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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Chinese officials ‘create 488 million bogus social media posts a year’

The Guardian reports: The Chinese government is fabricating almost 490m social media posts a year in order to distract the public from criticising or questioning its rule, according to a study.

China’s “Fifty Cent Party” – a legion of freelance online trolls so-named because they are believed to be paid 50 cents a post – has long been blamed for flooding the Chinese internet with pro-regime messages designed to defend and promote the ruling Communist party.

However, the study by Harvard University researchers (pdf) claims many of those comments are not posted by ordinary citizens, as previously thought, but by civil servants who double as online stooges.

An analysis of nearly 43,800 posts found that 99.3% were the work of government employees working for more than 200 agencies, including tax and social security and human resources bureaux. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s new image-maker honed his ‘dark’ arts in Ukraine

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Financial Times reports: The Donald Trump who greeted supporters in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday night bore little resemblance to the Republican frontrunner of yore.

Atypically gracious and restrained, Mr Trump spoke coherently on jobs and the economy, referred respectfully to his Republican opponents as “Senator Cruz” and “Governor Kasich” and stuck to his prepared remarks. Gone were the lewd insults or jabs at the press.

It was a political makeover like few had seen before — and it bore all the trappings of his new campaign chief, Paul Manafort.

A DC veteran political operative who has worked for the likes of Gerald Ford and George H W Bush, Mr Manafort, 67, was hired by Mr Trump last month to bring order to the Trump campaign and cement Mr Trump’s delegate count, a thorny issue ahead of the Republican National Convention.
Yet Mr Manafort’s true gift lies in political resuscitations and re-brandings, say former business associates.
Over a 40-year career in Washington, he has attempted to engineer them for a cast of, sometimes unsavoury, clients that include Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, the Saudi government, and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos.

But it is his work with Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovich, that stands out as a particular showcase both of Mr Manafort’s talents — and the controversy surrounding their use. [Continue reading…]

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The problem with rebuilding a Palmyra ruin destroyed by ISIS – does it simply help Assad?

Adam Taylor writes: London Mayor Boris Johnson unveiled a stunning site in his city’s historic Trafalgar Square on Tuesday: a replica of the 2,000-year-old Arch de Triumph from Palmyra, Syria.

The original arch, once part of the internationally famous UNESCO world heritage site in Palmyra, was destroyed in an explosion by the Islamic State after it took control of the city last year. This new 20-foot-tall re-creation of the monument was crafted by the Institute of Digital Archaeology, a joint venture among Harvard University, the University of Oxford and Dubai’s Museum of the Future, which used 3-D imaging technology to map the arch and digital tools to carve it out of Egyptian marble.

During the unveiling ceremony, Johnson told spectators that they were gathered “in defiance of the barbarians” who destroyed the arch, the BBC reports. But despite the triumphant nature of the day and the clear delight that many had in the rebuilding of the historic ruin, some were concerned about what, exactly, Palmyra had come to represent.

Although few would argue that the ancient sites of Palmyra shouldn’t be protected, there are concerns that the city’s ancient wonders could become a propaganda tool for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Annie Sartre-Fauriat, an expert on Syrian heritage who works with UNESCO, said the Palmyra site should be evaluated and perhaps restored once the conflict is over.

“For the moment, we should not be fooled of the manipulations of opinion by a bloody dictator,” Sartre-Fauriat said.

Syria’s government declared just last month that it had forced the Islamic State from Palmyra after a prolonged campaign. “The liberation of the historic city of Palmyra today is an important achievement and another indication of the success of the strategy pursued by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism,” Assad said at the time.

For Assad and the Syrian regime, the capture of Palmyra seems to have been not only a symbol of the newfound prowess the Syrian military had on the battlefield with Russian air support, but also a claim that Syrians were the only ones who could protect Syria’s heritage. Palmyra itself had relatively little strategic value for the Islamic State, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum think tank, told Al Jazeera as the city was liberated. “Palmyra is more important for the regime, symbolically, to present itself as the defender of civilisation against barbarism,” Tamimi said.

This message has an international audience, too. The Islamic State’s destruction of Palmyra had created a global outcry. Now the Syrian regime and its Russian backers were able to portray themselves as the protectors of the ancient cultural site. In the days after their troops took Palmyra, the Syrian regime quickly took Western journalists to the ancient city to show them what the Islamic State had destroyed and what, by extension, Syrian troops had saved.

In doing so, the Syrian regime was ignoring the damage it had caused to Palmyra, Sartre-Fauriat said. Assad’s troops had inflicted their own damage on the site, Sartre-Fauriat explained, firing shells and rockets into ancient sites and also looting graves. [Continue reading…]

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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

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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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