How Assange, Snowden, and other radical libertarians have allied with Russia in their opposition to liberal democracy

Julian Borger writes: At a time when strange alliances are disrupting previously stable democracies, the Catalan independence referendum was a perfect reflection of a weird age. Along with the flag-waving and calls for ‘freedom’ from Madrid, the furore that followed the vote unleashed some of the darker elements that have haunted recent turbulent episodes in Europe and America: fake news, Russian mischief and, marching oddly in step, libertarian activism.

From his residence of more than five years inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange tweeted 80 times in support of Catalan secession, and his views were amplified by the state-run Russian news agency, Sputnik, making him the most quoted English-language voice on Twitter, according to independent research and the Sydney Morning Herald.

In second place was Edward Snowden, another champion of transparency, who like Assange had little by way of a track record on Spanish politics. Together, Snowden and Assange accounted for a third of all Twitter traffic under the #Catalonia hashtag. [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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‘Way too little, way too late’: Facebook’s factcheckers say effort is failing

The Guardian reports: Journalists working for Facebook say the social media site’s fact-checking tools have largely failed and that the company has exploited their labor for a PR campaign.

Several fact checkers who work for independent news organizations and partner with Facebook told the Guardian that they feared their relationships with the technology corporation, some of which are paid, have created a conflict of interest, making it harder for the news outlets to scrutinize and criticize Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation.

The reporters also lamented that Facebook had refused to disclose data on its efforts to stop the dissemination of fake news. The journalists are speaking out one year after the company launched the collaboration in response to outrage over revelations that social media platforms had widely promoted fake news and propaganda during the US presidential election.

Facebook has since revealed that it facilitated Russia’s efforts to interfere with US politics, allowing divisive political ads and propaganda that reached 126 million Americans.

“I don’t feel like it’s working at all. The fake information is still going viral and spreading rapidly,” said one journalist who does fact-checks for Facebook and, like others interviewed for this piece, was not authorized to speak publicly due to the continuing partnership with the company. “It’s really difficult to hold [Facebook] accountable. They think of us as doing their work for them. They have a big problem, and they are leaning on other organizations to clean up after them.” [Continue reading…]

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Jenna Abrams, Russia’s clown troll princess, duped the mainstream media and the world

The Daily Beast reports: Jenna Abrams had a lot of enemies on Twitter but she was a very good friend to viral content writers across the world.

Her opinions about everything from manspreading on the subway to Rachel Dolezal to ballistic missiles still linger on news sites all over the web.

One website devoted an entire article to Abrams’ tweet about Kim Kardashian’s clothes. The story was titled “This Tweeter’s PERFECT Response to Kim K’s Naked Selfie Will Crack You Up.”

“Thank goodness, then, that there are people like Twitter user Jenna Abrams to come to the celebrity’s wardrobe-lacking aide,” reads a Brit & Co. article from March of 2016.

Those same users who followed @Jenn_Abrams for her perfect Kim Kardashian jokes would be blasted with her shoddily punctuated ideas on slavery and segregation just one month later.

“To those people, who hate the Confederate flag. Did you know that the flag and the war wasn’t about slavery, it was all about money,” Abrams’ account tweeted in April of last year.

The tweet went viral, earning heaps of ridicule from journalists, historians, and celebrities alike, then calls for support from far-right users coming to her defense.

That was the plan all along.

Congressional investigators working with social media companies have since confirmed that Abrams wasn’t who she said she was.

Her account was the creation of employees at the Internet Research Agency, or the Russian government-funded “troll farm,” in St. Petersburg.

Jenna Abrams, the freewheeling American blogger who believed in a return to segregation and said that many of America’s problems stemmed from PC culture run amok, did not exist.

But Abrams got very real attention from almost any national news outlet you can think of, according to a Daily Beast analysis of her online footprint.

