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What does pineapple pizza have to do with interference by Russia and other trolls in U.S. elections?
Everything, the head of an American cybersecurity agencies says. Because foreign governments, trying to create divisiveness, want Americans to argue and will go after low hanging fruit, like pizza toppings.
From a little-known conference put on by Fordham University and the FBI this week, DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Christopher Krebs tweeted his own hot take on pineapple pizza: Thumbs down.
The tweet was accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek poster describing the tactics by which foreign trolls divide voters and inject chaos into an election. Their topic wasn’t race, or politics, or any other traditionally divisive issue. It was whether tropical fruit belongs on your dinner order.
CISA breaks down the playbook of foreign influencers into five steps: targeting divisive issues (see: pineapple pizza), moving accounts into place, amplifying and distorting the conversation, making the mainstream (see: NBC News story about pineapple pizza), and taking the conversation into the real world.
Krebs said his agency is trying to strengthen the national immune system for disinformation. "How do you take the tactics, techniques, and procedures of the bad guys, and educate the American people? How do you explain, 'This is how you’re being manipulated, this is how they’re hacking your brain?'"
And that’s why Krebs' team considers itself lucky that a few months ago over lunch, members of CISA’s election security team began to butt heads over their food preferences. "First there was a bunch of arguing about salt and vinegar potato chips," said Geoff Hale, who leads the group. "But that was nothing compared to the argument that broke out over pineapple on pizza."
The issue evenly split the diners and lasted well beyond the meal. That’s when Hale said his team realized that this was a perfect parallel to what CISA knew was such a vulnerability in American minds.
"It reminded us of these genuine, heartfelt opinions that can be exploited to fan the flames," he said. "It’s hard to explain to people that their heartfelt opinions are being used to unconsciously exploit them."
Within 24 hours of the first tweet, the war on pineapple had begun to have its intended effect. It went viral among, not just everyday citizens, but secretaries of state who oversee elections.
Some got the joke. Some didn’t. Vermont’s Secretary of State tweeted that the hashtag #waronpineapple shows "how foreign bad actors sow chaos."
The National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) tweeted "pineapple on pizza? NO WAY!" Its president tweeted "no pineapple ever belongs on a pizza."
The National Association of Secretaries of State, one of the nation’s most important bodies for overseeing election security, replied with an image of a sign about pineapple belonging on pizza, and the message "we are just going to leave this here."
Soon it was a meme. Senator Ron Wyden tweeted that "my opinion on pineapple pizza is Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump need to stop obstructing election security legislation."
Disagreements about pizza toppings are analogous, in how they spread and become distorted, to all sorts of political and social topics, according to Krebs. "In the lead up to 2020, there are going to be all sorts of issues foreign actors will use," he said.
In an analysis of Russia’s interference tactics during the 2016 presidential campaign, officials found that trolls went after wedge issues like race, gender, and sexuality. But they weren’t out to persuade and win arguments, Krebs said.
"They just want us to doubt ourselves as a people. They’re not trying to win anything; they’re just trying to make other people lose," he said.
Academics who study disinformation say that the pineapple debate is instructive because it’s a passionate topic that's disconnected from political opinions. "The rest of our identities are becoming increasingly aligned with our political identities," said Kevin Munger, assistant professor of political science and social data analytics at Penn State University. "So if you say you go to church, you’re more likely to also hold a certain political position on many issues."
"What’s useful about the pineapple thing is that it’s cross-cutting, it’s random. The fact that it transcends political lines makes it more powerful in terms of expanding its reach," he said.
Issues like race, or gender, or sexual orientation may, like pineapple pizza, make the United States uniquely vulnerable to these attacks. "Russian ads were not some uniquely creative attempt to persuade Americans on issues that hadn’t occurred to American political consultants," said Nate Persily, director of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, which studies the Internet’s effects on democracy. "They were just echoing what was already going on domestically."
And Persily said that the tactics CISA has identified, and the power of pineapple opinions, may not be enough to fight off new threats in the future. "Everyone’s expecting a replication of the Russian campaign, but there’s no reason to think that China, or Iran, or any other country with an interest, along with non-state actors, won’t get involved, and invent new methods."
Whatever comes next, the scenarios that CISA described played out perfectly for their invented meme, right down to Taylor Swift declaring on Tumblr that pineapple has no place on pizza, which set off a Twitter argument hundreds of tweets long among her fans as to which they preferred.
The social-media experiment cut deeper, and more to the point, than its creators intended. Sputnik News, the Russian government-sponsored media outlet, posted a story that mocked the concept: "DHS’s cheesy analogy did not go over particularly well among social media users."
Even the meme’s inventors admit to falling prey to the divisions they say make our country vulnerable to manipulation. "I immediately discount people who say they like pineapple on pizza," Krebs said. "Because they’re obviously trolls."