How Twitter bots affected the U.S. presidential campaign

By Emilio Ferrara, University of Southern California

Key to democracy is public engagement – when people discuss the issues of the day with each other openly, honestly and without outside influence. But what happens when large numbers of participants in that conversation are biased robots created by unseen groups with unknown agendas? As my research has found, that’s what has happened this election season.

Since 2012, I have been studying how people discuss social, political, ideological and policy issues online. In particular, I have looked at how social media are abused for manipulative purposes.

It turns out that much of the political content Americans see on social media every day is not produced by human users. Rather, about one in every five election-related tweets from Sept. 16 to Oct. 21 was generated by computer software programs called “social bots.”

These artificial intelligence systems can be rather simple or very sophisticated, but they share a common trait: They are set to automatically produce content following a specific political agenda determined by their controllers, who are nearly impossible to identify. These bots have affected the online discussion around the presidential election, including leading topics and how online activity was perceived by the media and the public.

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How ISIS is spinning the Mosul battle

Charlie Winter writes: It is vastly outmanned and outgunned and, much as it would prefer otherwise, Mosul’s fall in the next few months is near inevitable. No matter how much social-media savvy the Islamic State possesses, this is an unsavory truth that its propaganda machine cannot spin.

But contrary to some reports, this does not pose an existential threat to the Islamic State. For some time, the group has been preparing for this very moment and others like it (the recent loss of Dabiq, for example), proactively but subtly shifting its overarching narrative away from divine aggression and towards steadfast resistance, reshaping it in order to allow for defeat, even the most catastrophic sort. While leaders of the Islamic State were already hinting at such a shift last year, this pivot first began to manifest properly following a May 2016 statement, directed at the coalition, by late spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. “Would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition?” (“Certainly not!” was the answer he provided, in case you were wondering.)

In the ensuing months, the notion that the caliphate was on the cusp of downsizing — from proto-state to proto-insurgency — and that this was perfectly fine, received more attention from Islamic State media, notably from, among others, the al-Naba newspaper editorial board. This re-framing — casting the staggering loss of territory as a simple expression of God’s divine project — first really came to bear in June 2016, when Fallujah fell to Iraqi forces. Before this setback, the Islamic State had a clear-cut policy for dealing with defeat: Look the other way. When, for example, the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad fell to a coalition of Kurdish and Free Syrian Army fighters in June 2015, propaganda coverage was notably lacking, with many Islamic State supporters asserting that it was nothing more than a tactical retreat in the absence of an officially delineated line. Likewise, other significant losses, like Tikrit, Ramadi, and Palmyra, were more or less overlooked by the propaganda factory.

This obfuscation worked in some places, but it could never work with Fallujah. This would have been too big a loss for the Islamic State to simply sweep under the rug. It owed a lot to the city, which it had largely controlled for two and a half years. Its roots there, symbolic and logistical, ran far deeper than they did in any of the above towns. Losing it would have strong reverberations.

Recognizing this conundrum, the Islamic State’s leaders considered their next steps with care. First, they embraced the battle for Fallujah wholeheartedly, producing a constant flow of operational reports, short videos, newspaper articles, and photographic essays, not to mention high-spec documentaries like “Fallujah of the Resistance” and “Signs of Victory,” all of which, at least initially, depicted the battle as epic, heroic, and distinctly undecided. However, as Fallujah’s imminent capture by Iraqi forces became apparent just two weeks into the offensive, the Islamic State slowed the flood to a trickle, but not before making sure to frame its loss appropriately.

Since its Fallujah test run, the Islamic State’s media mavens appear to have continued in this vein, deeming it a better bet to prioritize long-term inevitability over short-term triumphalism. This shift, something of a tactical retreat, enabled them to reframe territorial loss as a confirmation of the nearing apocalypse, rather than evidence of a failing insurgency. [Continue reading…]

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How the Pentagon paid a British PR firm $500 million for top secret Iraq propaganda

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports: The Pentagon gave a controversial UK PR firm over half a billion dollars to run a top secret propaganda programme in Iraq, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal.

Bell Pottinger’s output included short TV segments made in the style of Arabic news networks and fake insurgent videos which could be used to track the people who watched them, according to a former employee.

The agency’s staff worked alongside high-ranking US military officers in their Baghdad Camp Victory headquarters as the insurgency raged outside.

Bell Pottinger’s former chairman Lord Tim Bell confirmed to the Sunday Times, which worked with the Bureau on this story, that his firm had worked on a “covert” military operation “covered by various secrecy agreements.”

Bell Pottinger reported to the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Council on its work in Iraq, he said.

Bell, one of Britain’s most successful public relations executives, is credited with honing Margaret Thatcher’s steely image and helping the Conservative party win three elections. The agency he co-founded has had a roster of clients including repressive regimes and Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president.

