Gal Beckerman writes: In the summer of 1990, at a fulcrum moment when his country was tipping from reform to dissolution, Mikhail S. Gorbachev spoke to Time magazine and declared, “I detest lies.” It was a revolutionary statement only because it came from the mouth of a Soviet leader.
On the surface, he was simply embracing his own policy of glasnost, the new openness introduced alongside perestroika, the restructuring of the Soviet Union’s command economy that was meant to rescue the country from geopolitical free-fall. Mr. Gorbachev was wagering that truthful and unfettered expression — a press able to criticize and investigate, history books without redacted names, and honest, accountable government — just might save the creaking edifice of Communist rule.
For the Soviet leader, glasnost was “a blowtorch that could strip the layers of old and peeling paint from Soviet society,” wrote the Baltimore Sun’s Moscow correspondent (and now Times reporter) Scott Shane in “Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union.” “But the Communist system proved dry tinder.”
We in the West have always praised Mr. Gorbachev for his courage in taking this gamble — even though he lost an empire in the process — but he did it under pressure. The idea that a better relationship with facts might be liberating for a corrupt and ailing Soviet Union was not new. Mr. Gorbachev was echoing and appropriating the arguments of a dissident movement that, for decades, had made an insistence on truth its essential form of resistance.
If the Soviet Union was the 20th century’s greatest example of a regime that used propaganda and information to control and contain its citizens — 70 years of fake news! — the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution is an important moment to appreciate how it also produced a powerful countercurrent in the civil society undergrounds of Moscow and Leningrad. [Continue reading…]
There is still considerable wariness around Louise Mensch because of her persona and her politics, but even so, considerable evidence that she has earned the trust of sources inside the intelligence community. In February, The Guardian reported:
The full facts about the connections between the Trump camp and the Kremlin are not yet known. Trump now has authority over all the intelligence agencies that were investigating the Russian connection. Investigations have been officially launched in the Senate, but there too, Republicans are in command, and only a handful of senators seem ready to break party ranks to inquire further.
However, it seems increasingly clear that Mensch landed an extraordinary scoop [that a FISA court in Washington had granted a warrant to allow the FBI to conduct surveillance of “US persons” in an investigation of possible contacts between Russian banks and the Trump organisation] that had eluded the best investigative journalists in the US. Her explanation is that her vocal advocacy on behalf of UK and US intelligence agencies since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance led her sources to trust her.
“They gave me one of the most closely guarded secrets in intelligence,” she said in a telephone interview. “People are speculating why someone trusted me with that. Nobody met me in a darkened alley in a fedora, but they saw me as someone who has political experience and is their friend. I am a pro-national security partisan. I don’t have divided loyalties.”
Mensch said she gained her reputation among intelligence professionals on both sides of the Atlantic as a result of her furious criticism of the Guardian’s handling of the NSA files leaked by Snowden when he walked out of his NSA job in Hawaii and fled to Hong Kong.
Mensch now writes: Sources linked to the intelligence community say that General Mike Flynn’s trips to Cambridge and across Europe will form a key part of Donald Trump’s impeachment and the prosecutions of dozens of his associates.
According to several sources within the intelligence community, Michael Flynn was co-ordinating, with and for Russian agents, the drafting of messages that Vladimir Putin was using to attack democracy in not only the United States, but across Europe. Furthermore, Flynn was doing this with the full knowledge of the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump himself.
This news directly relates to the data laundering performed by the Alfa Bank server on behalf of Donald Trump and Russia, where, as I reported, the Trump campaign colluded with the hacking of both the DNC and state voter databases.
The Alfa Bank server ‘washed’ that data together to tell Trump where to target it, sources say. But the messages and content with which targets were served was co-ordinated with Russia by General Flynn.
Furthermore, Flynn took the same hacking tools and artificial intelligence coded in Russia and helped far-right and Nazi parties across Europe use it in their own nations. Intelligence sources assert that multiple NATO partners have evidence of this and that it has been provided to the FBI.
If ‘data laundering’ is the first part of the Trump Russia incontrovertible evidence, ‘propaganda targeting’ is the second part. Flynn attacked not only the United States but all her Western allies on Russia’s behalf, with the full knowledge and connivance of Donald Trump.
Both halves of the social media impeachment will, sources assert, be key to Director Comey’s overall case. This is the ‘incontrovertible evidence’ to which Sir Richard Dearlove and others have referred. [Continue reading…]
Michael Weiss writes: Estonia regained its independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and had no time at all to reconstitute its security services from scratch; it took a calculated gamble that grandfathering in many old hands from the ancien régime, the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, wouldn’t result in Swiss cheesing its service with loyalists to the former occupying superpower.
