The Baltic elves taking on pro-Russian trolls

Michael Weiss writes from Vilnius, Lithuania: My elf was on time and surprisingly tall.

Mindaugas is an unassuming, thirtysomething advertising agency director by day, and a ferocious cyber-warrior by night. He started a phenomenon, here in Lithuania, of countering Kremlin propaganda and disinformation on the Internet. “We needed to call our group something. What to name it? Well, we were fighting trolls. So I said, ‘Let’s be elves.’”

There were 20 or 30 at first, when the trolls began a targeted campaign of leaving nasty comments about the Lithuanian government and society, usually pegged to a hatred of NATO, the European Union and, of course, the United States. Since then, elves have proliferated into the hundreds. They’re now scattered about neighboring Latvia and Estonia and have even been spotted as far north as Finland. The elves pride themselves on clandestinity and reclusiveness, and so I was quite lucky to catch this Lithuanian Legolas on my last night in Vilnius.

“Most of us were already participating in some online groups,” said this man, who suggests we call him Mindaugas in person. “Fighting the trolls on Facebook and vKontakte, giving examples of Russian lies. That’s how we met.”

Facebook is where the light skirmishes take place; the mortal combat is reserved for the comment sections of Lithuanian news articles, where the trolls loose a constant drizzle of falsehoods and complaints, each comment helping to construct an alternate reality version of life in this Baltic country of 3 million. Rather than a thriving and patriotic post-Soviet success story, which it is, the image the trolls cultivate is that of a demoralized and angry society whose people are ready for regime change, be it through internal democratic mechanisms or through “liberation” by a friendly neighboring army. [Continue reading…]

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The Madison Valleywood Project: A media-tech alliance formed to fight ISIS

Kaveh Waddell writes: On January 8, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the directors of the FBI and the NSA, the director of national intelligence, and other officials traveled to San Jose, California, to meet in secret with tech-company executives. The officials asked for the executives’ advice for how to launch counter-messaging campaigns on social media, according to reports. And a few weeks later, Secretary of State John Kerry made his way to Universal Studios, where he met with a dozen Hollywood studio executives to discuss how film and storytelling could be used to counter extremist narratives, reports said.

The culmination of the government’s efforts came just last month, when officials packed a room to capacity for a closed-door meeting at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. There, the three elements of the government’s push came together both in person and in name: The agenda that was distributed to participants bore the title “Madison Valleywood Project,” in honor of the three main industries in attendance.

The meeting, which was scheduled to take three hours, was a chance to connect attendees whose worlds don’t usually intersect. After Carlin gave opening remarks, a New York-based branding consultant presented an overview of ISIS media strategies and recruiting tactics. Then, participants broke into eight-person teams and had an hour to storyboard a messaging plan.

The government played host and incubator, but left the creative work to the guests, who also included documentary filmmakers, political consultants, NGO representatives, and even a video-game developer. “We tried to cast a wide net,” said the administration official with knowledge of the meeting. “A lot of effort went into ensuring that each table had a person from each community.” Each table also included someone from the government.

Sitting next to Carlin, Jeffrey connected with another of his tablemates, a D.C.-based political consultant who staffed Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The two began to talk about one of the main hurdles that the anti-extremist project faces: how to fund it.

They’re considering setting up a 501(c)(3) non-profit or a foundation, which would allow American companies to donate toward the cause. It’s important the money come from the private sector and individuals, Jeffrey said. “It can’t look like anything political or part of the U.S. government.”

One reason the government wants to stay out of the equation is to preserve the credibility of whatever the participants produce. For a would-be terrorist, the U.S. government probably isn’t the most trusted source for information. Officials are bringing people together, and giving them advice and information, but they appear to want the final product to be free of the baggage of being connected to the feds. [Continue reading…]

That’s right: ISIS recruits aren’t big fans of Uncle Sam, but they use social media, seem impressed by Hollywood blockbuster-style violence, and are responsive to slick advertising.

The logic of bringing together Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Silicon Valley to fight ISIS, makes sense, kind of — except it really doesn’t.

The masters of form in this arena seem about as clueless as anyone else when it comes to content. There’s a consensus, apparently, that they need to come up with a “positive message.”

ISIS is appealing to people who want to bring about a radical change in the world and participate in the fulfillment of what they regard as a utopian vision. A plausible alternative would need to go some distance in appealing to such grandiose ambitions.