Abrams, who at one point boasted nearly 70,000 Twitter followers, was featured in articles written by Bustle, U.S. News and World Report, USA Today, several local Fox affiliates, InfoWars, BET, Yahoo Sports, Sky News, IJR, Breitbart, The Washington Post, Mashable, New York Daily News, Quartz, Dallas News, France24, HuffPost, The Daily Caller, The Telegraph, CNN, the BBC, Gizmodo, The Independent, The Daily Dot, The Observer, Business Insider, The National Post, Refinery29, The Times of India, BuzzFeed, The Daily Mail, The New York Times, and, of course, Russia Today and Sputnik. [Continue reading…]

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Michael Flynn followed Russian troll accounts, pushed their messages in days before election

The Daily Beast reports: Former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn followed five Twitter accounts based out of the Russian-backed “troll factory” in St. Petersburg—and pushed their messages at least three times in the month before the 2016 election.

Over 2,750 troll accounts based out of the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency were made public by House investigators on Wednesday. The accounts, some of which had previously been identified by The Daily Beast as Russian-generated, were pulled from Twitter due to their ties to the troll factory over the past three months.

The Daily Beast had previously discovered Flynn, Donald Trump Jr., Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, and Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale retweeted Ten_GOP several times in the month before the election.

The news that Flynn also pushed Russian propaganda comes at an unwelcome time for the former three-star general and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn is one of the people under investigation by Robert Mueller’s widespread probe into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Why Twitter is the best social media platform for disinformation

Thomas Rid writes: Twitter is the most open social media platform, which is partly why it’s used by so many politicians, celebrities, journalists, tech types, conference goers, and experts working on fast-moving topics. As we learned over the past year, Twitter’s openness was exploited by adversarial governments trying to influence elections. Twitter is marketing itself as a news platform, the go-to place to find out, in the words of its slogan, “What’s happening?”

So what’s happening with disinformation on Twitter? That is very hard to tell, because Twitter is actively making it easier to hide evidence of wrongdoing and making it harder to investigate abuse by limiting and monitoring third party research, and by forcing data companies to delete evidence as requested by users. The San Francisco-based firm has long been the platform of choice for adversarial intelligence agencies, malicious automated accounts (so-called bots), and extremists at the fringes. Driven by ideology and the market, the most open and liberal social media platform has become a threat to open and liberal democracy.

In the course of late 2016 and 2017, Facebook tried to confront abuse: by hiring a top-notch security team; by improving account authentication; and by tackling disinformation. Twitter has done the opposite—its security team is rudimentary and reclusive; the company seems to be in denial on the scope of disinformation; and it even optimised its platform for hiding bots and helping adversarial operators to delete incriminating evidence—to delete incriminating evidence not just from Twitter, but even from the archives of third party data providers. I spoke with half a dozen analysts from such intelligence companies with privileged access to Twitter data, all of whom asked for anonymity for fear of upsetting their existing relationship with Twitter. One analyst joked that he would to cut off my feet if I mentioned him or his firm. Twitter declined to comment on the record for this story two times. [Continue reading…]

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Why are Americans suckers for social media manipulation?

Stephen Marche writes: As executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter head to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress, one thing is already clear: American carnage came at a bargain price. Russian trolls spent tens of thousands of dollars on Google ad products and somewhere over a hundred thousand dollars on Facebook ads, and the Russian social-media blitzkrieg of 2016 shook Western democracy to its foundation. That’s the story, anyway, and it’s already a legend of informational warfare: American innovation cleverly turned against its makers. But the frenetic need to explain Donald Trump’s election and the entirely justifiable fear of social media and of Russian interference has obscured a bigger question: Why does this stuff only work so well in America?

