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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Facebook’s instrumental role in the promotion of ethnic cleansing and the creation of a million refugees

Kevin Roose reports: For months, Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., has been in crisis mode, furiously attempting to contain the damage stemming from its role in last year’s presidential campaign. The company has mounted an all-out defense campaign ahead of this week’s congressional hearings on election interference in 2016, hiring three outside communications firms, taking out full-page newspaper ads, and mobilizing top executives, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, to beat back accusations that it failed to prevent Russia from manipulating the outcome of the election.

No other predicament in Facebook’s 13-year history has generated this kind of four-alarm response. But while the focus on Russia is understandable, Facebook has been much less vocal about the abuse of its services in other parts of the world, where the stakes can be much higher than an election.

This past week, my colleagues at The Times reported on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar that has been subjected to brutal violence and mass displacement. Violence against the Rohingya has been fueled, in part, by misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda spread on Facebook, which is used as a primary news source by many people in the country. Doctored photos and unfounded rumors have gone viral on Facebook, including many shared by official government and military accounts.

The information war in Myanmar illuminates a growing problem for Facebook. The company successfully connected the world to a constellation of real-time communication and broadcasting tools, then largely left it to deal with the consequences.

“In a lot of these countries, Facebook is the de facto public square,” said Cynthia Wong, a senior internet researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Because of that, it raises really strong questions about Facebook needing to take on more responsibility for the harms their platform has contributed to.”

In Myanmar, the rise in anti-Rohingya sentiment coincided with a huge boom in social media use that was partly attributable to Facebook itself. In 2016, the company partnered with MTP, the state-run telecom company, to give subscribers access to its Free Basics program. Free Basics includes a limited suite of internet services, including Facebook, that can be used without counting toward a cellphone data plan. As a result, the number of Facebook users in Myanmar has skyrocketed to more than 30 million today from 2 million in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Russian propaganda traced back to Staten Island, New York

The Daily Beast reports: Russia’s propaganda campaign targeting Americans was hosted, at least in part, on American soil.

A company owned by a man on Staten Island, New York, provided internet infrastructure services to DoNotShoot.Us, a Kremlin propaganda site that pretended to be a voice for victims of police shootings, a Daily Beast investigation has found.

Every website needs to be “hosted”—given an Internet Protocol address and space on a physical computer—in order to be publicly viewed. DoNotShoot.Us is a website run out of the Kremlin-backed “Russian troll farm,” according to two sources familiar with the website, both of whom independently identified it to The Daily Beast as a Russian propaganda account. It was hosted on a server with the IP address 107.181.161.172.

That IP address was owned by Greenfloid LLC, a company registered to New Yorker Sergey Kashyrin and two others. Other Russian propaganda sites, like BlackMattersUs.com, were also hosted on servers with IP addresses owned by Greenfloid. The company’s ties to Russian propaganda sites were first reported by ThinkProgress.

The web services company owns under 250 IP addresses, some of which resolve to Russian propaganda sites and other fake news operations. Others are sites that could not be hosted at other providers, like “xxxrape.net.” There’s also a Russian trinket site called “soviet-power.com.” (The IP address that pointed to DoNotShoot.Us now resolves to a botnet and phishing operation, and is currently owned by Total Server Solutions LLC.)

The use of a tiny, no-questions-asked hosting company run by a man living in New York shows the Kremlin-backed troll farm’s brazen use of Americans and American companies to conduct its disinformation campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s favored outlet is an online news giant. YouTube helped

The New York Times reports: When the state-backed Russian news channel RT became the first news organization to surpass one billion views on YouTube in 2013, it marked the achievement with a retrospective of its most popular videos and a special guest — one of the Google-owned site’s senior executives.

Robert Kyncl, a YouTube vice president who has since become its chief business officer, joined an RT anchor in a studio, where he praised RT for bonding with viewers by providing “authentic” content instead of “agendas or propaganda.”

But now, as investigators in Washington examine the scope and reach of Russian interference in United States politics, the once-cozy relationship between RT and YouTube is drawing closer scrutiny.