In the first media interview any Bell Pottinger employee has given about the work for the US military in Iraq, video editor Martin Wells – who no longer works for the company – told the Bureau his time in Camp Victory was “shocking, eye-opening, life-changing.”

The firm’s output was signed off by former General David Petraeus – then commander of the coalition forces in Iraq – and on occasion by the White House, Wells said. [Continue reading…]

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Russia, jailer of local separatists, welcomes foreign secessionists

The New York Times reports: Russia may jail its own separatists, but that did not hinder a nominally independent Russian organization from laying out the welcome mat on Sunday for an oddball, global troupe of liberation movements, including, improbably, four from the United States.

The official name of the government-funded gathering, held within sight of the Kremlin, was “The Dialogue of Nations.” Its stated goal was to affirm the right to self-determination while demonizing globalization.

The unofficial goal seemed to be to support groups, however marginal, that might help rattle Western governments. The main talking points, particularly those vilifying the United States for the violent aftermath of uprisings in the Middle East and Ukraine, echoed a standard Kremlin argument.

Nate Smith, a 36-year-old country-music performer and information-technology consultant representing a group called the Texas Nationalist Movement, summed up the theme of the conference.

“We have gathered from around the world to discuss the principle and the future of self-determination in direct contradiction to those seeking a global solution to the people of the world,” he told the conference. “Much like the people of Catalonia, the people of Ireland, the people of Puerto Rico and many other peoples that are represented at this conference, we believe that the best people to govern Texas is the Texan people.” [Continue reading…]

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How Jill Stein and Donald Trump became allies of Vladimir Putin

Casey Michel writes: Last December, at a gala honoring the 10th anniversary of the Russian propaganda channel RT, Russian President Vladimir Putin nestled himself between a pair of visitors at the head table. To the president’s right: A former head of the US’s Defense Intelligence Agency, known best for his hard-right views on Islam, which he would later compare to “cancer.” And to Putin’s left: The soon-to-be Green Party nominee for the White House, whose presidential debate would be carried on, of all things, RT.

The two – Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, an adviser to Republican nominee Donald Trump, and Jill Stein, the presidential nominee from the Green Party – chummed with Putin throughout the evening, later joined at the table by RT (formerly Russia Today) head Margarita Simonyan and then-Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov. Soon, Putin took the dais, running through rote commentary on RT’s accomplishments. When he finished, applause rang. Stein shook his hand. Flynn offered a standing ovation.

Within that gala, leading figures of America’s far-left, in Stein, and hard-right, in Trump’s surrogate, found common cause. The bookends of the American political spectrum had gathered in Moscow, glad-handing with Kremlin officials. The two camps, aligned in post-fact views on American foreign policy, discovered themselves aligned in celebration of the Kremlin’s foremost foreign propaganda vehicle.

Unsurprisingly, the policy prescriptions of Stein and Flynn don’t align on much else. As it pertains to Moscow, though, it’s clear that the distance between the Stein and the Trump campaigns have effectively disappeared. [Continue reading…]

Philip Bump notes: Russia scored an 83 out of 100 in the annual press freedom scores compiled by the watchdog organization Freedom Press. (100 is the worst possible score.) By contrast, the United States scored a 21. What’s more, in January, Politifact determined that since 2000, when Putin was first elected to the presidency, 34 journalists have been murdered in Russia.

When Trump was confronted with Putin’s track record on journalists on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” earlier this year, he was unfazed.

“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said, when presented with some critiques of Putin.

“But, again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” host Joe Scarborough replied.

“Well,” Trump said, “I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.”

Trump has consistently berated the media for what he views as unfair coverage of his campaign. For an extended period, he barred media outlets (including The Post) from attending his events, a ban that was recently lifted. He has talked about somehow changing libel laws so that it would be easier to sue media outlets for coverage that he didn’t like.

So the through-line here is this: Trump thinks Putin should be emulated because he is viewed positively in his country. He is viewed positively in part because he crushes dissenting media opinions, something that Trump has also either praised or tacitly accepted. It’s part of being a “leader,” it seems. [Continue reading…]

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Spreading lies: A powerful Russian propaganda weapon

The New York Times reports: With a vigorous national debate underway on whether Sweden should enter a military partnership with NATO, officials in Stockholm suddenly encountered an unsettling problem: a flood of distorted and outright false information on social media, confusing public perceptions of the issue.

The claims were alarming: If Sweden, a non-NATO member, signed the deal, the alliance would stockpile secret nuclear weapons on Swedish soil; NATO could attack Russia from Sweden without government approval; NATO soldiers, immune from prosecution, could rape Swedish women without fear of criminal charges.

They were all false, but the disinformation had begun spilling into the traditional news media, and as the defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, traveled the country to promote the pact in speeches and town hall meetings, he was repeatedly grilled about the bogus stories.

