Russia’s Internet Research Agency has industrialized the art of trolling

Adrian Chen writes: Around 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11 last year, Duval Arthur, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, got a call from a resident who had just received a disturbing text message. “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM,” the message read. “Take Shelter. Check Local Media and”

St. Mary Parish is home to many processing plants for chemicals and natural gas, and keeping track of dangerous accidents at those plants is Arthur’s job. But he hadn’t heard of any chemical release that morning. In fact, he hadn’t even heard of Columbia Chemical. St. Mary Parish had a Columbian Chemicals plant, which made carbon black, a petroleum product used in rubber and plastics. But he’d heard nothing from them that morning, either. Soon, two other residents called and reported the same text message. Arthur was worried: Had one of his employees sent out an alert without telling him?

If Arthur had checked Twitter, he might have become much more worried. Hundreds of Twitter accounts were documenting a disaster right down the road. “A powerful explosion heard from miles away happened at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana #ColumbianChemicals,” a man named Jon Merritt tweeted. The #ColumbianChemicals hashtag was full of eyewitness accounts of the horror in Centerville. @AnnRussela shared an image of flames engulfing the plant. @Ksarah12 posted a video of surveillance footage from a local gas station, capturing the flash of the explosion. Others shared a video in which thick black smoke rose in the distance.

Dozens of journalists, media outlets and politicians, from Louisiana to New York City, found their Twitter accounts inundated with messages about the disaster. “Heather, I’m sure that the explosion at the #ColumbianChemicals is really dangerous. Louisiana is really screwed now,” a user named @EricTraPPP tweeted at the New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Heather Nolan. Another posted a screenshot of CNN’s home page, showing that the story had already made national news. ISIS had claimed credit for the attack, according to one YouTube video; in it, a man showed his TV screen, tuned to an Arabic news channel, on which masked ISIS fighters delivered a speech next to looping footage of an explosion. A woman named Anna McClaren (@zpokodon9) tweeted at Karl Rove: “Karl, Is this really ISIS who is responsible for #ColumbianChemicals? Tell @Obama that we should bomb Iraq!” But anyone who took the trouble to check would have found no news of a spectacular Sept. 11 attack by ISIS. It was all fake: the screenshot, the videos, the photographs.

In St. Mary Parish, Duval Arthur quickly made a few calls and found that none of his employees had sent the alert. He called Columbian Chemicals, which reported no problems at the plant. Roughly two hours after the first text message was sent, the company put out a news release, explaining that reports of an explosion were false. When I called Arthur a few months later, he dismissed the incident as a tasteless prank, timed to the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Personally I think it’s just a real sad, sick sense of humor,” he told me. “It was just someone who just liked scaring the daylights out of people.” Authorities, he said, had tried to trace the numbers that the text messages had come from, but with no luck. (The F.B.I. told me the investigation was still open.)

The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

And the hoax was just one in a wave of similar attacks during the second half of last year. On Dec. 13, two months after a handful of Ebola cases in the United States touched off a minor media panic, many of the same Twitter accounts used to spread the Columbian Chemicals hoax began to post about an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. The campaign followed the same pattern of fake news reports and videos, this time under the hashtag #EbolaInAtlanta, which briefly trended in Atlanta. Again, the attention to detail was remarkable, suggesting a tremendous amount of effort. A YouTube video showed a team of hazmat-suited medical workers transporting a victim from the airport. Beyoncé’s recent single “7/11” played in the background, an apparent attempt to establish the video’s contemporaneity. A truck in the parking lot sported the logo of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

On the same day as the Ebola hoax, a totally different group of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police. They all used the hashtag #shockingmurderinatlanta. Here again, the hoax seemed designed to piggyback on real public anxiety; that summer and fall were marked by protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In this case, a blurry video purports to show the shooting, as an onlooker narrates. Watching it, I thought I recognized the voice — it sounded the same as the man watching TV in the Columbian Chemicals video, the one in which ISIS supposedly claims responsibility. The accent was unmistakable, if unplaceable, and in both videos he was making a very strained attempt to sound American. Somehow the result was vaguely Australian.

Who was behind all of this? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. [Continue reading…]


ISIS radio thanks its listeners for tuning in

The Associated Press reports: After a selection of tunes, the presenter with an American accent offers “a glimpse at our main headlines.” IS militants have just seized three Iraqi cities. A bomb blows up a factory, killing everyone inside. Militants destroy four enemy Hummers and an armored vehicle.

The newscast’s tone sounds much like National Public Radio in the United States. But this is Al-Bayan, the Islamic State radio targeting European recruits — touting recent triumphs in the campaign to carve out a Caliphate.

All news is good news for Al-Bayan’s “soldiers of the Caliphate.” In this narrative, the enemy always flees in disgrace or is killed. The broadcasts end with a swell of music and a gentle English message: “We thank our listeners for tuning in.”

