FBI’s Russian-influence probe includes a look at far-right news sites

McClatchy reports: Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories — some fictional — that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.

Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.

The bots’ end products were largely millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to stories on conservative internet sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars, as well as on the Kremlin-backed RT News and Sputnik News, the sources said. Some of the stories were false or mixed fact and fiction, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bot attacks are part of an FBI-led investigation into a multifaceted Russian operation to influence last year’s elections.

Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.

The investigation of the bot-engineered traffic, which appears to be in its early stages, is being driven by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, whose inquiries rarely result in criminal charges and whose main task has been to reconstruct the nature of the Kremlin’s cyber attack and determine ways to prevent another.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the inquiry into the use of bots.

Russia-generated bots are one piece of a cyber puzzle that counterintelligence agents have sought to solve for nearly a year to determine the extent of the Moscow government’s electronic broadside.

“This may be one of the most highly impactful information operations in the history of intelligence,” said one former U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Wilders, Russia and Twitter bots: How social media is serving Dutch populism

Financial Times reports: Follower numbers are a commonly recognised indicator of social media influence. Snapshot counts of Twitter and Facebook followers reveal that, in contrast to most other party leaders, Mr Wilders’ personal social media following dwarfs that of his party’s accounts by a ratio of 330:1 on Twitter and 133:1 on Facebook. By comparison, sitting prime minister Mark Rutte’s followers are outnumbered by those of his party, VVD, by 1.5:1 on Twitter and 3.4:1 on Facebook. 

However, an examination of the rate of growth of Dutch party leaders’ Twitter followings reveals Mr Wilders’ to be growing comparatively slowly — which is to be expected given that hisis the largest among party leaders’ followings. More intriguing are the bumps in the growth rate of the Wilders following, several of which coincide with specific news events. In particular, Mr Wilders’ conviction for race-related discrimination offences on December 9 last year and the terrorist attack in which a truck was driven into a Berlin crowd on December 19 boosted Mr Wilders’ following, which may suggest a reactive component to the motivations of people following Mr Wilders on Twitter.

The accusations of election interference in France made by the campaign of Mr Macron prompted a denial by RT, which said in a statement that it “adamantly rejects any and all claims that it has any part in spreading fake news in general and in relation to Mr Macron and the upcoming French election in particular.” The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, however, asserted in a January report that RT and Sputnik functioned as part of a Russian “state-run propaganda machine” that was deployed in an attempt to influence the outcome of the US election.

FT Data calculated the frequencies with which a random sample of 100,000 of Mr Wilders’ Twitter followers mentioned the accounts of RT and Sputnik (@RT_com and @SputnikInt), along with those of the top five Dutch news outlets over a six-month period. We compared these to a sample of the same size taken from followers of the office of the Dutch prime minister (@MinPres), a non-partisan governmental account.

Although Mr Wilders himself did not disproportionately share content from either outlet, his followers were 12 times more likely to mention Sputnik and almost eight times more likely to mention RT than followers of Mr Rutte, prime minister. Notably, Mr Wilders’ followers mentioned RT more frequently than they did the Dutch national broadcaster NOS (@NOS). [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Pro-Trump media sets the agenda with lies. Here’s how traditional media can take it back

Margaret Sullivan writes: To save Tinkerbell, all you had to do was clap your hands and really, really believe in fairies.

To send a conspiracy theory on its vicious way around the world, you need to do more than just believe. You need help.

Luckily for those who wanted to elect Donald Trump, that help was available during the presidential campaign, and still is. It comes from a collection of new right-wing hyperpartisan media outlets that are having a huge effect on politics.

Consider, for example, one outlandish idea from just last week: that the CIA hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails, gave them to WikiLeaks and then framed Russia.

Business Insider traced it: from replies to the WikiLeaks Twitter account, through conservative radio and then Breitbart News, and out into the semi-mainstream — Sean Hannity on Fox News — all within 48 hours.

Similarly, the right-wing radio host Mark Levin may have started the evidence-free idea that President Barack Obama ordered the wiretapping of now-President Trump. It made its way quickly through the media ecosystem, after Trump saw it, apparently on Breitbart News.

Once the president tweets it, it’s undeniably news, picked up everywhere and re-amplified — especially by right-wing sites.

