The year’s biggest loser was the American public
Even if we judge 2016 purely on the musical legends it stole from us, it would be an awful one. The truth is, this year has been rough by any standard. Our social networks, ostensibly designed to connect us, led us to turn on one another. Incidents of harassment and abuse came to define Twitter. Our already bitter and destructive discourse dissolved even further in the midst of a divisive election season. Meanwhile Facebook was flooded with an alarming number of fake news stories. And if that wasn’t enough, we were constantly reminded that none of us are safe from the seemingly endless barrage of hackers. Yep, this year the American public lost, big league.
Let’s start with one of the biggest revelations of the year: that over 500 million Yahoo email accounts were compromised in what the company claims was a massive state-sponsored hack. Though the attack actually happened in 2014, it wasn’t until this year that Yahoo acknowledged the breach. At least half a billion people — and potentially many more (one anonymous former Yahoo exec claimed the number of victims was at least twice that) — had their names, email addresses, phone numbers, birthdays and security questions compromised. The one bigger hacking revelation, also came from Yahoo. In mid December the company acknowledged that over a billion accounts were hacked in a complete separate attack. But of course, in true Yahoo fashion, this actually happened in 2013 — the company sat on this information for three years before saying a single word to its customers.
While it’s almost impossible to put a dollar amount on the Yahoo hack, there were plenty more breaches that cost the country millions (maybe billions) and hurt the public’s faith in our institutions and leaders. In August it was revealed that an attack on Oracle compromised over 330,000 cash registers across the US. The top suspect was considered to be Russian cybercrime syndicate Carbanak, a group that has previously been implicated in hits on banks worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Marriott, Hyatt, Intercontinental, Le Méridien, Renaissance, Sheraton and Westin hotels were all compromised, as were Wendy’s and other fast food and retail chains. The financial cost was manageable, but the damage to public trust seems irreversible.
Faith in our security apparatus only sunk further when it became clear that even the tech elite weren’t safe. This year Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Sundar Pichai (Google), Dick Costolo (Twitter), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Brendan Iribe (Oculus), and Daniel Ek (Spotify) were all victimized. Perhaps the highest-profile hack on an individual was Leslie Jones. After briefly being chased from Twitter by racists and misogynists, she returned to the social network emboldened by an outpouring of support from fans. But the good vibes were short lived, as her Tumblr was hacked and explicit photos of her were posted online. The images were quickly removed, but it was clear that the worst elements of the internet had crossed beyond simple trolling. They had become weaponized.
Our government and bureaucracies weren’t safe from cyber criminals, terrorists and international rivals either. Over 100,000 e-file PINs were stolen from the IRS early this year, and almost 30,000 employees of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security had their personal information stolen. Several hospitals across the country were held ransom by malware, as was the San Francisco transit system. Not even our democratic systems were spared, with election boards in Arizona and Illinois falling victim to off-the-shelf hacking tools. The takeaway from all of this: Nobody is safe.
These attacks weren’t all committed by lone wolf hackers or organized cybercrime syndicates either. In some instances the top suspects have been foreign governments. Security researchers and politicians often accuse North Korea and China, but the most common antagonist in these stories ends up being Russia and the regime of Vladimir Putin. The leak of health data from Olympic athletes in September has been widely attributed to the hacking group Fancy Bear, which many experts believe operates at the direction of Russian military intelligence. The hack of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and subsequent leaking of data are viewed by many to be a retaliation for more than 100 Russian athletes being banned from the 2016 games after they were implicated in a state-sanctioned doping scandal.
The highest-profile episode pinned on Russian hackers was an attack targeting the DNC, John Podesta, Colin Powell and several other members of the American political establishment. While concrete proof of Russia’s involvement hasn’t been made public, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence and many in the security industry and intelligence services have publicly blamed the Kremlin.
Whether those behind the hacks were independent actors or state-sponsored saboteurs, one fact remains indisputable: Those emails wound up in the hands of WikiLeaks, which launched a concerted campaign to undermine Hillary Clinton and her allies. For much of 2016 the organization seemingly shifted its mission from promoting radical transparency to playing unofficial opposition researcher for Donald Trump. It’s hard to quantify exactly what impact the continual drip of information had on the outcome of the election, but it surely played some role in influencing voters. The leaked emails provided ammunition to Clinton’s critics, who used the contents of the stolen data to paint her (often fairly) as a Washington insider tangled up with special interests and foreign governments.
