A history of hype behind Cambridge Analytica

Nigel Oakes, the founder of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, once described his work in this way: “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler. We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”

As an Old Etonian, his ties to royalty, the aristocracy, and the rich and famous, seemed to foster (at least in his own mind) the notion that he had the skills and connections required for shaping global events.

But as Claudio Gatti noted while Donald Trump took office, Oakes’ primary business skill seems to have been identical to Trump’s: the art of self-promotion.

Oakes’ bio in the SCL webpage says that he “was educated at Eton College and UCL, where he studied Psychology”, although according to a 2008 letter the University College London sent to David Miller, a UK sociologist who studies propaganda, there were no records of him ever studying there.

[Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Facebook employees feel increasingly responsible for the world’s problems

At an all-hands meeting for Facebook employees at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park on Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg didn’t show up. Fielding questions for just 30 minutes was the company’s deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal. In its dealings with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook had not acted improperly, he insisted. But as Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

One employee asked the same question twice: Even if Facebook played by its own rules, and the developer followed policies at the time, did the company ever consider the ethics of what it was doing with user data? Grewal didn’t answer directly.

As the report notes, Facebook has weathered complaints about violating user privacy since its inception. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Quinn Norton and the New York Times’ short-lived courage

How fascism is coming to America: It’s happening when people decide the ideal society is one where everyone thinks the same way. And it’s happening when people who know better, kowtow to the dictates of social media instead of doing the right thing.

I didn’t know the New York Times hired Quinn Norton until I saw news they’d parted ways. Without question, this is a greater loss to the Times and its readers, than it is to Norton — although there’s no doubt it must be a major disruption to her life and that of her family.

The irony of the situation, representative of this perverse cultural moment, is that the people most likely to take satisfaction in this turn of events probably neither read the Times nor previously had heard of Norton.

These would be the folks who take pride in their own ideological purity while failing to see that ideological purity — whatever the ideology — is a really form of fascism.

Anyone who in thought and action marches in lockstep with others and who attaches supreme value to their allegiance to a cause (however noble that cause might appear), has crossed a threshold qualitatively no different from that crossed by every German who once declared: Heil Hilter!

It doesn’t matter what the cause is. The choice of surrendering to some kind of external ideological authority has the same effect irrespective of the ideology: it makes the individual’s conscience and capacity to make independent judgments subordinate to what that individual has designated as a higher authority. It is a form of subservience that corrodes the foundations of an open society. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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With the very best technology, humanity is digging its own grave

Technology is generally thought of as extending human capabilities by facilitating everyday actions more easily or allowing us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

From this expansive perspective, technological advance has become synonymous with human progress. Conversely, the less technology populations possess, the more they are viewed as developing or even less evolved.

What these views mask are the multiplicity of ways in which technology feeds human regression.

The regressive mechanism built into technology in most of its manifestations is its propensity to externalize human skills.

If there’s something a person can do but a machine can do with greater economy, then the human skill soon becomes redundant. Having become redundant, it falls into disuse and soon atrophies.

This is not a small problem. It’s the reason that humanity is rapidly filling its ranks with a mass of diseased and disfigured bodies. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Former Facebook exec says social media is ripping apart society

The Verge reports: Another former Facebook executive has spoken out about the harm the social network is doing to civil society around the world. Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business, before recommending people take a “hard break” from social media.

Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

He went on to describe an incident in India where hoax messages about kidnappings shared on WhatsApp led to the lynching of seven innocent people. “That’s what we’re dealing with,” said Palihapitiya. “And imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that shit.” He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s uncontrollable tweeting triggers deeper anxiety among advisers

Politico reports: It took nearly 24 hours for President Donald Trump to tweet about the news that his former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents — a delay that Trump’s advisers said was not uncommon for the president, who often tweets after catching up on cable news.

Many Republicans at first saw the radio silence as a welcome sign of restraint.

But by Sunday, the notoriously hot-headed president had already claimed Flynn was fired earlier this year in part for lying to the FBI and had moved on to accusing the nation’s top law-enforcement agency of being “in tatters.”

“Worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness,” he tweeted.

The tweets all combined to reignite fears among people close to Trump that the president is not taking the special counsel’s investigation seriously enough and is getting bad advice from his legal team.