Derek Thompson of the Atlantic called this a “conspiracy-theory feedback loop.” And a very effective one it is.

A major new study, published in Columbia Journalism Review, detailed just how influential the new media ecosystem has become, calling it a determining factor in Trump’s election. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s Twitter feed is a gateway to authoritarianism

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Seemingly prompted by Trump’s Twitter outburst — where, to be clear, the current president accused the former president of committing a crime — the White House has now called for a full investigation into whether its own unsubstantiated allegations are true.


Needless to say, Trump’s critics are unimpressed.

“This may come as a surprise to the current occupant of the Oval Office, but the president of the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally order the wiretapping of American citizens,” said Josh Earnest, a former White House press secretary under Obama. He accused the Trump administration of trying to distract from the controversy surrounding its alleged contacts with Russian officials.

“We know exactly why President Trump tweeted what he tweeted,” said Earnest to the Post. “There is one page in the Trump White House crisis management playbook, and that is simply to tweet or say something outrageous to distract from a scandal. And the bigger the scandal, the more outrageous the tweet.”

Earlier this year, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, crafted a “taxonomy” of how Trump uses Twitter to shift the conversation from unwelcome reports and subsume the news cycle with his own agenda. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Mar-a-Lago serves as stage for showing off the spectacle of Trump’s presidency

The New York Times reports: Trump appears to enjoy presenting the spectacle of his presidency to those at his privately held club, where members pay $200,000 to join. While the club is not open to the public, Mr. Trump’s dinner with Mr. Abe was in the club’s dining room, where any member or their guests were likely to be.

Individual club members can invite guests, submitting a list of names of table guests for security clearance to officials ahead of time.

In addition to the pictures of the North Korea conversation, Mr. DeAgazio also posted pictures of himself standing with a person he described as Mr. Trump’s military aide responsible for carrying the nuclear “football” — the briefcase with codes for launching nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Anxiety about Muslim refugees is stoked online by the far-right media

The New York Times reports: Type the word refugees into Facebook and some alarming “news” will appear about a refugee rape crisis, a refugee flesh-eating disease epidemic and a refugee-related risk of female genital mutilation — none of it true.

For the months leading up to the presidential election, and in the days since President Trump took office, ultraconservative websites like Breitbart News and Infowars have published a cycle of eye-popping stories with misleading claims about refugees. And it is beginning to influence public perception, experts say.

That shift was evident on Friday, as many Americans heralded the news that the Trump administration intended to temporarily curb all refugee resettlement and increase the vetting of Syrians.

“There really is a kind of cultural battle going on,” said Cecillia Wang, the deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “There’s no question that kind of xenophobic or anti-Muslim bias is infecting our political discourse about refugees.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Are we entering an era in which ‘truth’ is whatever Trump wants it to be?

Shortly before Trump took office, Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote: Although we cannot yet know what kind of president he will be, from his June 2015 declaration of candidacy to his January 2017 inauguration, Trump has undertaken two parallel projects aimed at unsettling the mental habits and moral foundations of American democracy. First, he has cultivated a political persona that inspires adulation and unquestioning loyalty that can be mobilized for action on his behalf. Second, he has initiated Americans into a culture of threat that not only desensitizes them to the effects of bigotry but also raises the possibility of violence without consequence.

The founding moment of this era came one year ago, when Trump declared at a rally, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.” Trump signaled that rhetorical and actual violence might have a different place in America of the future, perhaps becoming something ordinary or unmemorable. During 2016, public hatred became part of everyday reality for many Americans: those who identify with the white supremacist alt-right like Richard Spencer openly hold rallies; elected officials feel emboldened to call for political opponents to be shot (as did New Hampshire and Oklahoma State Representatives Al Baldasaro and John Bennett, among others); journalists reporting on Trump and hijab-wearing women seek protection protocols and escorts. The bureaucratic-sounding term many use for this, “normalization,” does not fully render the operations of memory that make it possible. Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.

The risk is that the parameters of thought and action will be nudged to align with those of the leader, easing the retrofitting of history to suit his personalization of the land’s highest office. Trump’s success at this in a country known for individualism, and with no history of living under an authoritarian ruler, shows how susceptible people are to such approaches.

