Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Nov. 8 2016 6:00 PM

That Voting Machine Problem in Utah That Upset Trump? It Was a Copy-Paste Error.

A problem with memory cards affected more than three-quarters of voting machines in Washington County, Utah, this morning. The problem was resolved completely “shortly after noon,” according to a statement from the county’s election board, but that didn’t stop Donald Trump from tweeting about it—and mistakenly condemning the entire nation’s voting machines in the process.

Nov. 8 2016 1:08 PM

Was Your Ballot Rejected in Colorado? Don’t Panic!

Over the last few days, Slate has received reports that some Coloradans who mailed in their ballot were panicked upon being informed online that their votes were rejected. The state does a terrible job explaining why some votes are rejected and how the problem can be remedied. But if you’re a Coloradan facing this issue, rest assured: You will soon have an opportunity to ensure that your vote is counted.

The difficulty here involves signatures. In Colorado, all mail-in ballots must include a signature affirming the voter’s identity. This signature is typically run through a “signature verification device” that compares it with the signature from the voter’s registration form. If the device notices up a discrepancy, two election judges of different political affiliations compare the signatures. If both agree that the signatures don’t match, the county sends the voter a letter explaining the discrepancy and a form allowing him or her to confirm identity by including a copy of valid ID. So long as the county receives this form within eight days after Election Day, the ballot will be counted. Voters can also trek down to the county office to prove their identification in person.

Unfortunately, many poll workers appear unaware of this process. One Coloradan told Slate that poll workers told someone that his vote would not count because his signature was rejected. This information is simply false as are burgeoning conspiracy theories that the state is rejecting the signatures of voters who supported Donald Trump. But it is a sad reality that Colorado’s strange system has the potential to disenfranchise voters whose signatures do not remain perfectly consistent. If you’re a Coloradan who mailed in your ballot, just be sure to check your mail over the next week. Your vote could quite literally depend on it.

Nov. 8 2016 12:29 PM

Voting Machines: Hacked or Broken? Probably Just Broken.

Voting machines break and malfunction every election, all across the country. This year is no different. It doesn’t mean the election is being hacked.


Nov. 7 2016 2:16 PM

Trump Says It’s Impossible to Search 650,000 Emails in Eight Days. He’s Wrong.

Let’s say you’re convinced Hillary Clinton is a crook and that she must have been hiding something incriminating on that private email server of hers. FBI Director James Comey’s vague announcement on Oct. 28 that the bureau was reviewing a new batch of Clinton emails must have come as a relief and a validation. Surely, this time, her misdeeds would be revealed, and her plot to keep America from being made great again would be foiled once and for all.

Then, on Sunday, Comey announces that the FBI has reviewed the new emails and found no grounds on which to charge Clinton. Galling, right? They must not have looked hard enough!

No wonder, then, that Donald Trump and his supporters have been scouring for signs that the FBI didn’t really review those emails properly. In the wake of Comey’s latest announcement, the Trump campaign and its media allies were quick to seize on what they thought was a telltale sign that the inquiry was rigged. The FBI was reported to be reviewing 650,000 emails found on disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s laptop. But it concluded its review in just over a week. “You can’t review 650,000 new emails in eight days,” Trump said at a rally on Sunday. “You can’t do it, folks.”

People who really should know better were quick to agree. Retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012–2014, chimed in on Twitter with what he must have thought was some awfully persuasive back-of-the-envelope math.

He was joined by former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who tweeted:

There are 691,200 seconds in 8 days. FBI Director Comey reviewed 650,000 emails in 8 days? An email per second? Americans aren't stupid!

Kerik’s tweet, which Breitbart reported as evidence of the apparent “statistical impossibility of the FBI’s investigation,” has since been deleted, which should tell you where this is going.