Trump supporters, former campaign aides and former administration officials are beginning to privately raise red flags that the White House can’t keep up with the president’s own tweets and doesn’t have a coherent messaging strategy on the Russia investigation, according to interviews with a half-dozen people close to the president.

The people close to the president stressed that they are not worried that special counsel Robert Mueller will ensnare the president or find evidence of collusion. But they nonetheless fear that the near-daily revelations about the investigation will overtake Trump’s presidency.

“There’s no quarterback. There’s no strategy. They’re literally making it up as they go along,” said one of the people. “We’re in very dangerous territory.” [Continue reading…]

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We’re all part of Trump’s show

Bret Stephens writes: If you want to understand the ways in which Donald Trump’s presidency is systematically corrupting the American mind, I have a book recommendation for you. It’s about Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The book is Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.” It was published in 2014, and it brilliantly tells the story of the (Soviet-born) British author’s sojourn as a producer for Russian TV. As the title suggests, at its heart it’s the tale of the substitution of reality with “reality,” of factual truth with interpretive possibility.

That’s also the central task of Donald Trump’s presidency.

We were reminded of this again this week, on news that Trump is backing away from his public admission last year that he said what he said on the infamous Access Hollywood tape. Then there was his appalling insinuation Wednesday that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have killed an office intern in 2001. And his hallucinatory tweet last week in which he claimed to turn down an approach from Time magazine to make him Person of the Year for the second time in a row.

Before that it was his multiple attacks against his attorney general. Or his tweeting of a video pastiche in which he physically assaults CNN. Or his voter fraud claims. Or the ones about the size of his inaugural crowds.

All this has given rise to the suggestion that Trump is mentally unwell. That’s the charitable interpretation. But the president also gives signs that he is perfectly well, can communicate relatively coherently when he wants to do so, and knows exactly what he is tweeting (and subtweeting), and to what effect.

This is where Pomerantsev is so instructive. In one of his book’s early scenes, he relates a professional homily from a man he identifies as prominent Russian TV presenter. “We all know there will be no real politics” in Putin’s Russia, the man says at a staff conference.

“But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. So what should we play with? Shall we attack the oligarchs? Who’s the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like … like a movie!”

This is why there’s a Colosseum in Rome, and why public spectacle, theater, cinema, TV and now the internet have always been handmaids of dictators. [Continue reading…]

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Mark Zuckerberg’s fantasy world vs. the world Facebook is actually creating

John Harris writes: Zuckerberg’s new sense of mission was laid out in the commencement address this Harvard dropout delivered at his alma mater in May. He wants to stop climate change. He intends to be part of a generation “that ends poverty, that ends disease”. He talks about “a level of wealth inequality that hurts everyone”, and says he “wants a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful”. He talks about being on the side of “freedom, openness and global community” against “authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism”. But every word highlights the same absence. The ends seem nice. What of the means?

In Zuckerberg’s case, the sense of liberal cant is made even more glaring by the contradictions that swirl around him. As he sketches out his nebulous utopia, he says: “People like me should pay for it.” But he makes no mention of his company’s questionable record on tax, instead emphasising his belief in charity. He affects to worry about social and political polarisation while the very algorithms that power his platform encourage it. He superficially sets himself against the global forces of reaction while they make merry on his servers.

And though Facebook’s continuing travails have evidently rattled him, he inevitably has no sense that its ethos and operations need any reining-in. Quite the reverse, in fact. Judging from his recent pronouncements in response to the way that society and politics have become more divided and fractious, Zuckerberg wants Facebook “to develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us”.

He thinks there is a small subset of Facebook’s 2 billion users who make up “meaningful communities” on the platform, and that via a reinvention of Facebook’s Groups, more of us should follow their example. All this is as vague as everything else, but it boils down to something captured in a headline from Wired magazine: “Mark Zuckerberg’s answer to a world divided by Facebook is more Facebook”. [Continue reading…]

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Twitter facing serious questions over its efforts to deal with disinformation

BuzzFeed reports: BuzzFeed News has uncovered a new network of suspected Twitter propaganda accounts – sharing messages about Brexit, Donald Trump, and Angela Merkel – that have close connections to the Russian-linked bot accounts identified by the social media platform in its evidence to the US Congress.

The 45 suspect accounts were uncovered through basic analysis of those that interacted or retweeted accounts cited by Twitter to Congress, yet none of them appeared on the company’s list.