“People were not used to it, and they got scared, asking what can be believed, what should be believed?” said Marinette Nyh Radebo, Mr. Hultqvist’s spokeswoman.

As often happens in such cases, Swedish officials were never able to pin down the source of the false reports. But they, numerous analysts and experts in American and European intelligence point to Russia as the prime suspect, noting that preventing NATO expansion is a centerpiece of the foreign policy of President Vladimir V. Putin, who invaded Georgia in 2008 largely to forestall that possibility. [Continue reading…]

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Understanding the role of Russian propaganda in the U.S. election

Ben Nimmo writes: It may seem strange, but the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is not backing US Presidential Republican Candidate Donald Trump. It has a bigger goal: Discrediting democracy in the United States.

The Kremlin’s main propaganda outlets in the US are the television station RT — formerly Russia Today — and the radio and online outlet Sputnik. Both are headed by Kremlin loyalists and closely mirror Russia’s foreign policy. While their effect on the presidential race is likely to be minimal, their reporting is useful for the insight it provides into the Kremlin’s intentions.

That reporting focuses on specifically attacking US Presidential Democratic Candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the general nature of US democracy. As such, it appears that the Kremlin is less interested in promoting Trump than promoting discontent.

Coverage of Trump by RT and Sputnik is uncharacteristically balanced. Some recent reports have presented the Republican candidate favorably, such as when he endorsed a number of his critics for re-election “in an attempt to ease party tensions”, or accused Clinton of founding ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Other coverage, however, was unfavorable. Some have quoted a neo-Nazi leader as backing Trump’s candidacy, and accused him of hypocrisy. One report even asked: “Is Trump an embarrassment to the [Republican Party] because he’s an incompetent, uninformed, pathological menace, or because he’s just saying out loud what most Republicans now believe?”

No such balance is apparent in the two outlets’ coverage of the other candidates.

Clinton is the most obvious target. In August of 2016 alone, RT reports covered accusations of corruption, lying, and ill health against her; accused her of launching a McCarthy-style “witch hunt” against Trump; and linked her to the use of nuclear weapons in 1945. Sputnik’s reporting called her and her team “war hawks”, accused her of wanting to “make more families suffer” the deaths of soldiers, and named her the “Queen of War”. [Continue reading…]

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For Putin, disinformation is power

Arkady Ostrovsky writes: Fifteen years ago, a few months into his presidency, Vladimir V. Putin told Larry King on CNN that his previous job as a K.G.B. officer had been like that of a journalist. “They have the same purpose of gathering information, synthesizing it and presenting it for the consumption of decision makers,” he said. Since then, he has excelled at using the media to consolidate power inside Russia and, increasingly, to wage an information war against the West.

So the apparent hacking by Russian security services of the Democratic National Committee emails, followed by their publication by WikiLeaks, should come as no great surprise to Americans. It is only the latest example of how Mr. Putin uses information as a weapon. And the Kremlin has cultivated ties with WikiLeaks for years.

It has also used disinformation in its annexation of Crimea and in its war in Ukraine, launched cyberattacks on Finland and the Baltic States, and planted hoax stories in Germany to embarrass Angela Merkel. During the Cold War, the Kremlin interfered in American politics for decades. The K.G.B.’s so-called active measures — subversion, media manipulations, forgery and the financing of some “peace” organizations — lay at the heart of Soviet intelligence.

Then as now, Russia exploited real grievances in the West — discontent with the war in Vietnam and racial tensions in the 1960s; anxiety and fear of Muslim immigrants today. Nevertheless, Mr. Putin’s support of the likes of Donald Trump in America, Brexiters in Britain or the right-wing Marine Le Pen in France does not mean they are his creations. [Continue reading…]

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How Russia dominates your Twitter feed to promote lies (and, Trump, too)

The Daily Beast reports: “Ladies and Gentlemen, We have a situation in #Turkey #Incirlik” the cry went out on Twitter last Saturday night, as news spread of the Turkish forces surrounding the U.S. airbase in Incirlik.

Thousands of armed police had reportedly surrounded the airbase amid swirling rumors of another coup attempt, according to stories tweeted within two minutes of each other on RT.com and Sputnik, the two biggest Russian state-controlled media organizations publishing in English. The stories were instantly picked up by a popular online aggregator of breaking news and prompted hours-long storm of activity from a small, vocal circle of users.

In English, the tweets soon grouped into certain patterns of similar (and sometimes identical) content. The first were panicky expressions of concern about nuclear weapons allegedly stored at Incirlik: [Continue reading…]

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Why we’re post-fact

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Peter Pomerantsev writes: As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free. When the Brexit campaign announces ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’ and, on winning the referendum, the claim is shrugged off as a ‘mistake’ by one Brexit leader while another explains it as ‘an aspiration’, then it’s clear we are living in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world. Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.

How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?