One such transitional figure, a former KGB colonel named Herman Simm, who reinvented himself as a champion of Estonian self-determination, worked his way up to the head of security at the Estonian Defense Ministry. In 2004, when the country joined NATO, Simm established the National Security Authority, a department in the Defense Ministry which gave him access to whatever classified intelligence was shared among the then 26 allied countries. Two years later, Simm was awarded two medals: one from Estonia’s president for “service to the Estonian nation,” and the other from his Russian handler announcing Simm’s promotion to the rank of major-general in the SVR, the branch of Moscow’s own reconstituted KGB in charge of foreign intelligence.
Simm had been a spy who fed reams of sensitive NATO secrets back to Moscow Center. Funnily enough, the one secret that he kept being asked to uncover was the one he was unable to because it didn’t exist: NATO’s invasion plan for Russia.
He was finally arrested in 2008, a year after Russian cyber hackers shut down Estonia’s e-government and digital banking sector for the better part of 24 hours in retaliation for the relocation of a Red Army World War II monument, which precipitated drunken riots in central Tallinn.
NATO subsequently named Simm the “most damaging” foreign operative in Alliance history. It was a grave national embarrassment for a new member-state that had sought membership to protect itself from exactly this type of Kremlin subversion and interference but which had hitherto spent the bulk of the ’90s and early aughts trying to root out the seemingly more urgent threats of gangsterism and organized crime—much of that also emanating from its eastern neighbor. [Continue reading…]
ABC News reports: As Syrian president Bashar al-Assad called videos of last week’s chemical attack a “fabrication,” a piece of propaganda promoted by a Russian cyber operation and bearing the hashtag #SyriaHoax has gained traction in the United States, analysts tell ABC News.
Following the chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians on Tuesday, Al-Masdar News, a pro-Assad website based in Beirut, published claims that “something is not adding up in [the] Idlib chemical weapons attack.” Its author cited “holes” in the accounts provided by the “Al-Qaeda affiliated” White Helmets leading to the conclusion that “this is another false chemical attack allegation made against the government.”
That hoax story was promoted by a network of Russian social media accounts and ultimately picked up by popular alt-right personalities in the United States, including Mike Cernovich, one of the leading voices in the debunked ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory. Cernovich popularized its new hashtag — #SyriaHoax — and sent it soaring through cyberspace. According to Trends24, within hours of the retaliatory missile strike President Donald Trump launched on Thursday night, #SyriaHoax was the No. 1 trending Twitter topic in the United States.
J.M. Berger of The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague, who studies propaganda and social media analytical techniques, said #SyriaHoax is “a clear example of a Russian influence campaign” designed to undermine the credibility of the U.S. government.
“The point of an influence campaign is to get people involved who wouldn’t otherwise be involved,” Berger said. “A lot of people in the alt-right would not necessarily characterize themselves as being pro-Russian, but they’re receiving influence from this campaign.” [Continue reading…]
Michael Weiss writes: Between 69 and 100 people have died so far, and hundreds more are still suffering from being poisoned, or from the follow-up airstrike on a nearby hospital that was treating them from being poisoned. As the bodies pile up, so too do the Kremlin conspiracy theories for whodunnit or whether or not this atrocity was even done at all.
Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s new spokesperson, has taken a leaf from her predecessor’s playbook. On Wednesday, she intimated that despite a U.S., EU assessment that around 60 people were gassed by the regime from the air using sarin—a nerve agent Assad has previously admitted to have stockpiled—the whole ordeal was an elaborate bit of playacting.
In a press conference, Zakharova darkly commented on the “too-calm behavior of the representatives of this organization under emergency conditions,” by which she meant the White Helmets, an internationally funded and trained group of first-responders who often pull victims from the rubble of Russian, Syria and American bombing raids. Her government has vilified them as being either agents of regime change, al-Qaeda or both. Though her characterization of the rescue workers’ composure is at odds with press accounts describing how some “grew ill and collapsed from proximity to the dead.” But then, this is a woman who previously said that Donald Trump won the presidency because American Jews decided the election.
Speaking of Trump, one of his allies in the tin-hatted corner of the internet, the conspiracy site InfoWars, ran several articles and segments on Wednesday calling the atrocity a “false flag attack.” One article said the attack hadn’t been carried out by Assad but by the White Helmets, which InfoWars labeled as a “an al-Qaeda affiliated group funded by George Soros and the British government.” [Continue reading…]
Margaret Sullivan writes: Roger Daltrey of the Who sang it with a full-throated scream in 1971: “We don’t get fooled again!”
And yet, we still do. Oh, do we ever.
Remember this one from the presidential campaign? The “news story” that spread the lie that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president? It was shared more than a million times. Or recall the faked report that the leader of the Islamic State was urging American Muslims to vote for Hillary Clinton.
With the proliferation of hoaxes, conspiracy theories, doctored photos and lies that look like news, it’s inevitable: We’re all chumps sometimes.