The relative ease of discovery raises serious questions as to just how many Russian-linked bots may still be active on Twitter, how the company identifies and removes such accounts, and whether its process for identifying accounts for its evidence was inadequate.

Until BuzzFeed News approached Twitter on Tuesday afternoon with details of the accounts, they all remained active on the platform, though dormant. But within 24 hours, all 45 had been suspended. [Continue reading…]

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Mark Zuckerberg’s latest fig leaf for his Russian propaganda problem

Justin Hendrix writes: Since Facebook disclosed that at least 150 million Americans were exposed to Russian propaganda on Facebook in the run up to the 2016 election, pressure has been growing for the company to demonstrate transparency and notify its users. During testimony by Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch on Capitol Hill at the beginning of November, members of Congress called on the social media giant to do just that. At the same time, I started a public petition calling for notification that swelled to nearly 90,000 signatories.

Stretch argued such a disclosure would be technically difficult, but lawmakers pressed the company to explore it. It was remarkable that he did not come prepared and willing to offer any specifics of such difficulties, and appeared to be saying more that it would be difficult to reach every person rather than difficult to do a lot of the job. In a strongly worded follow up letter, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) gave the company an explicit assignment.

“Consumer service entities like yours have long understood their duty to inform their users after mistakes are uncovered,” Senator Blumenthal wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “You too have an obligation to explain to your users exactly how Russian agents sought to manipulate our elections through your platform.” Blumenthal set November 22nd as the deadline for a response from Facebook.

On Nov. 22, the company announced its plan in a blog post entitled “Continuing Transparency on Russian Activity.”

“We will soon be creating a portal to enable people on Facebook to learn which of the Internet Research Agency Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts they may have liked or followed between January 2015 and August 2017,” the company said. “This tool will be available for use by the end of the year in the Facebook Help Center.”

Certainly, this proposal is a step in the right direction, especially for a company that has been slow to divulge details of what ultimately may go down in history as one of the most extensive and effective propaganda campaigns by a foreign adversary against the United States, and also for a company that has in fact made it harder for independent researchers to investigate the problem. But is it enough? Did Facebook answer Congress’s call to notify users?

On balance, the answer is clearly no. [Continue reading…]

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Extreme digital vetting of visitors to the U.S. moves forward under a new name

ProPublica reports: The Department of Immigration & Customs Enforcement is taking new steps in its plans for monitoring the social media accounts of applicants and holders of U.S. visas. At a tech industry conference last Thursday in Arlington, Virginia, ICE officials explained to software providers what they are seeking: algorithms that would assess potential threats posed by visa holders in the United States and conduct ongoing social media surveillance of those deemed high risk.

The comments provide the first clear blueprint for ICE’s proposed augmentation of its visa-vetting program. The initial announcement of the plans this summer, viewed as part of President Donald Trump’s calls for the “extreme vetting” of visitors from Muslim countries, stoked a public outcry from immigrants and civil liberties advocates. They argued that such a plan would discriminate against Muslim visitors and potentially place a huge number of individuals under watch.

ICE officials subsequently changed the program’s name to “Visa Lifecycle Vetting.” But, according to the ICE presentation, the goal of the initiative — enhanced monitoring of visa holders using social media — remains the same. [Continue reading…]

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The education of Mark Zuckerberg

Alexis C Madrigal writes: There’s a story that Mark Zuckerberg has told dozens of times over the years. Shortly after he’d launched Facebook in February 2004, he went to get pizza with Kang-Xing Jin, a coder friend who would become a Facebook executive, at a place around the corner from his dorm.

In one telling, Zuckerberg says he was thinking, “this is great that we have this community that now people can connect within our little school, but clearly one day, someone is going to build this for the world.”

But there was no reason to expect that this kid and his group of friends would be the people who would build this for the world. “It hadn’t even crossed my mind,” he said in 2013. They were technically gifted, but as Zuckerberg tells it, they had basically no resources or experience at a time when there were already massive technology companies trying to create social networks from MySpace to Microsoft, Google to Yahoo.

Looking back, it’s also clear that they had no experience with community building, organizing, sociology, social work, or any other discipline that might have helped them understand the social forces they were unleashing, quantifying, amplifying, and warping. Mark Zuckerberg was just a kid eating pizza after writing some code.

