Autocrats and dictators follow Trump’s lead by attacking ‘fake news’

The New York Times reports: President Trump routinely invokes the phrase “fake news” as a rhetorical tool to undermine opponents, rally his political base and try to discredit a mainstream American media that is aggressively investigating his presidency.

But he isn’t the only leader enamored with the phrase. Following Mr. Trump’s example, many of the world’s autocrats and dictators are taking a shine to it, too.

When Amnesty International released a report about prison deaths in Syria, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, retorted that “we are living in a fake-news era.” President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, who is steadily rolling back democracy in his country, blamed the global media for “lots of false versions, lots of lies,” saying “this is what we call ‘fake news’ today.”

In Myanmar, where international observers accuse the military of conducting a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslims, a security official told The New York Times that “there is no such thing as Rohingya,” adding: “It is fake news.” In Russia, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, told a CNN reporter to “stop spreading lies and fake news.” Her ministry now uses a big red stamp, “FAKE,” on its website to label news stories it dislikes.

Around the world, authoritarians, populists and other political leaders have seized on the phrase “fake news” — and the legitimacy conferred upon it by an American president — as a tool for attacking their critics and, in some cases, deliberately undermining the institutions of democracy. In countries where press freedom is restricted or under considerable threat — including Russia, China, Turkey, Libya, Poland, Hungary, Thailand, Somalia and others — political leaders have invoked “fake news” as justification for beating back media scrutiny. [Continue reading…]

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James O’Keefe, practitioner of the sting, has an ally in Trump

The New York Times reports: Days after Donald J. Trump launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, James O’Keefe, the conservative disrupter famous for trying to use secret recordings to embarrass liberals and journalists, visited Trump Tower and gave Mr. Trump a preview of his latest hidden camera video intended to undermine Hillary Clinton.

The footage, widely dismissed after it was released some weeks later, showed officials from Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign appearing to accept a payment for campaign swag from a Canadian woman at a Clinton campaign rally — in violation, Mr. O’Keefe contended, of election laws barring campaign contributions from foreigners.

Mr. Trump had been promoting Mr. O’Keefe’s work for years and a few weeks earlier had donated $10,000 from his foundation to Mr. O’Keefe’s group. At the meeting in his office, Mr. Trump praised the new video and pledged more money. As the campaign progressed, he pointed to other videos as evidence of his false accusations that Mrs. Clinton paid people to cause violence at Trump campaign rallies, and since his inauguration he and his team have continued to highlight Mr. O’Keefe’s work as evidence of the president’s repeated claims that the news media is peddling “fake news.”

So these should be good times for Mr. O’Keefe. He has an ally in the Oval Office who shares his views. The nonprofit group he started in 2010, Project Veritas, and an affiliated political arm called Project Veritas Action Fund have raised nearly $16 million, according to tax filings, and last year the group paid him $317,000. After years of criticism from across the political spectrum — including from a conservative establishment that has viewed him with suspicion — Mr. O’Keefe would seem well positioned to be more broadly embraced by the right, and feared by the left.

Yet Mr. O’Keefe cannot seem to get out of his own way. And after an attempted sting aimed at The Washington Post backfired in spectacular fashion last month, he has found himself in a familiar position — defending his misleading tactics, uneven results and even his nonprofit’s tax-exempt status, against criticism from across the political spectrum. [Continue reading…]

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Woman’s effort to infiltrate The Washington Post dated back months

The Washington Post reports: The failed effort by conservative activists to plant a false story about Senate candidate Roy Moore in The Washington Post was part of a months-long campaign to infiltrate The Post and other media outlets in Washington and New York, according to interviews, text messages and social media posts that have since been deleted.

Starting in July, Jaime Phillips, an operative with the organization Project Veritas, which purports to expose media bias, joined two dozen networking groups related to either journalism or left-leaning politics. She signed up to attend 15 related events, often accompanied by a male companion, and appeared at least twice at gatherings for departing Post staffers.

Phillips, 41, presented herself to journalists variously as the owner of a start-up looking to recruit writers, a graduate student studying national security or a contractor new to the area. This summer, she tweeted posts in support of gun control and critical of Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants — a departure from the spring when, on accounts that have since been deleted, she used the #MAGA hashtag and mocked the Women’s March on Washington that followed Trump’s inauguration as the “Midol March.”