The critique seems to imply that the FBI would have had to review each of the emails individually, perhaps even manually, in order to home in on the ones pertinent to the Clinton investigation. But as numerous information technology and computer security experts have pointed out, there are at least two very simple steps that could automatically filter a huge batch of emails down to a far smaller number. First, you could filter them by address to weed out those that were neither sent to or from Clinton, or the associates who used her private server. Second, you could search their Message-ID headers to identify those that are simply duplicates of emails the FBI had already obtained elsewhere.

Security researcher Robert Graham, New America cybersecurity fellow Adam Elkus, and forensic scientist Jonathan Zdziarski were among the many to rebut Trump’s logic. Even Edward Snowden weighed in. And Wired’s Andy Greenberg has a comprehensive explanation, in layman’s terms, of how straightforward it would be to review hundreds of thousands of emails. “Eight days is more than enough time to pull this off in a responsible way,” Zdziarski told Wired.

Indeed, law enforcement officials told the New York Times, NBC News, and others that the vast majority of emails on Weiner’s computer turned out to be either personal messages or duplicates of messages the FBI had already examined.

It’s not uncommon for the nation’s political discourse to revolve around “common sense” arguments that appeals to the layperson’s intuitions. Of course, the workings of modern technology do not always align with those intuitions. Trump’s use of a readily debunked argument about Clinton’s emails should surprise no one. The more troubling aspect of this story is that people like Flynn and Kerik, who have been entrusted with some of the country’s most senior law enforcement and intelligence positions, seem to be unaware of their trade’s basic forensic tools—and ready to publicly leap to conclusions based on their ignorance.

At least Kerik deleted his tweet. As of 1:30 p.m. EST on Monday, Flynn’s was still on Twitter, racking up the retweets and providing fodder for bogus stories and blog posts that will—with the help of Facebook’s algorithms—continue to mislead voters and persuade people that the investigation was rigged, even as they head to the polls.

Nov. 4 2016 6:00 PM

Facebook Is Fueling an International Boom in Pro-Trump Propaganda

On Thursday, BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman reported on a bizarre and booming cottage industry that has sprung up in a single industrial town in the Balkans:

Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 U.S. politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the U.S.

These sites plagiarize or aggregate stories, both real and fake, from right-wing U.S. sites, then slap provocative headlines on them and post them to Facebook. Some of the most popular stories, Silverman reports, include false claims that the pope endorsed Trump, that Gov. Mike Pence called Michelle Obama “the most vulgar first lady we’ve ever had,” and that Hillary Clinton will be indicted for her use of a private email server. These stories garnered far more engagement on Facebook than legitimate investigative stories from the likes of the New York Times.

These Macedonian clickbaiters aren’t doing this because they support Trump, Silverman says. Rather, they’re doing it for profit. A 16-year-old who runs a site called BVAnews.com told him it’s averaging 1 million page views per month. He declined to share revenue figures, but in theory that could translate to tens of thousands of U.S. dollars per year—many times more than Macedonia’s median income. The 16-year-old told Silverman he experimented with pro–Bernie Sanders news during the primary, but found pro-Trump content far more popular on the social network.

Facebook's fake news problem isn't confined to either Macedonia or this year’s election, of course. The news feed has long been conducive to the spread of hoaxes, chain letters, and the like. But this campaign appears to have given rise to a new and uniquely troubling strand of political hokum, as the New York Times’ John Herrmann documented in a magazine feature on what he called “Facebook’s (totally insane, unintentionally gigantic, hyperpartisan) political-media machine.”

Speaking of giving credit where it’s due, it’s worth noting that BuzzFeed is not the first to report on the peculiar phenomenon of pro-Trump sites in Macedonia. The Guardian published a similar story in August. And the first reporting I could find on the Macedonia connection to pro-Trump news came from Renee Nal via the now-defunct Examiner.com, who at the time wondered if it could be evidence of foreign interference in the election. That doesn’t seem to be the case based on subsequent reports, including Silverman’s reporting, although the Guardian did talk to one Macedonian politics site owner who said his personal goal was to influence U.S. policy.