The tension between the smooth, Western-style production and the extremist content shows how far the hardcore Islamic propaganda machine has come since 2012, when an aging Frenchman posed in front of a black-and-white jihadi flag and threatened France in the name of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The footage was grainy, with minimal production values, and released on a relatively obscure regional website. By contrast, Al-Bayan reaches thousands of listeners every day via links shared on social networks, helping to swell the ranks of Westerners — projected this year to reach a total of up to 10,000 — fighting for the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]


Russia steps up propaganda push with online ‘Kremlin trolls’

The Washington Post reports: Deep inside a four-story marble building in St. Petersburg, hundreds of workers tap away at computers on the front lines of an information war, say those who have been inside. Known as “Kremlin trolls,” the men and women work 12-hour shifts around the clock, flooding the Internet with propaganda aimed at stamping President Vladimir Putin’s world vision on Russia, and the world.

The Kremlin has always dabbled in propaganda, but in the past year its troll campaign has gone into overdrive, adding hundreds of online operatives to help counter Western pressure over its role in the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The program is drawing Serbia away from its proclaimed EU membership path and closer to the Russian orbit, and is targeting Germany, the United States and other Western powers. The operation has worried the European Union enough to prompt it to draw up a blueprint for fighting Russia’s disinformation campaign, although details have not yet been released.

Lyuda Savchuk, a single mother with two children, worked in the St. Petersburg “troll factory” until mid-March. The 34-year-old journalist said she had some idea of the Orwellian universe she was entering when she took the job, but underestimated its intensity and scope. [Continue reading…]


Who serves the best cappuccinos in the ISIS caliphate?

Channel 4 News reports: Abu Rumaysah al Britani, a man from Walthamstow in London who skipped bail to join the Islamic State group, has released a guide to the caliphate that ignores war-crimes and genocide, instead selling the Islamic State with the language of the west, of Costa coffee, of Cadbury’s chocolate, of holiday resort levels of comfort and climate.

The ‘Brief Guide to the Islamic State’ talks the about cosmopolitanism and ethnic diversity of the region that runs counter to the group’s medieval interpretation of Islam and the Islamic State militants’ destruction of ancient historical sites and images of mass killings it releases almost daily.

“If you were worried about leaving behind your local Costa coffee, then you will be happy to know that the Caliphate services some of the best lattes and cappuccinos around”, the guide reads. “The Caliphate offers an exquisite Mediterranean climate that has all the makings of a plush holiday resort.” [Continue reading…]


How the media became one of Putin’s most powerful weapons

Jill Dougherty writes: From his first days as president, Putin moved quickly to dominate the media landscape in Russia, putting not only state media but privately owned broadcast media under the Kremlin’s influence.

“The limitations on the media have existed for the 15 years that Vladimir Vladimirovich has been in power,” Alexey Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, Russia’s only remaining independent radio station, told me during a December visit to the Russian capital. The war in Ukraine, he added, has solidified Putin’s view of the media: “It’s not an institution of civil society, it’s propaganda. [The Russian broadcasters] First Channel, Second Channel, NTV, Russia Today internationally — these are all instruments for reaching a goal inside the country, and abroad.”

Early in his presidency, Venediktov said, Putin told him how he thinks the press works: “Here’s an owner, they have their own politics, and for them it’s an instrument. The government also is an owner and the media that belong to the government must carry out our instructions. And media that belong to private businessmen, they follow their orders. Look at [Rupert] Murdoch. Whatever he says, will be.”

Putin pursues a two-pronged media strategy. At home, his government clamps down on internal communications—primarily TV, which is watched by at least 90 percent of the population, but also newspapers, radio stations, and, increasingly, the Internet. State-aligned news outlets are flooded with the Kremlin’s messages and independent outlets are pushed — subtly but decisively — just to the edge of insignificance and extinction. At the same time, Putin positions himself as a renegade abroad, deploying the hyper-modern, reflexively contrarian RT — an international news agency formerly known as Russia Today — to shatter the West’s monopoly on “truth.” The Kremlin appears to be betting that information is the premier weapon of the 21st century, and that it can wield that weapon more effectively than its rivals.

When Western news outlets report on a “takeover” of the press by the Russian government, it usually evokes images of Putin, a puppet master behind Kremlin walls, ordering armed men to break down doors and haul away journalists. But in Russia, there are other ways to control the media — less dramatic, less obvious, but just as potent [Continue reading…]


Lies and cover-ups in the name of force protection

When a leaked US Army report recently revealed that the military regards Wikileaks as a potential force protection threat, the leak not only exposed the army’s fears but it also shed light on the breadth of this concept: force protection. From the Pentagon’s perspective, protecting American troops and making sure they stay out of harm’s way includes shielding them from unwelcome media attention and perhaps even concealing evidence of crimes.

Dan Froomkin reports on the latest example of a story the Pentagon has worked hard to supress:

Calling it a case of “collateral murder,” the WikiLeaks Web site today released harrowing until-now secret video of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Baghdad in 2007 repeatedly opening fire on a group of men that included a Reuters photographer and his driver — and then on a van that stopped to rescue one of the wounded men.