For those who are tired of it, along comes the first International Fact-Checking Day — which arrived, appropriately, on Sunday, just after April Fools’ Day.
Think of it as a global counterpunch on behalf of truth.
“It’s not about being killjoys, shaking a finger at everyone, so we’re trying to do it with a sense of fun,” said Alexios Mantzarlis, the 28-year-old director of the International Fact-Checking Network, based at the Poynter Institute in Florida. [Continue reading…]
Anne Applebaum writes: The former national security adviser wants to testify under immunity. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee sneaks off to the White House for illicit briefings. Every day brings a new revelation in Washington, and every day reveals the story of someone else’s conversation with someone else from Russia.
But if this seems momentous or ludicrous, bizarre or improbable, it shouldn’t. Take a step back and look around the world: Russian interference in democratic elections is neither new nor unusual. On the contrary, it’s ubiquitous, it plays a role in just about every Western democracy, it often follows the same patterns as it did in the United States, and it often leads to the same disarray.
True, in some places it includes funding, of which there is no evidence in the United States. One of France’s presidential candidates, Marine Le Pen of the “far right” National Front, was in Moscow last week as her party is openly seeking Russian financial support. In 2014, her party received a 9 million euro loan from a Russian-Czech bank, and in 2016, it was revealed this week, she received an additional 3 million euros from another Russian bank; a political fund run by her father, the former party chairman, also received 2 million euros from a Russian-backed fund based in Cyprus. Le Pen’s agenda — anti-NATO, anti-European Union — is perfectly aligned with that of Moscow, which seeks to destroy the European and transatlantic institutions that curb Russian influence. That support hasn’t damaged her standing with her voters: At a major Le Pen rally in Lille, France, a few days ago, Putin’s name was cheered.
Sometimes, Russian interference is more covert, involving training and support for far-right and extremist groups. A Hungarian neo-Nazi who authorities say murdered a police officer late last year had illegal military-grade weapons and ties to Russian operatives. Scandinavian far-right groups also have links to strange Russian “nationalist” groups that sometimes lend them money or help them train.
But most of the time, Russian interference in foreign elections takes the same forms that it did in the United States. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: The Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday promised a thorough investigation into any direct links between Russia and Republican Donald Trump during his successful 2016 run for the White House.
Committee Chairman Richard Burr and Mark Warner, its top Democrat, pledged at a joint news conference that they would work together, in contrast with the partisan discord roiling a similar probe by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
Burr was asked if the Senate panel wanted to determine if there was anything suggesting a direct link to Trump, and responded: “We know that our challenge is to answer that question for the American people.”
Trump’s young presidency has been clouded by allegations from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to help him win, while connections between his campaign personnel and Russia also are under scrutiny. Trump dismisses such assertions and Russia denies the allegations.
The Senate committee intends to begin interviewing as many as 20 people, including Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers, beginning as early as Monday.
Burr served as a security adviser to Trump’s campaign but said he had not coordinated with him on the scope of the committee’s investigation. He insisted he could remain objective.
Burr declined to go along with the White House’s denial of collusion between the campaign and Russian hackers, who U.S. intelligence officials believe favored Trump in last year’s campaign at the expense of Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.
Warner and Burr both stressed the importance of exposing the activity of Russian hackers, which Warner said included reports of “upwards of 1,000 paid Internet trolls” who spread false negative stories about Clinton. [Continue reading…]
Aaron Blake writes: Americans live in two realities when it comes to the Russia investigation. On one side is the intelligence community, and on the other is a Republican Party that very much believes President Trump’s alternative facts.
Including, apparently, that Trump’s offices were wiretapped during the 2016 presidential campaign.
A new CBS poll shows that three in four Republicans believe it’s at least “somewhat likely” that Trump’s offices were wiretapped or under some kind of surveillance during the race. Although 35 percent think it’s “very likely,” 39 percent say it’s “somewhat likely.” About half (49 percent) of independents also say it’s at least “somewhat likely.” [Continue reading…]
Digital Forensic Research Lab reports: On February 20, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a section on its website aimed at exposing articles that contain “untrustworthy” information about Russia.
The Ministry’s approach was uncompromising: each article was labeled with a large red stamp saying “FAKE”. The URL for the section was set as http://www.mid.ru/en/nedostovernie-publikacii. “Nedostovernie publikacii” (недостоверные публикации) means “unreliable publications”.
In the first month of the project, eleven articles were stamped as fakes. All of them came from Western outlets; nine were in English.
The DFRLab has fact-checked the Ministry’s analysis of all eleven stories to see whether they can legitimately be called fakes.
As this report will show, they cannot. [Continue reading…]
The Observer reports: Russia is trying to topple Angela Merkel by waging an information war designed to stir up anger in Germany over refugees, Nato’s most senior expert on strategic communications has claimed.