Whatever this as-yet unfunded project ends of producing, seems likely to be as half-baked as its conception.

If they are really intent on countering the propaganda coming from ISIS, then at the outset they surely need to be as focused and serious about their own undertaking as is ISIS’s own propaganda machine.

There’s no point coming up with a brand if you don’t have a product.

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Russian airstrikes targeted hospitals: ‘The planes returned several times,’ says eyewitness

msf-hospital

Syria Direct reports: Reported Russian airstrikes knocked three hospitals in northern Syria out of service on Monday, depriving more than 5,000 patients a month of care ahead of the deadline for a “cessation of hostilities” deal worked out between major powers at last week’s annual Munich Security.

The ceasefire, notably, excludes the Islamic State in addition to Jabhat a-Nusra, one of the lead factions in the Victory Army that controls nearly all of Idlib province.

Two hospitals, one belonging to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), were bombed in Idlib province on Monday. A third, a women and children’s hospital in the city of Azaz near the Turkish border, was also hit.

The National Hospital, also in Maarat al-Nuaman, was bombed shortly after the strikes on the MSF facility, Amjed al-Idlibi, a first responder with the Civil Defense who worked to extract the dead and wounded, told Syria Direct Tuesday.

“Both hospitals were hit directly…the planes returned several times to conduct air raids, with roughly 10 minutes between each raid,” said al-Idlibi. He said that the planes were Russian. [Continue reading…]

Meanwhile, Russia’s TASS reports: The Kremlin has dismissed as unacceptable the allegations the Russian air group in Syria has destroyed a hospital in Syria.

“We are strongly against such claims, the more so, since each time those who come up with such charges prove unable to somehow confirm their groundless accusations,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said.

Asked for a comment regarding reports a hospital in Syria’s Idlib province had been bombed, as well as claims the Russian air group was responsible, Peskov invited everybody to rely “on the root source first and foremost.” “In this particular case the representatives of Syrian authorities are the root source,” he said.

Peskov recalled that Syria’s ambassador to Russia, Riyadh Haddad, said on Tuesday the hospital in Idlib province was destroyed by the Americans, and not the Russian air group. [Continue reading…]

Note the reasoning of the propagandists: The allegations that the airstrikes on hospitals were carried out by Russia are firstly dismissed as “groundless accusations” and secondly dismissed by repeating a groundless accusation made by Syria’s ambassador to Russia — that these were U.S. airstrikes.

Unfortunately, there exists an uncritical audience all too willing to swallow this kind of shameless lying and tortured reasoning.

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Russia’s manipulation of Germany’s refugee problems

Judy Dempsey writes: Russia’s propaganda machine—which went full blast against members of the Ukrainian government during the Ukraine crisis, labeling them fascists and anti-Semites—is in full swing again. This time, the target is Germany, once considered Russia’s closest ally in Europe.

Ever since Chancellor Angela Merkel declared her intention to allow refugees from Syria to enter Germany, the Russian media have been reporting every twist and turn of the opposition that is building up in her conservative bloc and among sections of the German public to her open-door refugee policy.

But in recent days, the Russian state media, joined by none other than Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, have taken a different turn. They are tapping into Germany’s community of 1.2 million ethnic Russians to criticize Merkel’s policies and boost those who are unequivocally against Germany taking in refugees. The community is known for its conservative if not xenophobic views, as witnessed during demonstrations by Germany’s anti-Islam Pegida movement, in which ethnic Russians participate.

Now, Russia may be using Germany’s Russian-speaking community to create further opposition to Merkel, similar to the way it tries to instrumentalize the ethnic Russian communities in the Baltic states. Merkel is an easy target, certainly for many Russians living in Germany and for Russians back home. To the surprise and annoyance of the Kremlin, Merkel has managed to keep the EU united over maintaining sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea in March 2014 and subsequently invaded eastern Ukraine. [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s people are not happy with The Interpreter

James Miller writes: The last two years have been rather tough for the Russian government’s main English-language propaganda outlet, RT.

Following Russia’s illegal and nearly-universally-condemned annexation of the Crimean peninsula, RT anchor Liz Wahl, then anchor and correspondent Sara Firth, quit in protest of what they called “propaganda” which they were forced to spread in order to cover up the Kremlin’s foreign policy activity.