13 years later, he wields unquestioned formal and informal control over a company that is now the battleground for elections as well as home to cultural discourse and basic family relationships.

That’s the crucial background for Mark Zuckerberg’s now-concluded tour of 30 American states, a photo-op-heavy barnstorm that has served, it seems, as a remedial education for Zuckerberg in what it means to be a normal person in America. Time and again, Zuckerberg has marveled at how people’s communities are enriched by their unions, churches, schools, and other civic institutions.

Most recently, for example, this was how he described his major takeaway from his travels at the concluding stop at the University of Kansas. “The thing that struck me everywhere I went—and I have stories from every state that I visited—was how central communities are to people,” he said.

You don’t say!

This level of naïveté sounds unbelievable until you remember that the only two states of adulthood the man has known are Harvard undergraduate and CEO of a company with unending funding and growth. His childhood was financially comfortable and individualistic in the way wealthy childhoods usually are. Where was he supposed to acquire an understanding of the ways that most places—middle-class, working-class, and poor—hold themselves together? [Continue reading…]

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Trump tweets on CNN could muddy AT&T-Time Warner lawsuit

Politico reports: The Justice Department’s decision to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger sets up another high-profile lawsuit in which President Donald Trump’s prolific and opinionated tweets could complicate his administration’s agenda.

The DOJ announced Monday that it would seek to derail the $85 billion deal because the combined company could charge competitors hefty fees to distribute Time Warner content, providing an unfair advantage to AT&T-owned DirecTV. But questions about political meddling by the Trump administration have dogged the merger throughout the government’s review process — and those concerns could now factor into arguments the companies make in court challenging the rejection of their proposed union.

“Donald Trump’s dangerous talk about CNN cast a shadow over their actions,” said Craig Aaron, president of advocacy group Free Press, which opposes the merger. While Aaron called AT&T-Time Warner a “huge merger with clear consumer harms,” he warned: “If there’s any evidence the White House interfered because it dislikes CNN’s journalism, that would be a disaster.”

The president’s tweets have come up in the legal arguments of those battling his other policies, including his administration’s restrictions on travelers from Muslim countries, decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and ban on openly transgender soldiers. [Continue reading…]

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The stunted human development of the high priests of Silicon Valley

John Naughton writes: One of the biggest puzzles about our current predicament with fake news and the weaponisation of social media is why the folks who built this technology are so taken aback by what has happened. Exhibit A is the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, whose political education I recently chronicled. But he’s not alone. In fact I’d say he is quite representative of many of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world. We have a burgeoning genre of “OMG, what have we done?” angst coming from former Facebook and Google employees who have begun to realise that the cool stuff they worked on might have had, well, antisocial consequences.

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid? The cynical answer is they knew about the potential dark side all along and didn’t care, because to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths. Personally I think that’s unlikely, although among their number are some very peculiar characters: one thinks, for example, of Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel – Trump’s favourite techie; and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber. [Continue reading…]

The technology boom of the 1990s was driven as much by investment as business success. The winners became billionaires and in a nation that equates wealth with success, the Zuckerbergs and Brins could count themselves as supremely successful. Yet anyone who worked in Silicon Valley during this period can attest to the fact that technology companies were (and still are) culturally dysfunctional by virtue of being mostly boys clubs — and I use that phrase in the most literal sense.

The fact that Mark Zuckerberg, now in his 30s, still looks like a 15-year-old is not a function of his ignorance about history and society or his genes — it is very clearly an expression of his emotional and human development.

Teenagers who struggled socially because of their lack of interpersonal skills found that as code warriors they could skip many of the challenges of entering adulthood. Having attained positions of great power in the tech industry, their deficits in the department of human maturity went unchallenged.

To put it most bluntly, the tech leaders don’t just need to have more rounded educations — they need to grow up.

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We can’t trust Facebook to regulate itself

Sandy Parakilas writes: I led Facebook’s efforts to fix privacy problems on its developer platform in advance of its 2012 initial public offering. What I saw from the inside was a company that prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse. As the world contemplates what to do about Facebook in the wake of its role in Russia’s election meddling, it must consider this history. Lawmakers shouldn’t allow Facebook to regulate itself. Because it won’t.

Facebook knows what you look like, your location, who your friends are, your interests, if you’re in a relationship or not, and what other pages you look at on the web. This data allows advertisers to target the more than one billion Facebook visitors a day. It’s no wonder the company has ballooned in size to a $500 billion behemoth in the five years since its I.P.O.