Since Trump’s rise to power, the the Russians have attempted to influence other elections—in Germany and in France—with nowhere near the same success. In Germany, the Times reported, “the major political parties entered into a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ this year not to exploit any information that might be leaked as a result of a cyberattack.” In France, the G.R.U., the Russian military-intelligence directorate, allegedly dumped masses of hacked data from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign just before the Presidential election. Voters there responded with the standard French shrug, then elected him in a two-to-one landslide. In Canada earlier this year, Russian disinformation targeted Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland (a friend of mine, for the record). Freeland was already a target of Vladimir Putin, banned from travelling to Russia for her support of Ukrainian causes. In January, pro-Putin social-media accounts began circulating stories about Freeland’s grandfather, who had edited an anti-Semitic newspaper in Poland during the Second World War. Here’s what happened next: Freeland’s political opponents, most notably Tony Clement, the public-safety critic in the Conservative Party’s shadow Cabinet, immediately declared that it was the responsibility of all journalists and politicians to call out the “smear.” The national broadcaster, the CBC, ignored the affair. Jewish organizations didn’t bother to respond. The whole thing disappeared. By April, Freeland was giving a plenary address to the World Jewish Congress, in New York.

The parameters of social-media conflict are difficult to grasp because Facebook posts seem irrelevant when compared to war or geopolitics—one is an online amusement, diversion, and sometime news source, while the other is life and death. But Marshall McLuhan predicted that the Third World War would be “a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation,” and that’s exactly what it has turned out to be. America seems more vulnerable than other developed countries to the kind of distortion that Facebook and Twitter bring to news and politics. Arguably, the social-media distortion affects America more profoundly than other countries because of the very specific, even unique, way that Americans make meaning. This gullibility is a consequence of the country’s ancient faith in self-determination as an all-encompassing guiding principle.

Self-determination is the source of America’s oldest political commitments and its deepest clichés—“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the cowboy, the astronaut, Thoreau at Walden, Emerson on “Self-Reliance.” In America, everyone is entitled to his or her own vision of the universe. Therefore Mormonism. Therefore Scientology. Therefore the various phases of Bob Dylan’s career. Self-determination is a moral state and not simply an economic one. How else would so many new religions, new art forms, be born out of a single country? The idea that meaning will blossom from individuals rather than be imposed from an outside order is why America, though imperial, has never considered itself an empire. This self-determining instinct attaches to both the left and the right. “The ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and the minds of the people who actually live out there,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said of Vietnam. “ ‘You’re on your own. Here’s a copy of the Federalist Papers. Good luck,’ ” John Bolton said of Iraq. The idea that meaning is something that comes from within a person is so entrenched in American thinking that even Americans who spend decades abroad cannot quite imagine that people work any other way.

How did the Russian social-media campaign turn this American idealism, its faith in people’s ability to make up their own minds, against them? The tactical specifics of how Putin influenced the 2016 Presidential election have yet to emerge, but one thing that is obvious is that, on the broad question of media and social-media manipulation, Trump learned from Putin. “My image and name are a widely marketed brand used by anyone who feels like it,” Putin said in 2004. Already by then he had achieved complete exposure, with his face on T-shirts, pins, coins, and cakes, nostalgically recreating the iconography of a Soviet strongman in a consumerist framework. The Russian scholars Julie A. Cassiday and Emily D. Johnson, in their essay “A Personality Cult for the Postmodern Age,” make the key observation that parodic images, not just images of strength, empowered Putin—postcards of the man struggling at a pottery wheel or wearing a Byronic scarf served his empowerment as much as the images of him fishing shirtless or at the dojo. “In the context of the Putin craze, all meaning is relative,” they write. “The contemporary cult accords a surprisingly active and even playful role to ordinary citizens: each individual determines for himself what the presidential brand denotes.” Trump, too, has stumbled upon a realization that his enemies have yet to make: it is important for him to be a joke as well as a monster.