Many of the personalities who remained on the network had their reputations damaged by their own words. The Interpreter alone documented an RT editor who knew information on their website was fake but kept the content up for weeks; a German “expert” and frequent guest who is really a major neo-Nazi leader and publicist; another frequent RT guest who is a 9/11 truther and avowed racist; an RT host who believes that some of the victims of 9/11 knew about the attack beforehand and tried to capitalize on it; a “whistle-blower” and financial expert for RT who thinks that the World Bank and the Vatican are run by a species of non-human coneheads (which is why the pope wears a big hat); yet another RT host who thinks North Korea would be a nice place to live; an anchor who interviewed an entertainer (named by RT as a journalist) who thinks HIV does not cause AIDS; an (already discredited) RT field correspondent who made up a story about being shot at in Ukraine and filmed evidence that proves he was lying; a “human rights expert” who, despite being a holocaust denier who is friends with convicted hate criminals, is a frequent guest on RT; and an RT columnist who is an associate of a now-deported Russian agent and who threatened to sue us just for asking basic questions about his resume. Our work on RT had an effect — basic Google searches of some of RT’s favorite guests and personalities netted our articles exposing these people as cranks. And this, of course, does not even mention our near-daily debunking of Kremlin propaganda, spread by RT, concerning Russia’s foreign and domestic policy, and our special reports tearing apart RT’s coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the shooting down of civilian airliner MH17. [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s anti-Obama propaganda is ugly and desperate

Paula J. Dobriansky and David B. Rivkin Jr. write: Although international relations are not conducted under Marquess of Queensberry rules and political satire can be expected from one’s foes, intensely personal attacks on foreign leaders are uncommon except in wartime. While Soviet-era anti-American propaganda could be sharp, it did not employ slurs. But in recent years racist and scatological salvos against foreign leaders have become a staple of official Russian discourse.

Turkish, German and Ukrainian officials are cast as sycophantic stooges of the United States. While slamming Ankara at a December news conference for shooting down a Russian plane that violated Turkish airspace, Russian President Vladimir Putin opined that “the Turks decided to lick the Americans in a certain place.” Sergey Glaziev, a senior adviser to Putin, has called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko “a Nazi Frankenstein,” and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin compared Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to “a rubber doll from a sex shop.”

The ugliest vilification campaign, however, has been reserved for President Obama. Anti-Obama tweets come openly from government officials. Rogozin, while commenting on Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, compared Obama to a Tuzik, Russian slang for a pathetic small dog. Irina Rodnina , a well-known Duma member, tweeted doctored images of Barack and Michelle Obama staring longingly at a banana.

Nobody in Russia gets to freelance propaganda-wise. Thus, anti-Obama rants, even when coming from prominent individuals outside government, have Putin’s imprimatur. Russian media personalities, including Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of the widely viewed “News of the Week” TV roundup, often deliver racist slurs, as compiled by Mikhail Klikushin on the Observer Web magazine. Evgeniy Satanovskiy, a Russian academic and frequent guest on Kiselyov’s program, recently also referred to Obama as a “monkey,” prompting derisive laughter and applause from the audience. Meanwhile, the famous nationalist comedian Mikhail Zadornov regularly deploys the term “schmoe” — a slang Russian prison acronym for a person who is so debased he deserves to be defecated upon — alongside Obama’s name. “Obama schmoe” has become ubiquitous enough to be scrawled on the runway of Russia’s Latakia air base in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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FBI listed It’s a Wonderful Life as suspected Communist propaganda

Quartz reports: It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of the holiday season in the United States, but it was once considered un-American by the government.

From the film’s release in 1946 until 1956, it was listed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as suspected Communist propaganda. Mr. Potter, the villainous banker who nearly drives George Bailey to financial ruin and suicide, “represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture,” according to an FBI report (pdf, pg. 14) in 1947.

The report called it “a common trick used by Communists.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS boasts about deaths of its own teenage soldiers

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Iraqis think the U.S. is in cahoots with the ISIS, and it is hurting the war

The Washington Post reports: On the front lines of the battle against the Islamic State, suspicion of the United States runs deep. Iraqi fighters say they have all seen the videos purportedly showing U.S. helicopters airdropping weapons to the militants, and many claim they have friends and relatives who have witnessed similar instances of collusion.