YouTube — the world’s most-visited video site, owned by one of the most powerful and influential corporations in America — played a crucial role in helping build and expand RT, an organization that the American intelligence community has described as the Kremlin’s “principal international propaganda outlet” and a key player in Russia’s information warfare operations around the world.

YouTube also provided RT with the kind of perks it reserved for big publishers, including custom backgrounds for its channel in the early days and a “check mark” that designated RT as a verified news source. Until recently, RT was also among a select group of news organizations included in Google’s “preferred” news lineup, granting them access to guaranteed revenue from premium advertisers. Those advertisers, in effect, subsidized Russia’s international propaganda arm.

Google dropped RT from the preferred lineup last month. Andrea Faville, a Google spokeswoman, said the decision was unrelated to the congressional inquiry, and that RT had been dropped as part of a “standard algorithmic update.” But Google also noted that it was not placing any other limits on RT: The channel could still sell regular ads on its videos and the status downgrade only applied in the United States. Google later clarified that RT was downgraded in other markets, but it would not say which ones. [Continue reading…]

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Homegrown ‘fake news’ is a bigger problem than Russian propaganda

Brendan Nyhan and Yusaku Horiuchi write: State-sponsored propaganda like the recently unmasked @TEN_GOP Twitter account is of very real concern for our democracy. But we should not allow the debate over Russian interference to crowd out concerns about homegrown misinformation, which was vastly more prevalent during and after the 2016 election.

Why is misinformation so prevalent and widely believed in U.S. politics?

One explanation for the growth of misinformation is the way people are exposed to — and consume — news today. In particular, concerns have grown about “echo chambers.” According to this theory, people are, intentionally or unintentionally, surrounding themselves with news from like-minded sources. In such environments, people may tend to uncritically believe news content from outlets they trust while dismissing or ignoring information from sources they dislike. If this is true, politicians and commentators may be able to effectively mislead the public by promoting misinformation through allied news outlets.

But when one of us (Horiuchi) and his Dartmouth undergraduate co-authors tested this hypothesis in a recent study, they found that the source of the misinformation they showed to study participants (an incorrect news excerpt about the Affordable Care Act) didn’t matter very much. Regardless of the respondents’ party identification or ideology, attributing the article to Fox or CNN had relatively little effect on the news article’s perceived accuracy.

The problem instead was that people were surprisingly vulnerable to believing the misinformation even when it came from an uncongenial source. Far more believed the false claim (that people would lose health coverage from their parents’ insurance plans when they turned 18 under proposed legislation) when they read an article making the claim. In other words, they swallowed the news story without carefully considering whether it was true.

In this sense, concerns about echo chambers may be overstated — a finding that is consistent with other evidence. The problem isn’t that we’re only willing to listen to sources that share our political viewpoint; it’s that we’re too vulnerable as human beings to misinformation of all sorts. Given the limitations of human knowledge and judgment, it is not clear how to best protect people from believing false claims. [Continue reading…]

For as long as there are masses of people who can easily be deceived, there will continue to be a market for deception.

The focus these days might be on so-called fake news, but the practice of deception extends far outside news and social media. Indeed, we live in economies, societies, and cultures, where through commerce, political structures, and religious institutions, deception plays a role in most human relationships.

The professed shock at Russian interference in U.S. elections while being a response to a genuine threat to democracy, is also often disingenuous in a context where native truthfulness is often in such short supply.

Are we to believe that there is something intrinsically less harmful about being lied to by an American rather than a Russian?

Flip the issue on its head and the issue is not about protecting people from believing what turns out to be false, but rather a much more far reaching challenge: how to cultivate and propagate a large-scale interest in the discovery of what is true?

The lack of such an interest is the very thing that makes falsehoods so easy to package and sell.

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CIA director distorts intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference

The Washington Post reports: CIA Director Mike Pompeo declared Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia’s interference in the 2016 American presidential election did not alter the outcome, a statement that distorted spy agency findings.

“The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” Pompeo said at a security conference in Washington.

His comment suggested — falsely — that a report released by U.S. intelligence agencies in January had ruled out any impact that could be attributed to a covert Russian interference campaign that involved leaks of tens of thousands of stolen emails, the flooding of social media sites with false claims and the purchase of ads on Facebook.