In a way, however, the story is more interesting if you view it as a simple market response to the incentives Facebook's news feed creates. Facebook appears to have made a genuine effort in recent years to prioritize what it calls “quality content,” as opposed to spam, scams, or misleading clickbait. Yet here we are, in the home stretch of a momentous election in which truthful reporting should be at a premium, and Facebook is overrun with viral dross that's misleading voters, fueling partisan rage, and—according to an analysis of the data on hyperpartisan news sites by BuzzFeed in October—benefiting one candidate far more than the other.

Who needs foreign interference when you have Facebook?

Update, Nov. 4, 2016, 8:05 p.m.: Facebook responded to Slate’s request for comment with the following emailed statement from Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management for the news feed:

We take misinformation on Facebook very seriously.
We value authentic communication, and hear consistently from those who use Facebook that they prefer not to see misinformation. In News Feed we use various signals based on community feedback to determine which posts are likely to contain inaccurate information, and reduce their distribution. In Trending we look at a variety of signals to help make sure the topics being shown are reflective of real-world events, and take additional steps to prevent false or misleading content from appearing.
Despite these efforts we understand there’s so much more we need to do, and that is why it’s important that we keep improving our ability to detect misinformation. We're committed to continuing to work on this issue and improve the experiences on our platform.

Nov. 4 2016 4:37 PM

What Slate Readers Think About the Future of Ownership

Throughout October, Futurography focused on the future of ownership, with articles exploring how technological and cultural developments are transforming our understanding of property. We looked at the ways self-driving cars might change cities, the real implications of “Buy Now” buttons, and the status of the right to hack. But we’re also interested in what you have to say, so we’ve written up the results of our survey on the topic. We hope you’ll continue to follow along this month as we examine who controls the internet.

One reader argued that those hoping to understand the future of ownership should look to the past, writing, “Take a good hard look at the late 1800s, early 1900s for the way the vast population will live.” For this reader, such comparisons suggest “we will be moving back to shared accommodations/transportation, and many other items that we now take ownership for granted.”

Others, even those who don’t think we’re headed backward, tended to agree with this general hypothesis. “I think sharing or renting of seldom used items will become much more common,” one proposed, suggesting by way of example that apartment buildings might keep a stock of serving utensils that residents “can borrow when they are having a big party.” Another suggested that such trends might transform norms, such that “Physical collections will seem déclassé, like hoarding.”

To be fair, though, not everyone who wrote in agreed that we’d see sweeping transformations. One reader proposed that ownership conventions will change only “for the young [since] raising kids complicates things.” Others who took a similarly moderate view tended to zero in on the question of media, suggesting that ebooks and MP3s don’t augur the end of ownership: “People may digitally download things but the human desire to be in control and own will stay strong,” one typical respondent observed.

Some felt it might be a positive thing if our appetite for physical goods did decrease. “Sharing, renting and communal ownership will become the norm, and people and the planet will be better off,” one wrote, presumably thinking that with fewer items in our lives we’d be likely to create less waste. Another focused in on the utility of shared ownership, enthusing, “I don’t want to own anything, I just want to use stuff.” And a few took this conclusion in philosophical directions, as did one who proposed, “A world without ownership is a more equal world.”

For many more readers, though, changing patterns of ownership present serious concerns. One respondent fears that young people “will find themselves unable to amass any savings” as they struggle to “balance their paycheck[s] … against a barrage of recurring monthly bills.” Another made this risk more explicit, writing, “As programs like Photoshop and Excel move toward monthly fees instead of purchases users will actually pay more over time. It becomes $600 every year instead of every two or three.” Taking a strong version of this position, one reader wrote described ownership as “safeguard against poverty,” concluding, “The ability to care for and maintain your property is an equalizer in income and wealth gaps.”