None of the members of the group were taking hostile action, contrary to the Pentagon’s initial cover story; they were milling about on a street corner. One man was evidently carrying a gun, though that was and is hardly an uncommon occurrence in Baghdad.

Reporters working for WikiLeaks determined that the driver of the van was a good Samaritan on his way to take his small children to a tutoring session. He was killed and his two children were badly injured.

In the video, which Reuters has been asking to see since 2007, crew members can be heard celebrating their kills.

“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” says one crewman after multiple rounds of 30mm cannon fire left nearly a dozen bodies littering the street.

A crewman begs for permission to open fire on the van and its occupants, even though it has done nothing but stop to help the wounded: “Come on, let us shoot!”


OPINION: Terrorism, Iraq, and the facts on the ground

Normalizing air war from Guernica to Arab Jabour

For those who know something about the history of air power, which, since World War II, has been lodged at the heart of the American Way of War, that 100,000 figure [– the quantity of explosives dropped on Arab Jabour south of Baghdad last week –] might have rung a small bell.

On April 27, 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War (a prelude to World War II), the planes of the German Condor Legion attacked the ancient Basque town of Guernica. They came in waves, first carpet bombing, then dropping thermite incendiaries. It was a market day and there may have been as many as 7,000-10,000 people, including refugees, in the town which was largely destroyed in the ensuing fire storm. More than 1,600 people may have died there (though some estimates are lower). The Germans reputedly dropped about 50 tons or 100,000 pounds of explosives on the town. In the seven decades between those two 100,000 figures lies a sad history of our age. [complete article]

The state of the (Iraqi) union

The George W Bush-sponsored Iraqi “surge” is now one year old. The US$11 billion-a-month (and counting) Iraqi/Afghan joint quagmire keeps adding to the US government’s staggering over $9 trillion debt (it was “only” $5.6 trillion when Bush took power in early 2001).

On the ground in Iraq, the state of the union – Bush’s legacy – translates into a completely shattered nation with up to 70% unemployment, a 70% inflation rate, less than six hours of electricity a day and virtually no reconstruction, although White House-connected multinationals have bagged more than $50 billion in competition-free contracts so far. The gleaming reconstruction success stories of course are the Vatican-sized US Embassy in Baghdad – the largest in the world – and the scores of US military bases.

Facts on the ground also attest the “surge” achieved no “political reconciliation” whatsoever in Iraq – regardless of a relentless US corporate media propaganda drive, fed by the Pentagon, to proclaim it a success. The new law to reverse de-Ba’athification – approved by a half-empty Parliament and immediately condemned by Sunni and secular parties as well as former Ba’athists themselves – will only exacerbate sectarian hatred. [complete article]

Al Qaeda loves Bush: Thanks for the free advertising

It shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point that the president uses al Qaeda as code. Last night, in his State of the Union address, he mentioned al Qaeda 10 times, terrorism 23, extremism eight, Osama bin Laden once. Sure we are fighting a war against terrorism, and al Qaeda is always a ready reminder of Sept. 11. But the president uses this code as much to describe our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, in that, he purveys a brand of confusion and surrender.

First, confusion: Al Qaeda in Iraq, whatever it is, is just one of many organized groups fighting the United States and its military coalition, fighting the Iraqi government, and seeking to create enough chaos and insecurity to defeat both. Since the very beginning of the Iraq war, when Donald Rumsfeld dismissed those attacking U.S. troops as “dead enders” and Baathists, the American description of the enemy in Iraq has contained an element of self-deception: if the enemy were just Saddam recalcitrants, then we could convince ourselves that everyone else welcomed us and was on our side.

Since Iraq started going downhill, we have described those fighting against U.S. forces as Shia and Sunni extremists, Iranian-backed militias, foreign fighters, even criminals and opportunists. By the time Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged as an identifiable leader, al Qaeda had stuck as the most useful label. It didn’t always apply, and it unfortunately connoted command and control of the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. occupation from some mountain headquarters in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but U.S. spokesmen have become extremely careful never to say Iraqis attacked U.S. forces. [complete article]


OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: How to lose the battle for hearts and minds

Rummy resurfaces, calls for U.S. propaganda agency

One of the many things I love about Donald Rumsfeld is that he’s totally unrepentant. Back in 2001, the Pentagon under his leadership created the controversial Office of Strategic Influence, which was closed down just a few months later after its existence became public. Rightly or wrongly, the Pentagon was accused of creating a propaganda office. Now, the former defense secretary has a bigger vision: he is advocating a “21st century agency for global communications.”

This was one of the major themes in one of Rumsfeld’s first post-Pentagon public comments at a conference today on network centric warfare sponsored by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement. According to Rumsfeld, the United States is losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world, and the answer to that, in part, is through the creation of this new government agency. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — The so-called battle for hearts and minds suffers from the same problem that afflicts all evangelical endeavors: it insults the intelligence of the people it aims to influence. Why would one group of people acquire mental flexibility in response to pressure from another group of people who lack mental flexibility?