Trump’s bullying charm anchors this culture of threat. From the start he cultivated a relationship with followers founded on an allegiance to his person, and not to a party or principle. He devised campaign rituals (loyalty oaths, “lock her up” chants directed at imprisoning his opponent) that created a bond of charismatic authority and accustomed his constituents to his heavy hand. At his rallies he harangued his crowds, directing them emotionally, urging them to punish protesters as he expressed his own desires to punch offenders in the face. “You were nasty and mean and vicious, you wanted to win, right?” he told his fans after the election.

Twitter has been an excellent training ground for the acceptance of Trump’s cult of personality and the memory politics that undergird it. His skill at orchestrating the news cycle through tweets keeps Americans caught in the web of an “eternal present,” their attention focused on his aggressive outbursts that are dissected by the media and the public with the fervor of Communist-era Kremlinologists. His domination of the media landscape, on Twitter and elsewhere, realizes the authoritarians’ dream: to be everywhere present while remaining in your palace, and able to influence both big policy decisions and small daily habits with a few strokes of your pen. The writer Italo Calvino, who recalled that Mussolini’s face was “always in view” during the first 20 years of his life, would have appreciated how a few critical tweets from the leader-to-be led the storied Ford Motor Company to quickly scrap long-held plans for a $1.6 billion assembly plant in Mexico, and express its “confidence” in his business acumen.

The deference to the leader allows another crucial element of authoritarian rule to fall into place: the discrediting of all alternate sources of information. The confusion sowed by Trump from the start of his campaign (“we’ve got to figure out what’s going on”), which crucially extends to the facts of his personal history (Putin? “I don’t know him”), built to a blanket denunciation of all non-Trump information. “Media is fake!” the president-elect tweeted on January 8, preparing Americans for the onset of a new era in which truth is what Trump wants it to be. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Interior Department told to stop tweeting after unflattering retweets about Trump

The Washington Post reports: The Interior Department was ordered Friday to shut down its official Twitter accounts — indefinitely — after the National Park Service shared two unsympathetic tweets during President Trump’s inauguration.

The first noted the new president’s relatively small inaugural crowd compared to the number of people former president Barack Obama drew to the National Mall when he was sworn into office in 2009. The second tweet noted several omissions of policy areas on the new White House website. A Park Service employee retweeted both missives on Friday.

“All bureaus and the department have been directed by incoming administration to shut down Twitter platforms immediately until further notice,” said an email circulated to Park Service employees Friday afternoon.

The email, obtained by The Post, described the stand-down as an “urgent directive” and said social media managers must shut down the accounts “until further directed.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russian internet users say Trump gave a wonderful Soviet-era inauguration speech

Moscow Times reports: Donald Trump is now the president of the United States of America. At the time of this writing, Trump hasn’t even tweeted yet from his official “POTUS” account, though he already has millions of subscribers anxiously awaiting his next steps in the campaign to rescue the American hellscape he described in his inauguration speech on Friday.

Trump’s big day was headline news in Russia, of course, where you’ll find one of the few countries on Earth that overwhelmingly supported the Republican’s candidacy even when it was in its infancy.

Russian jokesters on Twitter certainly had their eye on President Trump’s inauguration speech, which more than a few Internet users compared to Communist rhetoric popular during the Soviet era. Trump’s focus on revitalizing American industry — particularly his vision for boosting industry and infrastructure by means of the state — struck many as the fervor of the New Soviet Man, the archetype of an industrious and devoted citizen in the U.S.S.R. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Three thousand fake tanks: How a network of conspiracy sites spread a fake story about U.S. military reinforcements in Europe

Digital Forensic Research Lab reports: On January 4, a little-known news site based in Donetsk, Ukraine published an article claiming that the United States was sending 3,600 tanks to Europe as part of “the NATO war preparation against Russia”.

Like much fake news, this story started with a grain of truth: the US was about to reinforce its armored units in Europe. However, the article converted literally thousands of other vehicles — including hundreds of Humvees and trailers  — into tanks, building the US force into something 20 times more powerful than it actually was.

The story caught on online. Within three days it had been repeated by a dozen websites in the United States, Canada and Europe, and shared some 40,000 times. It was translated into Norwegian; quoted, unchallenged, by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti; and spread among Russian-language websites.