A report compiled by the CIA and other agencies described that Russian operation as unprecedented in its scale and concluded that Moscow’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process and help elect Donald Trump.

But the report reached no conclusions about whether that interference had altered the outcome — an issue that U.S. intelligence officials made clear was considered beyond the scope of their inquiry. [Continue reading…]

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Trump campaign staffers pushed Russian propaganda from fake Twitter account days before the election

The Washington Post reports: Russian operatives used a fake Twitter account that claimed to speak for Tennessee Republicans to persuade American politicians, celebrities and journalists to share select content with their own massive lists of followers, two people familiar with the matter said.

The list of prominent people who tweeted out links from the account, @Ten_GOP, which Twitter shut down in August, includes political figures such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and James Woods, and media personalities such as Ann Coulter and Chris Hayes.

There is no evidence that any of them knew the account was run by Russians. Independent researchers had suspected the account was Russian, and their work was confirmed Wednesday by two people familiar with the investigations into the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. [Continue reading…]

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Russian troll factory paid U.S. activists to help fund protests during election

The Guardian reports: Russian trolls posing as Americans made payments to genuine activists in the US to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues, according to a new investigation by a respected Russian media outlet.

On Tuesday, the newspaper RBC published a major investigation into the work of a so-called Russian “troll factory” since 2015, including during the period of the US election campaign, disclosures that are likely to put further spotlight on alleged Russian meddling in the election.

The existence of the troll factory, which has a history of spamming Russian and English blogs and comment forums, has been reported on by many outlets including the Guardian, but the RBC investigation is the first in-detail look at the organisation’s activity during the election period.

RBC said it had identified 118 accounts or groups in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that were linked to the troll factory, all of which had been blocked in August and September this year as part of the US investigation into Russian electoral meddling.

Many of the accounts had already been linked to Russian disinformation efforts in western outlets, but RBC said its sources at the troll factory had provided screenshots of the internal group administration pages of some of the groups, as proof they were run from Russia. It also spoke to former and current employees of the troll factory, all of whom spoke anonymously.

Perhaps the most alarming element of the article was the claim that employees of the troll factory had contacted about 100 real US-based activists to help with the organisation of protests and events. RBC claimed the activists were contacted by Facebook group administrators hiding their Russian origin and were offered financial help to pay for transport or printing costs. About $80,000 was spent during a two-year period, according to the report.

The main topics covered by the groups run from Russia were race relations, Texan independence and gun rights. RBC counted 16 groups relating to the Black Lives Matter campaign and other race issues that had a total of 1.2 million subscribers. The biggest group was entitled Blacktivist and reportedly had more than 350,000 likes at its peak. [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s ‘chef,’ the man behind the troll factory

CNN reports: Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch dubbed “chef” to President Vladimir Putin by the Russian press. In 2002, he served caviar and truffles to President George W. Bush during a summit in St. Petersburg. Before that, he renovated a boat that became the city’s most exclusive restaurant.

But his business empire has expanded far beyond the kitchen. US investigators believe it was Prigozhin’s company that financed a Russian “troll factory” that used social media to spread fake news during the 2016 US presidential campaign, according to multiple officials briefed on the investigation. One part of the factory had a particularly intriguing name and mission: a “Department of Provocations” dedicated to sowing fake news and social divisions in the West, according to internal company documents obtained by CNN.

Prigozhin is one of the Kremlin’s inner circle. His company is believed to be a main backer of the St. Petersburg-based “Internet Research Agency” (IRA), a secretive technology firm, according to US officials and the documents reviewed by CNN. Prigozhin was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in December of 2016 for providing financial support for Russia’s military occupation of Ukraine. Two of his companies, including his catering business, were also sanctioned by Treasury this year. [Continue reading…]

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Interview with a former troll at Russia’s Internet Research Agency

Meduza reports: One of the many remarkable things about 2017 is that American journalists no longer have the Irish Republican Army in mind when writing “IRA,” which is now used most often to mean Russia’s Internet Research Agency — the “troll factory” responsible for buying ads on social media and polluting American online news discussion in an apparent effort to destabilize U.S. democracy. On October 15, the Russian independent news network Dozhd published the latest development in this ongoing story: an interview with a man who allegedly worked for the IRA from 2014-2015. Meduza summarizes that interview here.