The more data it has on offer, the more value it creates for advertisers. That means it has no incentive to police the collection or use of that data — except when negative press or regulators are involved. Facebook is free to do almost whatever it wants with your personal information, and has no reason to put safeguards in place. [Continue reading…]

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Thirty countries use ‘armies of opinion shapers’ to manipulate democracy, says Freedom House report

The Guardian reports: The governments of 30 countries around the globe are using armies of so called opinion shapers to meddle in elections, advance anti-democratic agendas and repress their citizens, a new report shows.

Unlike widely reported Russian attempts to influence foreign elections, most of the offending countries use the internet to manipulate opinion domestically, says US NGO Freedom House.

“Manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 other countries over the past year, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate,” the US government-funded charity said. “Although some governments sought to support their interests and expand their influence abroad, as with Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe, in most cases they used these methods inside their own borders to maintain their hold on power.”

Even in those countries that didn’t have elections in the last year, social media manipulation was still frequent. Of the 65 countries surveyed, 30, including Venezuela, the Philippines and Turkey, were found to be using “armies of opinion shapers” to “spread government views, drive particular agendas, and counter government critics on social media”, according to Freedom House’s new Freedom on the Net report. In each of the 30 countries it found “strong indications that individuals are paid to distort the digital information landscape in the government’s favour, without acknowledging sponsorship”. [Continue reading…]

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A lesson from Syria: It’s crucial not to fuel far-right conspiracy theories

George Monbiot writes: What do we believe? This is the crucial democratic question. Without informed choice, democracy is meaningless. This is why dictators and billionaires invest so heavily in fake news. Our only defence is constant vigilance, rigour and scepticism. But when some of the world’s most famous crusaders against propaganda appear to give credence to conspiracy theories, you wonder where to turn.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last month published its investigation into the chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun, which killed almost 100 people on 4 April and injured around 200. After examining the competing theories and conducting wide-ranging interviews, laboratory tests and forensic analysis of videos and photos, it concluded that the atrocity was caused by a bomb filled with sarin, dropped by the government of Syria.

There is nothing surprising about this. The Syrian government has a long history of chemical weapons use, and the OPCW’s conclusions concur with a wealth of witness testimony. But a major propaganda effort has sought to discredit such testimony, and characterise the atrocity as a “false-flag attack”.

This effort began with an article published on the website Al-Masdar news, run by the Syrian government loyalist Leith Abou Fadel. It suggested that either the attack had been staged by “terrorist forces”, or chemicals stored in a missile factory had inadvertently been released when the Syrian government bombed it.

The story was then embellished on Infowars – the notorious far-right conspiracy forum. The Infowars article claimed that the attack was staged by the Syrian first responder group, the White Helmets. This is a reiteration of a repeatedly discredited conspiracy theory, casting these rescuers in the role of perpetrators. It suggested that the victims were people who had been kidnapped by al-Qaida from a nearby city, brought to Khan Shaykhun and murdered, perhaps with the help of the UK and French governments, “to lay blame on the Syrian government”. The author of this article was Mimi Al-Laham, also known as Maram Susli, PartisanGirl, Syrian Girl and Syrian Sister. She is a loyalist of the Assad government who has appeared on podcasts hosted by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. She has another role: as an “expert” used by a retired professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Theodore Postol. He has produced a wide range of claims casting doubt on the Syrian government’s complicity in chemical weapons attacks. [Continue reading…]

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British and Spanish leaders say Russian trolls meddled in their elections

The Washington Post reports: In a remarkable one-two punch aimed at Russian hackers, bots and trolls, the prime ministers of Britain and Spain have separately accused Russian entities — including some allegedly supported by the state — of meddling in European elections and have vowed to foil them.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Tuesday that an “avalanche” of bots spread “fake news” about Spain during Catalonia’s independence referendum last month and that Spanish authorities think that more than half of the originating accounts are in Russian territory.

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday night charged that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia was attempting to “undermine free societies” and “sow discord” in Britain and among its Western allies by “deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories.”

“So I have a very simple message for Russia,” May said. “We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.”

The allegations leveled by May and Rajoy stand in stark contrast to remarks made over the weekend by President Trump, who appeared to defend the Russian president. [Continue reading…]

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