Her true identity and intentions were revealed only when The Post published a story on Monday, along with photos and video, about how she falsely told Post reporters that Moore had impregnated her when she was a teenager. The Post reported that Phillips appeared to work for Project Veritas, an organization that uses false cover stories and covert video recordings in an attempt to embarrass its targets.

Phillips’s sustained attempt to insinuate herself into the social circles of reporters makes clear that her deception — and the efforts to discredit The Post’s reporting — went much further than the attempt to plant one fabricated article.

Phillips’s encounters with dozens of journalists, which have not been previously reported, typically occurred at professional networking events or congratulatory send-offs for colleagues at bars and restaurants. She used three names and three phone numbers to follow up with Post employees, chatting about life in Washington and asking to be introduced to other journalists.

In one case, Phillips kept a conversation going for five weeks with a Post employee over text message, repeatedly asking whether she and her husband could meet Phillips for dinner. After the employee shared that she was experiencing a family tragedy, Phillips wrote: “Let me know if I can do anything to help, even if just to talk or something small. We’d like to send flowers or a donation… Thoughts & prayers.” [Continue reading…]

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Reality scores a win over the perverse drive to discredit honest reporting

Margaret Sullivan writes: In the right-wing campaign to discredit the truth, every day brings a new low.

I don’t mean Roy Moore’s campaign for U.S. Senate, though that certainly has been at the center, lately, of the broader crusade.

No, I mean the insidious drive — led, sadly, by President Trump — to undermine the reality-based press in America and in so doing to eat away at the underpinnings of our democracy: a shared basis in credible, verifiable facts.

Breitbart News, as that pro-Trump propaganda machine calls itself, was part of the campaign when it sent staffers (I won’t call them reporters) to Alabama for the express purpose of knocking down a Washington Post story. In it, multiple women agreed to use their real names and to be quoted about Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct or assault when they were girls. (Breitbart ended up confirming The Post’s story but crowed about its own non-findings anyway.)

Trump was part of the campaign when he called this week for a trophy to be given for “fake news,” disparaging CNN in particular. And again when he reportedly cast doubt on the validity of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals. There is no question as to the tape’s authenticity.

But the new low came Monday as Project Veritas — could its name be any more Orwellian? — was exposed for its clumsy effort to lure The Post into publishing a false story about a woman whose girlhood affair with Moore led to an abortion.

This would-be scam won the race to the bottom — so far — because, at its black heart, it mocked the bravery of women telling their own true, painful experiences. It tried to make a brazen lie the reason the women’s stories would be dismissed.

Happily, The Post’s reporting was rigorous. And luckily, the scheme had all the savvy of a bully who tries to steal your lunch with the principal watching.

“Beyond boneheaded,” was the characterization of Byron York, chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner, aptly noting that stupidity and maliciousness are a bad combination.

A win, then, for reality. But a troubling question arises: Who will be believed? Journalists and many thoughtful citizens may have been high-fiving Monday. And for good reason: The Post’s video of the encounter with the would-be source was like a master class in reporting as high-wire act.

But Project Veritas quickly turned this into a fundraising opportunity for itself, claiming victory and releasing a video that purported to show The Post’s bias against Trump. (It depicted a Post reporter explaining the difference between news-side reporting and editorial-page opinion, which has been openly critical of the administration.) Some, undoubtedly, believed Project Veritas’s take, cheered and opened their wallets.

Are we as a nation so deep into our social-media bubbles and echo chambers that many have lost track of what’s real and what’s fake?

It’s a deeply troubling problem but hardly a new one.

“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer,” wrote the German-born political theorist Hannah Arendt many decades ago.

“And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

That frightening change is happening in America, and at a shocking pace. But there are encouraging signs, too. [Continue reading…]

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Twitter facing serious questions over its efforts to deal with disinformation

BuzzFeed reports: BuzzFeed News has uncovered a new network of suspected Twitter propaganda accounts – sharing messages about Brexit, Donald Trump, and Angela Merkel – that have close connections to the Russian-linked bot accounts identified by the social media platform in its evidence to the US Congress.

The 45 suspect accounts were uncovered through basic analysis of those that interacted or retweeted accounts cited by Twitter to Congress, yet none of them appeared on the company’s list.