Celebrity authoritarianism works through the free-floating nature of the political icon—the meaning of Trump or Putin is determined person by person. Mockery helps both. “Everybody is joking about Donald Trump now, but it’s a very short way from joke to sad reality,” Masha Alyokhina, from Pussy Riot, warned, in 2015. “If you want in your country to have your own Putin, you can vote for Donald Trump.” [Continue reading…]

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House drops motherlode of Russian propaganda

The Daily Beast reports: The ad was highly specific—and specifically Russian.
It was for a Facebook group called Defend The 2nd. Above an image showing a cornucopia of bullets, it billed itself as “The community of 2nd Amendment supporters, guns lovers & patriots.” That was how it appeared to the public—the American public—but Facebook internally held data that told a different story.

Ad targeting information associated with Defend The 2nd showed how highly targeted it was. The location for viewership had to be within the United States. They had to be between the ages of 18 to over 65. They had to match Facebook users with interests including the National Rifle Association, Second Amendment Sisters, Gun Owners of America, Concealed carry in the United States, and Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The ad did not come from people for whom the Second Amendment applies. Payment, through the online payment service Qiwi, came in the form of 48,305.55 Rubles, or roughly $829. For that, Russia garnered over 301,000 “impressions” from Americans, with no questions asked by Facebook.

That ad was one of dozens of inflammatory Facebook and Twitter ads from Kremlin-backed fake social media accounts, including several The Daily Beast has already identified, with names like “Being Patriotic,” “Secured Borders,” and “United Muslims of America.” They were released on Wednesday, along with accompanying metadata showing their Russian provenance, not by the companies themselves, but by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. [Continue reading…]

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Russian influence reached 126 million through Facebook alone

The New York Times reports: Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook while uploading more than 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service, according to copies of prepared remarks from the companies that were obtained by The New York Times, underlining the breadth of the Kremlin’s efforts to sow division in the United States using American technology platforms.

The detailed disclosures, sent to Congress on Monday by two companies whose products are the most widely used on the internet, came before a series of congressional hearings this week into how third parties used social networks and online services to influence millions of Americans before the 2016 presidential election.

The new information goes far beyond what Facebook and Google have revealed in the past and illustrate how Facebook, in particular, was used by agents linked to Russia. Multiple investigations of Russian meddling have loomed over the first 10 months of Mr. Trump’s presidency, resulting this week in the indictments of Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chief, and others.

In prepared remarks sent to Congress, Facebook said the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin, posted roughly 80,000 pieces of divisive content that was shown to about 29 million people between January 2015 and August 2017. Those posts were then liked, shared and followed by others, spreading the messages to tens of millions more people. Facebook also said it had found and deleted more than 170 accounts on its photo-sharing app Instagram; those accounts had posted about 120,000 pieces of Russia-linked content. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook’s instrumental role in the promotion of ethnic cleansing and the creation of a million refugees

Kevin Roose reports: For months, Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., has been in crisis mode, furiously attempting to contain the damage stemming from its role in last year’s presidential campaign. The company has mounted an all-out defense campaign ahead of this week’s congressional hearings on election interference in 2016, hiring three outside communications firms, taking out full-page newspaper ads, and mobilizing top executives, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, to beat back accusations that it failed to prevent Russia from manipulating the outcome of the election.

No other predicament in Facebook’s 13-year history has generated this kind of four-alarm response. But while the focus on Russia is understandable, Facebook has been much less vocal about the abuse of its services in other parts of the world, where the stakes can be much higher than an election.

This past week, my colleagues at The Times reported on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar that has been subjected to brutal violence and mass displacement. Violence against the Rohingya has been fueled, in part, by misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda spread on Facebook, which is used as a primary news source by many people in the country. Doctored photos and unfounded rumors have gone viral on Facebook, including many shared by official government and military accounts.

The information war in Myanmar illuminates a growing problem for Facebook. The company successfully connected the world to a constellation of real-time communication and broadcasting tools, then largely left it to deal with the consequences.

“In a lot of these countries, Facebook is the de facto public square,” said Cynthia Wong, a senior internet researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Because of that, it raises really strong questions about Facebook needing to take on more responsibility for the harms their platform has contributed to.”