Ordinary people also have seen the videos, heard the stories and reached the same conclusion — one that might seem absurd to Americans but is widely believed among Iraqis — that the United States is supporting the Islamic State for a variety of pernicious reasons that have to do with asserting U.S. control over Iraq, the wider Middle East and, perhaps, its oil.

“It is not in doubt,” said Mustafa Saadi, who says his friend saw U.S. helicopters delivering bottled water to Islamic State positions. He is a commander in one of the Shiite militias that last month helped push the militants out of the oil refinery near Baiji in northern Iraq alongside the Iraqi army.

The Islamic State is “almost finished,” he said. “They are weak. If only America would stop supporting them, we could defeat them in days.”

U.S. military officials say the charges are too far-fetched to merit a response. “It’s beyond ridiculous,” said Col. Steve Warren, the military’s Baghdad-based spokesman. “There’s clearly no one in the West who buys it, but unfortunately, this is something that a segment of the Iraqi population believes.”

The perception among Iraqis that the United States is somehow in cahoots with the militants it claims to be fighting appears, however, to be widespread across the country’s Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide, and it speaks to more than just the troubling legacy of mistrust that has clouded the United States’ relationship with Iraq since the 2003 invasion and the subsequent withdrawal eight years later.

At a time when attacks by the Islamic State in Paris and elsewhere have intensified calls for tougher action on the ground, such is the level of suspicion with which the United States is viewed in Iraq that it is unclear whether the Obama administration would be able to significantly escalate its involvement even if it wanted to.

“What influence can we have if they think we are supporting the terrorists?” asked Kirk Sowell, an analyst based in neighboring Jordan who publishes the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.

In one example of how little leverage the United States now has, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi pushed back swiftly against an announcement Tuesday by Defense Secretary ­Ashton B. Carter that an expeditionary force of U.S. troops will be dispatched to Iraq to conduct raids, free hostages and capture Islamic State leaders.

Iraq’s semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, where support for the United States remains strong, has said it would welcome more troops. But Abadi indicated they would not be needed.

“There is no need for foreign ground combat troops,” he said in a statement. “Any such support and special operations anywhere in Iraq can only be deployed subject to the approval of the Iraqi Government and in coordination with the Iraqi forces and with full respect to Iraqi sovereignty.”

The allegations of U.S. collusion with the Islamic State are aired regularly in parliament by Shiite politicians and promoted in postings on social media. They are persistent enough to suggest a deliberate campaign on the part of Iran’s allies in Iraq to erode American influence, U.S. officials say.

In one typical recent video that appeared on the Facebook page of a Shiite militia, a lawmaker with the country’s biggest militia group, the Badr Organization, waves apparently new U.S military MREs (meals ready to eat) — one of them chicken and dumplings — allegedly found at a recently captured Islamic State base in Baiji, offering proof, he said, of U.S. support.

“The Iranians and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias are really pushing this line of propaganda, that the United States is supporting ISIL,” Warren said. “It’s part of the Iranian propaganda machine.” [Continue reading…]

The problem doesn’t just apply in Iraq. I have little doubt that there are Americans now reading this report who believe it must be a product of the Pentagon’s propaganda machine, duping gullible journalists in order to conceal “the truth” that ISIS is an American creation!

Such has been the “success” of the internet in spreading conspiracy theories.

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Russia’s brazen lying about Syrian refugees

Scott Lucas writes: With the approach of a second round of international talks about Syria’s crisis, Russia has stepped up its deceptive propaganda in support of the Assad regime.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov brazenly lied on Wednesday with the declaration, “Since the beginning of Russian operations, according to UN structures, more than one million people have returned to their homes in Syria.”

Meshkov gave no support for his claim, which was featured by Russian State outlet Sputnik News.

The UN has reported that more Syrians have fled their homes because of Russian bombing and the Syrian military’s offensives that Moscow is supporting. On October 26, the number was put at more than 120,000 since the start of the month, including at least 80,000 from Idlib and Hama Province and at least 44,000 from southern Aleppo Province.

The UN later revised the southern Aleppo figure to more than 75,000. The Syrian opposition and activists say the number from Aleppo and other areas is far higher than the UN’s totals. [Continue reading…]

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A Russian dirty bomb? Or more dezinformatsiya?