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Dozhd calls him “Maxim,” but that’s not his real name. The TV network says Max’s employment records confirm that he spent 18 months at 55 Savushkina in St. Petersburg, working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA), Russia’s infamous “troll factory.” He quit in early 2015, before Donald Trump even announced his presidential candidacy, but not too soon to get a taste of the “factory’s” war on Hillary Clinton.

According to Max, the IRA’s “foreign desk” had open orders to “influence opinions” and change the direction of online discussions. He says this department within the agency considered itself above the “Russian desk,” which he claims is generally “bots and trolls.” The foreign desk was supposedly more sophisticated. “It’s not just writing ‘Obama is a monkey’ and ‘Putin is great.’ They’ll even fine you for that kind of [primitive] stuff,” Max told Dozhd. People in his department, he says, were even trained and educated to know the nuances of American social polemics on tax issues, LGBT rights, the gun debate, and more.

Max says that IRA staff were tasked with monitoring tens of thousands of comments on major U.S. media outlets, in order to grasp the general trends of American Internet users. Once employees got a sense of what Americans naturally discussed in comment forums and on social media, their job was to incite them further and try to “rock the boat.”

According to Max, the Internet Research Agency’s foreign desk was prohibited from promoting anything about Russia or Putin. One thing the staff learned quickly was that Americans don’t normally talk about Russia: “They don’t really care about it,” Max told Dozhd. “Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia,” he claims. “Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”

The trolls at the IRA were also careful about covering their tracks. Max says anyone working in the foreign desk was required to post comments using a VPN, to disguise their Russian origins. He says an employee once shared a photograph taken at the IRA’s office, which was especially forbidden, because photos can contain revealing metadata. This incident also revealed that the IRA employed staff to spy on its own trolls, Max says.

Even two years before Americans actually voted on their next president, St. Petersburg trolls were told to attack Hillary Clinton, reminding Internet users about her wealth, her husband’s legacy, and her various corruption scandals. The IRA even encouraged employees to watch Netflix’s “House of Cards,” supposedly as an education in U.S. politics. Staff would also monitor each other’s use of English, nitpicking over grammar and punctuation, in order to weed out ESL formulations. [Continue reading…]

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How Stalin — and the foreign press corps — hid Ukraine’s famine from the world

Anne Applebaum writes: In the years 1932 and 1933, a catastrophic famine swept across the Soviet Union. It began in the chaos of collectivization, when millions of peasants were forced off their land and made to join state farms. It was then exacerbated, in the autumn of 1932, when the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside. Despite the shortages, the state demanded not just grain, but all available food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and local Party activists, motivated by hunger, fear, and a decade of hateful propaganda, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, and farm animals. At the same time, a cordon was drawn around the Ukrainian republic to prevent escape. The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger all across the Soviet Union. Among them were nearly 4 million Ukrainians who died not because of neglect or crop failure, but because they had been deliberately deprived of food.

Neither the Ukrainian famine nor the broader Soviet famine were ever officially recognized by the USSR. Inside the country the famine was never mentioned. All discussion was actively repressed; statistics were altered to hide it. The terror was so overwhelming that the silence was complete. Outside the country, however, the cover-up required different, subtler tactics. These are beautifully illustrated by the parallel stories of Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones.

In the 1930s, all of the members of the Moscow press corps led a precarious existence. At the time, they needed the state’s permission to live in the USSR, and even to work. Without a signature and the official stamp of the press department, the central telegraph office would not send their dispatches abroad. To win that permission, journalists regularly bargained with foreign ministry censors over which words they could use, and they kept on good terms with Konstantin Umansky, the Soviet official responsible for the foreign press corps. William Henry Chamberlin, then the Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote that the foreign reporter “works under a Sword of Damocles—the threat of expulsion from the country or of the refusal of permission to re-enter it, which of course amounts to the same thing.”