In Myanmar, the rise in anti-Rohingya sentiment coincided with a huge boom in social media use that was partly attributable to Facebook itself. In 2016, the company partnered with MTP, the state-run telecom company, to give subscribers access to its Free Basics program. Free Basics includes a limited suite of internet services, including Facebook, that can be used without counting toward a cellphone data plan. As a result, the number of Facebook users in Myanmar has skyrocketed to more than 30 million today from 2 million in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Russian propaganda traced back to Staten Island, New York

The Daily Beast reports: Russia’s propaganda campaign targeting Americans was hosted, at least in part, on American soil.

A company owned by a man on Staten Island, New York, provided internet infrastructure services to DoNotShoot.Us, a Kremlin propaganda site that pretended to be a voice for victims of police shootings, a Daily Beast investigation has found.

Every website needs to be “hosted”—given an Internet Protocol address and space on a physical computer—in order to be publicly viewed. DoNotShoot.Us is a website run out of the Kremlin-backed “Russian troll farm,” according to two sources familiar with the website, both of whom independently identified it to The Daily Beast as a Russian propaganda account. It was hosted on a server with the IP address 107.181.161.172.

That IP address was owned by Greenfloid LLC, a company registered to New Yorker Sergey Kashyrin and two others. Other Russian propaganda sites, like BlackMattersUs.com, were also hosted on servers with IP addresses owned by Greenfloid. The company’s ties to Russian propaganda sites were first reported by ThinkProgress.

The web services company owns under 250 IP addresses, some of which resolve to Russian propaganda sites and other fake news operations. Others are sites that could not be hosted at other providers, like “xxxrape.net.” There’s also a Russian trinket site called “soviet-power.com.” (The IP address that pointed to DoNotShoot.Us now resolves to a botnet and phishing operation, and is currently owned by Total Server Solutions LLC.)

The use of a tiny, no-questions-asked hosting company run by a man living in New York shows the Kremlin-backed troll farm’s brazen use of Americans and American companies to conduct its disinformation campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s favored outlet is an online news giant. YouTube helped

The New York Times reports: When the state-backed Russian news channel RT became the first news organization to surpass one billion views on YouTube in 2013, it marked the achievement with a retrospective of its most popular videos and a special guest — one of the Google-owned site’s senior executives.

Robert Kyncl, a YouTube vice president who has since become its chief business officer, joined an RT anchor in a studio, where he praised RT for bonding with viewers by providing “authentic” content instead of “agendas or propaganda.”

But now, as investigators in Washington examine the scope and reach of Russian interference in United States politics, the once-cozy relationship between RT and YouTube is drawing closer scrutiny.

YouTube — the world’s most-visited video site, owned by one of the most powerful and influential corporations in America — played a crucial role in helping build and expand RT, an organization that the American intelligence community has described as the Kremlin’s “principal international propaganda outlet” and a key player in Russia’s information warfare operations around the world.

YouTube also provided RT with the kind of perks it reserved for big publishers, including custom backgrounds for its channel in the early days and a “check mark” that designated RT as a verified news source. Until recently, RT was also among a select group of news organizations included in Google’s “preferred” news lineup, granting them access to guaranteed revenue from premium advertisers. Those advertisers, in effect, subsidized Russia’s international propaganda arm.

Google dropped RT from the preferred lineup last month. Andrea Faville, a Google spokeswoman, said the decision was unrelated to the congressional inquiry, and that RT had been dropped as part of a “standard algorithmic update.” But Google also noted that it was not placing any other limits on RT: The channel could still sell regular ads on its videos and the status downgrade only applied in the United States. Google later clarified that RT was downgraded in other markets, but it would not say which ones. [Continue reading…]

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Homegrown ‘fake news’ is a bigger problem than Russian propaganda

Brendan Nyhan and Yusaku Horiuchi write: State-sponsored propaganda like the recently unmasked @TEN_GOP Twitter account is of very real concern for our democracy. But we should not allow the debate over Russian interference to crowd out concerns about homegrown misinformation, which was vastly more prevalent during and after the 2016 election.