The Daily Beast reports: A stray camera at a meeting of top Russian military leaders has allegedly captured a glimpse of the Kremlin’s possible plan for a bewildering and frightening new weapon — a radiation-scattering “dirty bomb.” One delivered by a drone submarine, which itself rides piggyback on another submarine.

The problem is: We have no way of knowing for sure if this is in fact an existing weapon or simply a media provocation designed to make us think that Russian President Vladimir Putin has got a dangerous new toy in his arsenal. If it’s real, then Russia is the first country we know about to come into possession of a weapon that, while not nearly as destructive as an atomic bomb, could spread lethal radiation over a wide area, rendering it uninhabitable. If the segment is a fake, it’s the latest in a long list of Kremlin media hoaxes.

“It’s true some secret data got into the shot, and it was subsequently deleted,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday about the mysterious footage. “We hope that this won’t repeat.”

The technical aspects of such a device aren’t all that complicated. A dirty bomb is simply any munition containing conventional explosives wrapped in radioactive material. It explodes like any normal munition, but the fragments it scatters are irradiated and thus more dangerous for far longer periods of time than the debris from any standard bomb.

Compared to nuclear weapons, dirty bombs are easy to make — and their use, while highly provocative, is less likely to spark global Armageddon. But they’re still nasty enough that, back in the 1970s, the United States and Russia came pretty close to banning them. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS employs Hollywood style to bring back the gold standard

It’s easy enough to mock the grandiosity of ISIS propaganda, but it should be just as easy to see how its slick video productions appeal to its targeted audience.

In its latest release, ISIS introduces its newly minted currency: the gold dinar (and explains why coins with a fixed value are useful because it’s impractical to pay for a house with dates). And, as though to signify its successful penetration across America’s borders, the message is delivered in an American accent.

At the same time as it appeals to dreams of a caliphate — dreams that increasingly take tangible forms — ISIS also taps into currents of dissent which resonate in many quarters across the globe, such as anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, laced with anti-Semitism.

As much as ISIS is commonly condemned for its medieval barbarism, what receives less attention than it deserves is the degree to which the group in its propaganda is engaged in forms of populism that have social and political traction in the West far outside jihadist circles.

Within a few hours, the video had been removed from YouTube, but it can still be viewed here.

Bloomberg reports: Islamic State first announced its intention to issue its own money in November, five months after it seized the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced a caliphate. The move was seen by analysts as part of the group’s efforts to build the institutions of a functioning state.

The jihadists have amassed a war chest of millions of dollars, partly through collecting taxes, and by seizing oil refineries. Bank and jewelry store robberies, extortion, smuggling and kidnapping for ransom are other important sources of revenue for the group, which metes out brutal punishment to anyone who opposes its rule, including beheadings and crucifixions.

Baghdad-based economist Basim Jameel said the announcement is an attempt to boost the morale of Islamic State fighters, who have suffered battlefield setbacks in recent months, including the loss of Tikrit in March.
Minting the coins is relatively easy, Jameel said, as goldsmiths in Mosul imported machines from Italy in recent years, each one able to produce about 5,000 coins a day. The metals probably come from banks the group seized, ransoms, the homes of Christians and other minorities who fled, he said. [Continue reading…]

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Bad news for Putin as support for war flags beyond Russia’s ‘troll farms’

By Ivan Kozachenko, University of Aberdeen

Eastern Ukraine has recently seen its worst period of attacks by Russian-backed separatists since they captured the town of Debaltseve in February. It had fallen in the days after the two sides reached the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement. Ukraine, Russia and the West have repeatedly underlined the importance of Minsk 2, but whether it has been implemented remains questionable. The latest conflict has coincided with a period of Russian military escalation that recently prompted UK defence secretary Michael Fallon to suggest that Moscow was preparing for war with NATO and the West.

The battle to control public opinion is taking place in parallel, as we have seen most recently with the case of Lyudmila Savchuk, a Russian journalist who went undercover in a Kremlin-backed agency whose staff were tasked with pushing pro-Putin views online. This has helped back up efforts by Russia in the traditional media to portray the heroic struggle of the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR) against the “Kiev Nazi Junta”, for example, while constantly denying any Russian military involvement.

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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 columbiachemical.com.”

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 CNN.com 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…]

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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…]

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