Extra rewards were available to those, like Walter Duranty, who played the game particularly well. Duranty was The New York Times correspondent in Moscow from 1922 until 1936, a role that, for a time, made him relatively rich and famous. British by birth, Duranty had no ties to the ideological left, adopting rather the position of a hard-headed and skeptical “realist,” trying to listen to both sides of the story. “It may be objected that the vivisection of living animals is a sad and dreadful thing, and it is true that the lot of kulaks and others who have opposed the Soviet experiment is not a happy one,” he wrote in 1935—the kulaks being the so-called wealthy peasants whom Stalin accused of causing the famine. But “in both cases, the suffering inflicted is done with a noble purpose.”

This position made Duranty enormously useful to the regime, which went out of its way to ensure that Duranty lived well in Moscow. He had a large flat, kept a car and a mistress, had the best access of any correspondent, and twice received coveted interviews with Stalin. But the attention he won from his reporting back in the U.S. seems to have been his primary motivation. His missives from Moscow made him one of the most influential journalists of his time. In 1932, his series of articles on the successes of collectivization and the Five Year Plan won him the Pulitzer Prize. Soon afterward, Franklin Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, invited Duranty to the governor’s mansion in Albany, where the Democratic presidential candidate peppered him with queries. “I asked all the questions this time. It was fascinating,” Roosevelt told another reporter.

As the famine worsened, Duranty, like his colleagues, would have been in no doubt about the regime’s desire to repress it. In 1933, the Foreign Ministry began requiring correspondents to submit a proposed itinerary before any journey into the provinces; all requests to visit Ukraine were refused. The censors also began to monitor dispatches. Some phrases were allowed: “acute food shortage,” “food stringency,” “food deficit,” “diseases due to malnutrition,” but nothing else. In late 1932, Soviet officials even visited Duranty at home, making him nervous.

In that atmosphere, few of them were inclined to write about the famine, although all of them knew about it. “Officially, there was no famine,” wrote Chamberlin. But “to anyone who lived in Russia in 1933 and who kept his eyes and ears open, the historicity of the famine is simply not in question.” Duranty himself discussed the famine with William Strang, a diplomat at the British embassy, in late 1932. Strang reported back drily that the New York Times correspondent had been “waking to the truth for some time,” although he had not “let the great American public into the secret.” Duranty also told Strang that he reckoned “it quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food,” though that number never appeared in any of his reporting. Duranty’s reluctance to write about famine may have been particularly acute: The story cast doubt on his previous, positive (and prize-winning) reporting. [Continue reading…]

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Russian trolls were schooled on ‘House of Cards’

Michael Isikoff reports: The Russians who worked for a notorious St. Petersburg “troll factory” that was part of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election were required to watch the “House of Cards” television series to help them craft messages to “set up the Americans against their own government,” according to an interview broadcast Sunday (in Russian) with a former member of the troll factory’s elite English language department.

The interview, broadcast by the independent Russian TV station Rain, provides new insight into how the troll factory formerly known as the Internet Research Agency targeted U.S. audiences in part by posting provocative “comments” pretending to be from Americans on newspaper articles that appeared on the websites of the New York Times and Washington Post.

A central theme of this messaging was demonizing Hillary Clinton by playing up the past scandals of her husband’s administration, her wealth and her use of a private email server, according to the interview with the agency worker, identified only as “Maksim,” with his face concealed. [Continue reading…]

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How dirty campaigning and fake Facebook sites came to dominate the Austrian election

The Washington Post reports: The two Facebook pages told sharply different tales, but neither looked especially favorable for Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old Austrian foreign minister who is expected to become the country’s youngest-ever chancellor following elections Sunday.

One cast itself as a fanboy site for the telegenic Kurz, but included dodgy accusations that nongovernmental organizations were smuggling in thousands of migrants. It also included a poll suggesting that the center-right leader might seal the country’s border with Italy to block the path of asylum seekers.

The other appeared to be a far-right attack site against Kurz, and was laced with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

In the end, neither site was what it appeared. But both, according to the Austrian media, had the same unlikely creator: a former consultant for the reelection campaign of Kurz’s rival, center-left Chancellor Christian Kern.

The disclosure of the deception has rocked the normally sedate world of Austrian politics in the election’s final weeks, crowding out debate over the issues and clogging Austrian newspapers and news shows with endless discussion of who knew what, and when. [Continue reading…]

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The making of a Russian disinformation campaign: What it takes

Michael Weiss writes: It started with a synagogue in Cologne.