Why is misinformation so prevalent and widely believed in U.S. politics?

One explanation for the growth of misinformation is the way people are exposed to — and consume — news today. In particular, concerns have grown about “echo chambers.” According to this theory, people are, intentionally or unintentionally, surrounding themselves with news from like-minded sources. In such environments, people may tend to uncritically believe news content from outlets they trust while dismissing or ignoring information from sources they dislike. If this is true, politicians and commentators may be able to effectively mislead the public by promoting misinformation through allied news outlets.

But when one of us (Horiuchi) and his Dartmouth undergraduate co-authors tested this hypothesis in a recent study, they found that the source of the misinformation they showed to study participants (an incorrect news excerpt about the Affordable Care Act) didn’t matter very much. Regardless of the respondents’ party identification or ideology, attributing the article to Fox or CNN had relatively little effect on the news article’s perceived accuracy.

The problem instead was that people were surprisingly vulnerable to believing the misinformation even when it came from an uncongenial source. Far more believed the false claim (that people would lose health coverage from their parents’ insurance plans when they turned 18 under proposed legislation) when they read an article making the claim. In other words, they swallowed the news story without carefully considering whether it was true.

In this sense, concerns about echo chambers may be overstated — a finding that is consistent with other evidence. The problem isn’t that we’re only willing to listen to sources that share our political viewpoint; it’s that we’re too vulnerable as human beings to misinformation of all sorts. Given the limitations of human knowledge and judgment, it is not clear how to best protect people from believing false claims. [Continue reading…]

For as long as there are masses of people who can easily be deceived, there will continue to be a market for deception.

The focus these days might be on so-called fake news, but the practice of deception extends far outside news and social media. Indeed, we live in economies, societies, and cultures, where through commerce, political structures, and religious institutions, deception plays a role in most human relationships.

The professed shock at Russian interference in U.S. elections while being a response to a genuine threat to democracy, is also often disingenuous in a context where native truthfulness is often in such short supply.

Are we to believe that there is something intrinsically less harmful about being lied to by an American rather than a Russian?

Flip the issue on its head and the issue is not about protecting people from believing what turns out to be false, but rather a much more far reaching challenge: how to cultivate and propagate a large-scale interest in the discovery of what is true?

The lack of such an interest is the very thing that makes falsehoods so easy to package and sell.

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CIA director distorts intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference

The Washington Post reports: CIA Director Mike Pompeo declared Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia’s interference in the 2016 American presidential election did not alter the outcome, a statement that distorted spy agency findings.

“The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” Pompeo said at a security conference in Washington.

His comment suggested — falsely — that a report released by U.S. intelligence agencies in January had ruled out any impact that could be attributed to a covert Russian interference campaign that involved leaks of tens of thousands of stolen emails, the flooding of social media sites with false claims and the purchase of ads on Facebook.

A report compiled by the CIA and other agencies described that Russian operation as unprecedented in its scale and concluded that Moscow’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process and help elect Donald Trump.

But the report reached no conclusions about whether that interference had altered the outcome — an issue that U.S. intelligence officials made clear was considered beyond the scope of their inquiry. [Continue reading…]

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Trump campaign staffers pushed Russian propaganda from fake Twitter account days before the election

The Washington Post reports: Russian operatives used a fake Twitter account that claimed to speak for Tennessee Republicans to persuade American politicians, celebrities and journalists to share select content with their own massive lists of followers, two people familiar with the matter said.

The list of prominent people who tweeted out links from the account, @Ten_GOP, which Twitter shut down in August, includes political figures such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and James Woods, and media personalities such as Ann Coulter and Chris Hayes.

There is no evidence that any of them knew the account was run by Russians. Independent researchers had suspected the account was Russian, and their work was confirmed Wednesday by two people familiar with the investigations into the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. [Continue reading…]

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