Some expressed concerns that are less economic than sociocultural. “At the cultural preservation level, libraries and archives will have continuing challenges preserving and sharing DRM-locked material,” one reader pointed out. Taking a similar tack, another wrote, “The literal ‘Mickey Mouse’ rule of 140 years of publishing rights has already suffocated dissemination of knowledge.”

Zeroing in on a more speculative issue, readers were split on the question of whether they’d be willing to give up their personal cars if convenient, self-driving options were available. “As a suburban parent, I’d be wary of giving up my only transportation option in the event of an emergency,” one answered, while another responded, “I enjoy driving, and own a couple of classic cars.” No objection resonated more fully, though, than the objection of one who wrote “not even jetpacks will be more convenient than my own car.”

Many others suggested they would happily abandon their vehicles (especially those who don’t own cars now), but some of those who gave a thumbs up to the prospect still had reservations. One wrote that it would be acceptable “depending on convenience, the price of alternatives, safety/reliability, etc.” Another allowed that self-driving cars will have “one-size-fits-all” applications, but mysteriously added, “I use my vehicle for more specialized purposes on occasion.”

Readers also shared their thoughts on one of the most striking enigmas that came up throughout our ownership course—the question of why people are often willing to pay more for digital goods than physical ones. At least one doubted the very premise, writing, “I’m not really sure that they are” and another threw up his or her hands, telling us, “It is a total mystery to me why people are willing to pay more.” Many others, however, concluded that we were simply paying for convenience. As one typical respondent observed, “It’s short-term buying. Why do we pay for Starbucks coffee when for a fraction of the price we can make coffee at home?”

Finally, almost everyone agreed on what the last thing to go would be if and as ownership fades: Our clothes—and for several respondents, our underwear in particular. That said, one reader had an especially astute take: We probably won’t be giving up our toothbrushes anytime soon.

I, for one, hope that you’re right, anonymous Slate reader.

Nov. 4 2016 11:25 AM

Come Hear Science Journalist David Biello Discuss His New Book The Unnatural World

Traces of civilization’s impact on our planet are everywhere. Global warming, mass extinctions, and the proliferation of man-made technologies have served as harbingers for a new era in the history of our planet, one in which humans hold the greatest influence on our environment. In this new age everything is changing—the land, the sea, the sky, life itself—and as Earth’s new stewards, we must learn to thrive along with all life on Earth or confront a future we are, quite frankly, ill-prepared for.

In his new book, The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age, David Biello, the science curator for TED Conferences and former environment and energy editor for Scientific American, argues there is a silver lining to our environmental crisis. According to Biello, there is hope to change our future by following the example of an unlikely assortment of innovators, mad scientists, government officials, billionaires, and ordinary people throughout the world who have taken on the responsibility humans possess in this new era to cultivate a better future.

On Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 6 p.m., Future Tense will host a happy hour conversation in Washington, D.C., where David Biello will discuss what men and women across the world are doing to ensure that this human era endures. He’ll be in conversation with Laura Helmuth, health, science, and environment editor at the Washington Post. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Nov. 3 2016 12:26 PM

Will the Internet Always Be American? A Future Tense Event.

Update, Nov. 10, 2016: This event has been rescheduled for Jan. 24, 2017. 

Much to the annoyance of EU regulators and more authoritarian regimes elsewhere, hundreds of millions of people around the world rely on U.S. players—the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Alphabet, and Microsoft—to connect to information, and to one another.

Why is that? Is there something inherently American about the internet? And is America's online supremacy a business story, or one of cultural and legal values? Looking forward, this may be changing, as foreign governments seek to assert more control over the internet; individuals become less trusting of the U.S. government as a guardian of privacy and free speech; and American internet companies work to transcend their own nationality.

Join Future Tense at noon on Thursday, Nov. 10, in Washington, D.C., to explore the internet’s nationality, and the extent to which it’s an expression of American culture, and the extent to which that may be changing.

For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website, where you can also watch the event live online.