Many blame technology. Instead of ushering a new era of truth-telling, the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable. All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices. Algorithms developed by companies such as Google and Facebook are based around your previous searches and clicks, so with every search and every click you find your own biases confirmed. Social media, now the primary news source for most Americans, leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.

Technology might have more subtle influences on our relationship with the truth, too. The new media, with its myriad screens and streams, makes reality so fragmented it becomes ungraspable, pushing us towards, or allowing us to flee, into virtual realities and fantasies. Fragmentation, combined with the disorientations of globalization, leaves people yearning for a more secure past, breeding nostalgia. ‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. Thus Putin’s internet-troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexiteers yearn for a lost England on Facebook; while ISIS’s viral snuff movies glorify a mythic Caliphate. ‘Restorative nostalgia’, argued Boym, strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’, thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition’, obsesses over grand symbols and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’.

The flight into techno-fantasies is intertwined with economic and social uncertainty. If all the facts say you have no economic future then why would you want to hear facts? If you live in a world where a small event in China leads to livelihoods lost in Lyon, where your government seems to have no control over what is going on, then trust in the old institutions of authority – politicians, academics, the media – buckles. Which has led to Brexit leader Michael Gove’s claim that British people ‘have had enough of experts’, Trump’s rants at the ‘lamestream’ media and the online flowering of ‘alternative news’ sites. Paradoxically, people who don’t trust ‘the mainstream’ media are, a study from Northeastern University showed, more likely to swallow disinformation. ‘Surprisingly, consumers of alternative news, which are the users trying to avoid the mainstream media “mass-manipulation”, are the most responsive to the injection of false claims.’ Healthy scepticism ends in a search for wild conspiracies. Putin’s Kremlin-controlled television finds US conspiracies behind everything, Trump speculates that 9/11 was an inside job, and parts of the Brexit campaign saw Britain under attack from a Germano-Franco-European plot. [Continue reading…]

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Effort to expose Russia’s ‘troll army’ draws vicious retaliation

The New York Times reports: Seeking to shine some light into the dark world of Internet trolls, a journalist with Finland’s national broadcaster asked members of her audience to share their experience of encounters with Russia’s “troll army,” a raucous and often venomous force of online agitators.

The response was overwhelming, though not in the direction that the journalist, Jessikka Aro, had hoped.

As she expected, she received some feedback from people who had clashed with aggressively pro-Russian voices online. But she was taken aback, and shaken, by a vicious retaliatory campaign of harassment and insults against her and her work by those same pro-Russian voices.

“Everything in my life went to hell thanks to the trolls,” said Ms. Aro, a 35-year-old investigative reporter with the social media division of Finland’s state broadcaster, Yle Kioski.

Abusive online harassment is hardly limited to pro-Russian Internet trolls. Ukraine and other countries at odds with the Kremlin also have legions of aggressive avengers on social media.

But pro-Russian voices have become such a noisy and disruptive presence that both NATO and the European Union have set up special units to combat what they see as a growing threat not only to civil discourse but to the well-being of Europe’s democratic order and even to its security.

This “information war,” said Rastislav Kacer, a veteran diplomat who served as Slovakia’s ambassador to Washington and at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, “is just part of a bigger struggle.” While not involving bloodshed, he added, it “is equally as dangerous as more conventional hostile action.” [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s allies in the West

Shawn Carrié writes: If there’s one thing everyone can agree on about Syria, it’s that nobody can agree on anything.

After five years of constantly evolving strife, the world still looks on in occasional waves of horror, pity, outrage and apathy – before returning to the stoic conclusion that the conflict is just too complicated to understand.

The laws of war, human rights and geopolitics have gone out the window. With them, regrettably, the rules of responsible journalism seem to have gone, too.

At one time, open-source activists and “Facebook revolutionaries” made the Arab Spring history’s most documented tectonic societal shift. Today, Syria’s war is a dangerously polarised nebula of partisans, as much in the media as on the battlegrounds.

Few non-aligned journalists remain to report unbiased and trustworthy news. Without credible information, it’s hard to understand anything that happens in Syria, contributing to a political and public consensus of apathy. What’s left is a news landscape driven less by actual events than by a narrow set of available perspectives.

“The Syrian conflict involves a public relations war with a level of sophistication we’ve never seen before,” American writer Patrick Henningsen said in an report published by Russia Today. Ironically, it’s an accurate assessment of a reality which Russia had a primary role in fostering.

In areas where Russian intervention hasn’t decisively turned the tide militarily in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the allies’ powerful public relations machine has been working to pick up the slack.

The alliance with Putin has availed Assad of the full gauntlet of Moscow’s superior state-controlled media apparatus. The result: a highly efficient and centralised narrative spread throughout the international press. For every report, a favourable counter-narrative filters down from the regime megaphone to a wide network of smaller websites and blogs. [Continue reading…]

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