The attempt to provoke the removal of the German leader, who has been a strong supporter of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime, is said to have been identified by Nato analysts.
Jānis Sārts, director of Nato’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, based in Riga, Latvia, told the Observer that Russia had a track record of funding extremist forces in Europe, and that he believed there was now evidence of Russia agitating in Germany against Merkel. [Continue reading…]
John R. Schindler writes: The threat to the West posed by Kremlin lies—what is properly termed disinformation—is something that I and a few other specialists have raised the alarm over for years. After 2016, when Moscow weaponized disinformation to influence our presidential election, this problem is finally getting the public attention it merits, not least because identical Russian espionage techniques are currently aimed at France and Germany, which have their own elections coming up.
The previous administration ignored this rising problem, shuttering a tiny State Department effort to counter Russian propaganda only months before the Kremlin lie machine went into overdrive against President Obama’s own party. As I’ve pointed out, Obama and his White House bear part of the blame for the Russian havoc wrought last year on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, thanks to their abject unwillingness to confront Vladimir Putin. By refusing to seriously confront Kremlin disinformation and deception, President Obama got more of both.
Now this problem, which shows no signs of going away, has become even more dangerous, since the new administration has taken to parroting Russian disinformation when it suits their political needs. A propaganda loop has emerged with Kremlin lies emerging on Putin regime outlets like RT and Sputnik, then being pushed by far-right conspiracy websites such as Breitbart and InfoWars, and finally winding up on Fox News where they receive a mass audience. [Continue reading…]
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: With the world relapsing into old rivalries, disinformation is emerging as the continuation of war by other means. Propaganda has always been used by authoritarian states to control populations at home — but technological advances are allowing them to also neutralize enemies abroad. None has been more aggressive and resourceful in this regard than Russia. And nowhere has this weaponized information been more lethal than in its coverage of Syria — vividly exemplified by RT, the Kremlin’s international broadcaster.
There is a virtual consensus among multinational bodies and human rights organizations that together, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russia hold the balance of responsibility for the killing and displacement in Syria. But hewing to the official Kremlin line, RT has cast Assad as the victim, his opponents as jihadists and his repression as a “war on terror.” The aim is less to persuade than to obfuscate. RT doesn’t have to tell a credible or coherent story as long as it can cast doubt on competing ones.
“There is no objectivity,” says RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, “only approximations of the truth.” Complete objectivity is indeed unachievable — yet it is a standard to which most journalists aspire. RT’s innovation is to dispense with objectivity altogether and make approximation of the truth its aspiration. News doesn’t have to be true as long as it feels true — and with truth thus relativized, fact becomes one with alternative fact. [Continue reading…]
Anne Applebaum writes: The Enlightenment belief that we can know and understand reality — that we can measure it, weigh it, judge it, use reason to explain it — underlies all of the achievements of Western civilization, from the scientific revolution to the Industrial Revolution to democracy itself. Ever since René Descartes asked himself how it was possible to know that melting wax is the same thing as a candle, we have believed that reason, not mythology, sensibility, emotion or instinct, provides a superior way to understand the world. But is that still true?
If the strange case of Sweden and its immigrants is anything to go by, then the answer is probably no. This odd story began last month, when President Trump began ranting, memorably, about dangerous immigrants at a rally in Florida: “You look at what’s happening last night, in Sweden! Sweden! Who would believe this, Sweden!” The following morning, puzzled Swedes woke up to find the world’s media asking them what, actually, had happened last night. The answer — other than some road closures — was nothing.
In an Enlightenment world, that would have been the end of the story. In our post-Enlightenment world, things got more complicated. Trump explained that what he had seen “last night” was not a terrorist attack — though that was certainly implied in his speech — but a filmmaker named Ami Horowitz who was interviewed by Tucker Carlson on Fox News. The interview was indeed terrifying: For those unfamiliar with the techniques of emotional manipulation — and they are the same, whether used by Fox News or Russia Today — it should be mandatory viewing. As the two were speaking, a clip of an aggressive, brown-skinned man hitting a policeman, presumably in Sweden, alternated in the background, over and over, with a clip of a burning car. The repetitive, frightening images were bolstered by more clips from Horowitz’s film, in which Swedish police officers appeared to be confirming a massive rise in crime linked to immigration. Carlson, meanwhile, marveled at the stupidity and naivete of the Swedish nation helpless to confront this menace. No wonder the president was upset.
But the next day, the Swedish police officers protested: Horowitz had never asked them about immigration, and had cut their interviews to make it seem as if they were answering different questions. Moreover, while Sweden did — generously and admirably — accept 160,000 refugees in 2015, and while there are genuine problems absorbing and acculturating them, Swedish crime rates remain low, particularly if you compare them with crime rates in, say, Florida.
A faked film had inspired the president to cite an imaginary crisis — but the story didn’t end there. [Continue reading…]