Ellery Roberts Biddle
Advocacy director, Global Voices
Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Jennifer Daskal
Associate professor of law, American University

Joshua Keating
Staff writer, Slate

Moíses Naím
Distinguished fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Author, The End of Power

Carolyn Nguyen
Director of technology policy, Microsoft

Emily Parker
Author, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground
Future Tense fellow, New America

Ross Schulman
Co-director, Cybersecurity Initiative at New America
Senior policy counsel, New America’s Open Technology Institute

Hao Wu
Fellow, New America
Documentary filmmaker

Nov. 3 2016 10:28 AM

An Iraqi War Robot May Be Taking Part in the Battle for Mosul

On Tuesday, the Popular Mobilization Units, the umbrella group of the mostly Shiite Iraqi militias fighting against ISIS, tweeted a photo of a combat robot they say is taking part in the battle for Mosul:

Flying drones have obviously revolutionized 21st century combat, but a ground combat robot taking part in an urban battle would be something of a milestone. (Another one came earlier this year when Dallas police used a bomb robot to intentionally explode a device, killing a suspect in July’s police shooting.)

But before we declare this a milestone, we should keep in mind what we’re dealing with here. The robot in the picture looks similar to one reported on by the Baghdad Post and Defense One in August, which was reportedly built by two unnamed brothers and shown off at a weapons expo in Baghdad earlier this year. It’s known as Alrobot, which, in case you couldn’t guess, is Arabic for robot. Here’s a video of it in action:

According to Defense One, it “has four cameras, an automatic machine gun, and a launcher for Russian-made Katyusha rockets, and can be operated by laptop and radio link from a kilometer away, the story says.”

Popular Mechanics was skeptical, noting that “Alrobot may have a hard time on the battlefield” since its “armor appears thin and unlikely to survive the rigors of even small arms fire.” Also, its weapons don’t appear to have a remote targeting system, and its video link doesn’t seem sufficient, either. “At best, Alrobot would be a platform for providing inaccurate, suppressive fire to pin enemy forces down on the battlefield. At worst the robot’s operator could become disoriented and open fire on friendly forces,” wrote Kyle Mizokami.

So if the Popular Mobilization Units’ robot is the same one, those taking the fight to ISIS might be advised to keep a wide berth from their robot comrade. Robotic ground combat may soon have it’s day, but the battle for Mosul probably isn’t it.

Nov. 3 2016 9:46 AM

Be a Good Citizen. Use Google in the Voting Booth.

Every Election Day, I march down to my polling place ager to vote for the candidates and issues near and dear to my heart. Eleanor Holmes Norton? Yes, please! D.C. Statehood? Hell yeah! Legal marijuana? Duh! But as I move down the ballot, I realize there are other local races I know nothing about. In a fit of panic, I whip out my smartphone and Google up a storm, searching candidate websites and Washington Post endorsements to figure out who deserves my vote in bunch of races I will promptly forget about.

Last-minute ballot research might not be ideal, but it’s better than casting a vote in the dark. It’s also superior to sitting out a race: A friend of mine recently panicked in the ballot booth, uncertain of who to support for the board of education; she considered voting for nobody, but two minutes of smartphone research persuaded her to vote against a Koch-aligned Trump supporter. Probably a good call! Several states, however, ban the use of electronic devices in voting booths altogether, arguing that they can be tools of voter fraud or coercion. Like ballot selfie bans, these laws are well-intentioned but terrible for democracy. Voters deserve access to information, at the ballot box especially, without fearing that their research could be criminal.

As important as voting may be, most races are strange and obscure. That doesn’t make them unimportant, but it does make them confusing and surprising. For instance, in Washington, D.C., Advisory Neighborhood Commissions decide the fate of neighborhood life, exercising zoning powers that will determine whether my neighbor is coffee shop or a strip club. In theory, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners are very important; in reality, I have no idea who they are. And in all likelihood, I will not be motivated to Google them until I am in the ballot box, mercilessly confronted with my own ignorance. At that point, I will finally research my ANC election and make a rational decision.