Considering all of this, it’s no surprise that the American public’s faith in its political system and leaders is at an all-time, dangerous low, according to Gallup. This lack of confidence became readily apparent on social media. Our already polarized public spent much of 2016 attacking one another on Twitter and Facebook. Sure, Twitter has always had its fair share of vitriol, but this year it became a full-on crisis.
Meanwhile armies of paid Russian trolls proved to be a strange new force in American public discourse. And Macedonian teens looking to make a buck turned a small local town into an epicenter of over 100 pro-Trump websites.
While the confirmed and suspected Kremlin influence on US politics drove the left to regress to Cold War rhetoric (culminating in one of the most bizarre moments in presidential debate history), it was an emerging far-right movement that became the most talked about. The so-called alt-right — a loose conglomerate of racists, misogynists and white nationalists — turned many people’s Twitter mentions into a terrifying minefield of threats and slurs.
The movement especially targeted members of the media, with tireless harassment and anti-Semitic threats (PDF) leveled at journalists. David French’s story is terrifying not only because of what he and his family had to endure but also because it’s so common. The conservative writer for The National Review is an outspoken critic of Donald Trump. The punishment for running afoul of Trump, Ann Coulter and the most extreme elements of the right was horrifying, as he wrote:
I saw images of my daughter’s face in gas chambers, with a smiling Trump in a Nazi uniform preparing to press a button and kill her. I saw her face photo-shopped into images of slaves. She was called a “niglet” and a “dindu.”
Even members of the Engadget staff were not immune from this violent and often racially charged online harassment.
For other journalists, attempts to intimidate moved from the internet to the real world. Conservative blogger and radio host Erick Erickson’s children were shouted at in a store, and Trump supporters showed up at his doorstep to “berate” him after he disinvited the candidate from an event. Maggie Haberman of The New York Times had an envelope delivered to her home that “contained three pages of anti-Semitism, replete with an illustration of someone wielding a sword and warnings about the ‘prophecy’ against Judaism.” Tamara Keith of NPR and Huffington Post reporter Elise Foley were also sent threats to their homes, and Bethany Mandel of The Forward and The Federalist was the victim of a doxing campaign that attempted to expose private information about her online.
This backlash against the media was bigger, too, than anti-Semitic attacks on individuals. The entire industry became a punching bag for both the left and right. Distrust of the mainstream media ran so deep that it allowed fake news to flourish. Propaganda and misinformation from both ends of the political spectrum crawled out of their respective dark corners of the internet and flooded our Facebook feeds. Instead of the established, if flawed, voices of mainstream media, people turned to fringe outlets that reinforced their beliefs. Things only got worse when Facebook, which was facing accusations of liberal bias, replaced the humans curating its trending stories with an algorithm. Suddenly misleading and outright untrue reports were ricocheting around people’s echo chambers, with help from a presidential candidate who routinely tweets false claims and easily debunked information.
This rise of fake news and distrust in the media is just the latest development in a worrying rise of anti-intellectualism in the United States. But for many, it has mutated from a distrust of elites and experts into a full-on rejection of facts, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.
Consider climate change, an issue that didn’t receive the attention it deserved during the election season. At this point there is scientific consensus and clear data demonstrating that average temperatures around the globe are climbing and that this is strongly linked to a rise in man-made greenhouse gases. But unlike other scientific theories with vast amounts of supporting research, climate change remains a political football. Granted, this is hardly a new development, but America is now faced with a president who has called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese and a Congress whose committee leaders for science and technology tweet willfully misleading articles from propaganda sites.
If the president and Congress choose to reject scientific fact and roll back environmental protection, it will not only be America that loses but also potentially the whole world.
Check out all of Engadget’s year-in-review coverage right here.
Image credits: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images (Oracle sign), PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images (voting machines circa 2002), Associated Press (fake news sign)