The relative ease of discovery raises serious questions as to just how many Russian-linked bots may still be active on Twitter, how the company identifies and removes such accounts, and whether its process for identifying accounts for its evidence was inadequate.

Until BuzzFeed News approached Twitter on Tuesday afternoon with details of the accounts, they all remained active on the platform, though dormant. But within 24 hours, all 45 had been suspended. [Continue reading…]

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Mark Zuckerberg’s latest fig leaf for his Russian propaganda problem

Justin Hendrix writes: Since Facebook disclosed that at least 150 million Americans were exposed to Russian propaganda on Facebook in the run up to the 2016 election, pressure has been growing for the company to demonstrate transparency and notify its users. During testimony by Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch on Capitol Hill at the beginning of November, members of Congress called on the social media giant to do just that. At the same time, I started a public petition calling for notification that swelled to nearly 90,000 signatories.

Stretch argued such a disclosure would be technically difficult, but lawmakers pressed the company to explore it. It was remarkable that he did not come prepared and willing to offer any specifics of such difficulties, and appeared to be saying more that it would be difficult to reach every person rather than difficult to do a lot of the job. In a strongly worded follow up letter, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) gave the company an explicit assignment.

“Consumer service entities like yours have long understood their duty to inform their users after mistakes are uncovered,” Senator Blumenthal wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “You too have an obligation to explain to your users exactly how Russian agents sought to manipulate our elections through your platform.” Blumenthal set November 22nd as the deadline for a response from Facebook.

On Nov. 22, the company announced its plan in a blog post entitled “Continuing Transparency on Russian Activity.”

“We will soon be creating a portal to enable people on Facebook to learn which of the Internet Research Agency Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts they may have liked or followed between January 2015 and August 2017,” the company said. “This tool will be available for use by the end of the year in the Facebook Help Center.”

Certainly, this proposal is a step in the right direction, especially for a company that has been slow to divulge details of what ultimately may go down in history as one of the most extensive and effective propaganda campaigns by a foreign adversary against the United States, and also for a company that has in fact made it harder for independent researchers to investigate the problem. But is it enough? Did Facebook answer Congress’s call to notify users?

On balance, the answer is clearly no. [Continue reading…]

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FCC has obstructed criminal investigation of corruption of its notice and comment process on net neutrality

New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman writes in an open letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai: As you recently announced, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under your leadership, soon will release rules to dismantle your agency’s existing “net neutrality” protections under Title II of the Communications Act, which shield the public from anti-consumer behaviors of the giant cable companies that provide high-speed internet to most people. In today’s digital age, the rules that govern the operation and delivery of internet service to hundreds of millions of Americans are critical to the economic and social well-being of the nation. Yet the process the FCC has employed to consider potentially sweeping alterations to current net neutrality rules has been corrupted by the fraudulent use of Americans’ identities — and the FCC has been unwilling to assist my office in our efforts to investigate this unlawful activity.

Specifically, for six months my office has been investigating who perpetrated a massive scheme to corrupt the FCC’s notice and comment process through the misuse of enormous numbers of real New Yorkers’ and other Americans’ identities. Such conduct likely violates state law — yet the FCC has refused multiple requests for crucial evidence in its sole possession that is vital to permit that law enforcement investigation to proceed.

In April 2017, the FCC announced that it would issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking concerning repeal of its existing net neutrality rules. Federal law requires the FCC and all federal agencies to take public comments on proposed rules into account — so it is important that the public comment process actually enable the voices of the millions of individuals and businesses who will be affected to be heard. That’s important no matter one’s position on net neutrality, environmental rules, and so many other areas in which federal agencies regulate.

In May 2017, researchers and reporters discovered that the FCC’s public comment process was being corrupted by the submission of enormous numbers of fake comments concerning the possible repeal of net neutrality rules. In doing so, the perpetrator or perpetrators attacked what is supposed to be an open public process by attempting to drown out and negate the views of the real people, businesses, and others who honestly commented on this important issue. Worse, while some of these fake comments used made up names and addresses, many misused the real names and addresses of actual people as part of the effort to undermine the integrity of the comment process. That’s akin to identity theft, and it happened on a massive scale. [Continue reading…]

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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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