The whole to-do was deeply embarrassing for the Silicon Valley wannabes trying to disrupt a rinky-dink way to vote. But “major app problems” describes the state of our 21st-century politics well beyond one calamitous piece of software.
Transmitting results digitally opens up a whole cyber-world of hacking risk — yet Iowa insisted on doing it anyway. Organizers did try to guard against disaster by requiring precincts to include snapshots of an on-paper count. But there’s a lot more they didn’t do, such as test their system statewide or tell any security experts the name of the for-profit company that constructed the app in a hurried two months. (That name, by the way, is “Shadow, Inc.” Now don’t you feel better?)
Yet despite the opening this malpractice gave to malicious actors, the evidence so far suggests there was no meddling. Instead, we messed with ourselves.
Iowa party officials started by crying “user error” to explain the struggles many precinct captains had downloading and uploading. Okay, if “user error” means very few people could use the app without encountering an error. Some encountered limited bandwidth because so many individuals were accessing the program at the same time, which the party might have anticipated considering they were running 1,681 caucuses simultaneously. Some in rural areas ran into poor wireless service, which the party also should have anticipated considering, well, it is Iowa. The next day, officials began to blame a “coding issue.”
Admittedly, some older folks may have struggled to navigate the app because, yes, some older folks struggle with these newfangled gadgets. That shouldn’t have been so hard to anticipate, either. They wanted to call in their results, same as always, but the phone number was busy — overwhelmed in part by people frantically attempting to request aid for all those “user errors.”
The Iowa imbroglio, in other words, so far reveals lots of incompetence and little insidiousness. More tech isn’t always better, and, in this case, it was worse because a product wasn’t fully tested and didn’t function as it was supposed to.
Other products out there, however, functioned precisely as designed — and that was precisely the problem.
The disinformation started long before results were (not) in. Conservative activists such as Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA insisted falsely that “EIGHT Iowa counties have more adults registered to vote than voting-aged adults living there” and begged for retweets, which they received en masse — including from some accounts that don’t appear to belong to real-life humans, much less real-life Iowans.
The alleged defects of the cursed app and the “inconsistencies” they caused were even more of a mother lode for the right-wing web. “Quality control = rigged?” tweeted President Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, with a thinky-face emoji. Don Jr. and Eric Trump were sent salivating.
“And by ‘Quality Control’ they mean fixing the results to get the candidate the Democrat Overlords in DC want,” declared the eldest scion. “Mark my words, they are rigging this thing… what a mess,” Eric chimed in half an hour later.
Twitter deemed these conspiracy theories fair game, and permitted them to spread unchecked. Facebook, for its part, labeled some of the earlier posts as misleading after third-party fact-checkers gave their say-so. But Facebook still generally allows politicians to lie as much as they want, even to pay to promote their lies across the platform. And, of course, there’s the ever-churning cesspool of speculation from everyday users who might not even know what’s right or wrong.
The gulf between what’s viral and what’s verified on these sites isn’t a user error or coding issue, a technical glitch or a bug. It’s the whole point. Because more attention from consumers means more money from advertisers, algorithms reward engagement. And nothing gets more engagement than the sensational. In turn, this setup allows actual bugs from hapless party bureaucrats to look ominous rather than just inept. Iowa has a paper trail to confirm its count, but the time the state is taking to ensure accuracy is also time for trolls to allege a grand fix.
This is the landscape that Vladimir Putin made his personal sandbox four years ago. The aim of a disinformation campaign is to kill a country’s trust in itself. Now, with the Web’s help, we Americans are playing along — whether it is Breitbart fever-swampers spreading outright lies, or Bernie Sanders supporters alleging that the establishment apparatus deliberately engineered the dumbest caucus night of all time, or Joe Biden’s campaign urging skepticism about the reliability of results — whenever they do limp out of Des Moines — to distract from his sad showing.
What’s broken is a lot bigger than one pitiful app.