It was also an obvious fake, as any Google news search would have revealed. Yet despite its evident falsehood, it spread widely, and not just in directly Kremlin-run media. Tracking the spread of this fake therefore shines a light on the wider question of how fake stories are dispersed. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russian hackers find ready bullhorns in Western media

Max Fisher writes: As the dust settles on Russian interference in the United States election, journalists are confronting an aspect that has received less scrutiny than the hacking itself but poses its own thorny questions: Moscow’s ability to steer Western media coverage by doling out hacked documents.

Reporters have always relied on sources who provide critical information for self-interested reasons. The duty, tricky but familiar, is to publicize information that serves the public interest without falling prey to the source’s agenda.

But in this case, the source was Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U. — operating through shadowy fronts who worked to mask that fact — and its agenda was to undermine the American presidential election.

By releasing documents that would tarnish Hillary Clinton and other American political figures, but whose news value compelled coverage, Moscow exploited the very openness that is the basis of a free press. Its tactics have evolved with each such operation, some of which are still unfolding.

Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at King’s College London who is tracking the Russian influence campaign, said it goes well beyond hacking: “It’s political engineering, social engineering on a strategic level.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

When Donald Trump tweets, it is news to Sean Spicer

The Wall Street Journal reports: Donald Trump’s incoming White House press secretary said Wednesday the president-elect would continue his prolific use of Twitter when in office, adding that even he and other communication advisers aren’t consulted before a tweet is sent out.

“I do not know, I do not get a memo [about the tweets],” Sean Spicer said in a discussion at a University of Chicago Institute of Politics event with former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama adviser David Axelrod. “He drives the train on this.”

Still, Mr. Spicer fought back against the notion that Mr. Trump’s tweets — often peppered with expressive language, some sent in the middle of the night, and on topics as wide-ranging as relations with China, violence in Chicago and performers at his inauguration — would make the role of press secretary more difficult or complicated. [Continue reading…]

CNN reports: China has slammed US President-elect Donald Trump over his use of Twitter to conduct international diplomacy in a commentary published by the country’s official news agency Xinhua.

Trump has earned a reputation for making unpredictable statements on Twitter that often depart from long-standing US policies and he’s made several controversial comments about China.

“The obsession with ‘Twitter diplomacy’ is undesirable,” said the bylined commentary, which only appeared on the agency’s Chinese website. Xinhua is the biggest and most influential of China’s state-run media.

“It is a commonly accepted that diplomacy is not a child’s game — and even less is it business dealing. As former United States Secretary of State [Madeleine] Albright said, Twitter should not be a tool for foreign policy,” the commentary, which was published this week, said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

China has more interest in Trump’s policies than his tweets

The Wall Street Journal reports: Addressing questions about Mr. Trump’s tweets [on North Korea] during a regular press briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China’s efforts to solve the North Korean nuclear issue “are clear for all to see.”

Mr. Geng pointed to China’s convening of six-nation talks aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program, as well as its support for United Nations sanctions against its ally. He added that any problems in the economic relationship between the U.S. and China should be “properly addressed through dialogue and consultation,” but avoided commenting on whether Mr. Trump’s use of Twitter helped or hindered diplomatic discussions.

“We don’t pay attention to the features of foreign leaders’ behavior. We focus more on their policies,” he said.

Members of China’s U.S.- and North Korea-watching community also largely shrugged off Mr. Trump’s tweets.

Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University, said U.S. frustration with Beijing over North Korea is nothing new. “Trump’s comments regarding China’s perceived passivity on North Korea’s nuclear program are very much in line with the overwhelming consensus view in U.S. diplomatic circles,” said Mr. Shi.

Although Mr. Trump, as a presidential candidate, signaled a more conciliatory approach toward Mr. Kim, including the possibility of a face-to-face meeting, the president-elect will find it difficult to honor this promise without significant concessions from Pyongyang, Mr. Shi said.

Mr. Trump’s hostile tone may damp optimism in Pyongyang about dialogue with the new U.S. administration and it may “adjust its position accordingly,” said Wang Sheng, a professor at China’s Jilin University who studies China-North Korea relations. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

In reaction to fake news, Pakistani minister directs nuclear threat at Israel

The New York Times reports: A fake news article led to gunfire at a Washington pizzeria three weeks ago. Now it seems that another fake news story has prompted the defense minister of Pakistan to threaten to go nuclear.

The defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, wrote a saber-rattling Twitter post directed at Israel on Friday after a false report — which the minister apparently believed — that Israel had threatened Pakistan with nuclear weapons. Both countries have nuclear arsenals.

“Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh,” the minister wrote on his official Twitter account, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.”


Mr. Asif appeared to be reacting to a fake news article published on awdnews.com.

That story, with the typo-laden headline “Israeli Defense Minister: If Pakistan send ground troops to Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack,” appeared on the website on Dec. 20, alongside articles with headlines like “Clinton is staging a military coup against Trump.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The chaos theory of Donald Trump: Sowing confusion through tweets

The Washington Post reports: Donald Trump’s sudden embrace this week of a nuclear arms race — and his staff’s scramble to minimize the fallout — underscored an emerging modus operandi for the president-elect: governance by chaos.

Since winning the election, Trump has seemed to revel in tossing firecrackers in all directions, often using Twitter to offer brief but provocative pronouncements on foreign and domestic policies alike — and leaving it to others to flesh out his true intentions.

In the past week alone, Trump has publicly pitted two military contractors against each other, sowed confusion about the scope of his proposed ban on foreign Muslims, and needled China after its seizure of a U.S. underwater drone.

But nothing has created more consternation for many foreign policy experts than Trump’s assertion Thursday on Twitter that the country should “greatly strengthen and expand” its nuclear capability. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The long and brutal history of fake news

Jacob Soll writes: The fake news hit Trent, Italy, on Easter Sunday, 1475. A 2 ½-year-old child named Simonino had gone missing, and a Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, gave a series of sermons claiming that the Jewish community had murdered the child, drained his blood and drunk it to celebrate Passover. The rumors spread fast. Before long da Feltre was claiming that the boy’s body had been found in the basement of a Jewish house. In response, the Prince-Bishop of Trent Johannes IV Hinderbach immediately ordered the city’s entire Jewish community arrested and tortured. Fifteen of them were found guilty and burned at the stake. The story inspired surrounding communities to commit similar atrocities.

Recognizing a false story, the papacy intervened and attempted to stop both the story and the murders. But Hinderbach refused to meet the papal legate, and feeling threatened, simply spread more fake news stories about Jews drinking the blood of Christian children. In the end, the popular fervor supporting these anti-semitic “blood libel” stories made it impossible for the papacy to interfere with Hinderbach, who had Simonino canonized — Saint Simon — and attributed to him a hundred miracles. Today, historians have catalogued the fake stories of child-murdering, blood-drinking Jews, which have existed since the 12th century as part of the foundation of anti-Semitism. And yet, one anti-Semitic website still claims the story is true and Simon is still a martyred saint. Some fake news never dies.

Over the past few months, “fake news” has been on the loose once again. From bogus stories about Hillary Clinton’s imminent indictment to myths about a postal worker in Ohio destroying absentee ballots cast for Donald Trump, colorful and damaging tales have begun to circulate rapidly and widely on Twitter and Facebook. In some cases they have had violent results: Earlier this month a man armed with an AR-15 fired a shot inside a Washington, D.C., restaurant, claiming to be investigating (fake) reports that Clinton aide John Podesta was heading up a child abuse ring there.

But amid all the media handwringing about fake news and how to deal with it, one fact seems to have gotten lost: Fake news is not a new phenomenon. It has been around since news became a concept 500 years ago with the invention of print — a lot longer, in fact, than verified, “objective” news, which emerged in force a little more than a century ago. From the start, fake news has tended to be sensationalist and extreme, designed to inflame passions and prejudices. And it has often provoked violence. The Nazi propaganda machine relied on the same sorts of fake stories about ritual Jewish drinking of childrens’ blood that inspired Prince-Bishop Hinderbach in the 15th century. Perhaps most dangerous is how terrifyingly persistent and powerful fake news has proved to be. As Pope Sixtus IV found out, wild fake stories with roots in popular prejudice often prove too much for responsible authorities to handle. With the decline of trusted news establishments around the country, who’s to stop them today? [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail