies make most of their money by selling ads, exciting events—whether or not correctly reported on—boost their revenues and profits.
The technology of rapid-fire firearms that are available to crazed murderers like Craig Paddock who murdered dozens and injured hundreds in Las Vegas on October 1, is the most serious recent example. That technology was not kept in check by proper rules (and their enforcement) regarding what firearms can be sold to whom. On the information side Facebook and Google allowed two known rightwing “hate news” sites to post incorrect information unfettered, for minutes in the case of Facebook and for hours in the case of Google. All the information gaps here can can ultimately be traced to errors by humans, either failures in the basic design and implementation of the laws/rules or in the software, or in the review by people. Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle, and is misusing its powers.
Beyond such “fake news”, which can be distributed widely and quickly, the very content of the ads can be hurtful. Facebook and Google (including YouTube) apparently accepted a considerable number of ads from Russia supporting Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Since those ads were paid for, which is how those companies make money, they were motivated to accept them. Apparently only in retrospect did they investigate, after which they reported on what happened, but Facebook, at least, didn’t tell the whole story.
Like the old saw “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it” (including President Trump, who refuses to recognize global warming), there doesn’t yet seem to be any consequences for these tech giants. But change may be in the offing from places like Stanford University, which has launched a new Global Digital Policy Incubator, with a speech by Hillary Clinton. We can only hope that we can get the genie back into the bottle, by getting these tech giants under control … if that is possible.
There aren’t many, or any, surveys with more respondents than the polling accompanying U.S. presidential elections. And all such polls have error, both from simple randomness and from non-response bias. This year’s inaccuracy was not the first flagrant example. In 1948 newspapers trumpeted incorrectly that Dewey had beat Truman.
The 2016 election had an important source of randomness and confusion, namely the unpredictable behavior of Donald Trump. And one of the other sources of confusion was the difference between the Electoral College (whose results are the ones used to determine the winner) and the popular vote (which is interesting but not governing). It is still not clear as of November 14 (nearly a week after Election Day), but it appears that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and any polling that dealt mainly with the popular vote could easily draw the wrong conclusion.
Additional errors can arise from the inconsistency among the states regarding mail-in ballots or voting places open as early as September 19. The 46 million early voters (prior to election day) included a large number of unaffiliated (neither Democratic nor Republican) voters, making it hard to predict voter behavior on election day. (The total voter count was 130 million.) Beyond this, voter turnout apparently wasn’t predicted accurately
Traditional telephone polling also was a source of errors. Some people intending to vote for Trump were ashamed to admit it when they were surveyed with live interviews. Automated-dialer calls with recorded voice and Internet polling gave better results. But these calls cannot be used with cellphones.
Of all the analyses of the causes of the inaccuracy of the polls, we found the ones by Sean Trende on Rear Clear Politics the most helpful. Most perceptive was his finding that the polls were OK, but the conclusions by the pundits weren’t.