On Christmas Eve 1959, two men drew swastikas on the wall of the house of worship, along with the phrase, “Germans Demand That Jews Get Out.” Within days, Jews began receiving menacing anonymous phone calls, as Jewish grave sites and Jewish-owned shops were desecrated in over twenty towns and cities in West Germany.

From there, the desecrations went “viral,” to use the sufficiently creepy contemporary term for an old-fashioned phenomenon. By New Year’s, the fallen symbol of the Third Reich had sprung up in New York, London, Paris, Stockholm, Oslo, Milan, Copenhagen, Perth, Athens, Buenos Aires, and Bogota. The summer home of Denmark’s king was graffitied. A Jewish MP in Britain was threatened with murder.

Coming just fourteen years after the liberation of the camps, the reaction to such recrudescent race hatred was swift and furious. One British peer vowed to wage a personal investigation in West Germany to determine for himself the extent of the “rising tide of Nazism” in its former epicenter. Honorable West Germans were appalled and self-critical in a manner bordering on masochistic.

The American press reopened wounds that were not quite healed yet, even with the balm of so much Marshall aid. “Bonn Unable to Eliminate Nazi Poison,” ran one headline in the New York Herald Tribune, as the poet Carl Sandburg let his anti-fascist fervor get the better of his liberal judgment. Anyone caught daubing Hitler’s symbol, he said, should be executed.

The campaign of anti-Semitism even took an economic toll, as German employees were sacked from British-owned companies, some of which also canceled contracts with West German partners. A reconstructed postwar nation that had only just acceded to NATO four years earlier was thus faced with the humiliating question from the founding members of the alliance: Was German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s Federal Republic de-Nazified enough to be granted such a strategic privilege?

“Between Christmas Eve 1959 and mid-February 1960,” the American journalist John Barron later recounted, “West German authorities recorded 833 separate anti-Jewish acts. Then the epidemic ceased almost as suddenly as and mysteriously as it had begun. Police arrested and interrogated 234 people. Analyzing their motives, the government concluded that 24% acted out of ‘subconscious Nazi motives;’ 8% were inspired by extreme rightist or leftist beliefs; 48% were drunks or thugs; 15% were children; and 5% were mentally deranged.”

Case, then, seemingly closed — but for a few oddities diagnosed in Patient Zero of this epidemic. The two men who had inaugurated the spree of defacements in Cologne had belonged to a minuscule West German neo-Nazi party but, as Barron noted, the authorities discovered “that they frequently made trips to East Germany and one had a Communist Party badge hidden behind his coat lapel.”

In a separate incident, the 22-year-old treasurer of a different fascist organization was arrested and admitted to the police that he was an East German agent whose mission was to infiltrate far-right groups in West Germany and whip up anti-Semitic sentiment. All of which fed the suspicion in Bonn that the simultaneity of these hate crimes hinted at something more than grim coincidence.

It would take a few more years, when defectors from the GDR stole across the Berlin Wall, for the true provenance of the “swastika graffiti operation” to become known. [Continue reading…]

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Mysterious sounds and scary illnesses as political tools

Lisa Diedrich and Benjamin Tausig write: President Trump has long signaled his desire to reverse President Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba, so it’s no surprise that his administration has begun to do just that by withdrawing most employees from the United States Embassy in Havana.

But a part of the justification for the move — the reports that embassy employees were victimized by a “sonic attack” that caused a range of physical symptoms — fits a troubling pattern. It’s just the latest example of the way Mr. Trump has attempted to harness vague, unspecified threats to inspire fear and advance his political agenda.

The Associated Press first reported on Aug. 10 that State Department employees had been targeted by these attacks. According to the spokeswoman Heather Nauert, they caused “a variety of physical symptoms.” It was also reported at this time that the State Department had already retaliated for these attacks by expelling two Cuban diplomats from the United States on May 23.

Since then, much of the news coverage of the incident has turned to a discussion of technical questions about sonic weaponry. A few articles quote experts who are skeptical, to put it mildly, but a majority of the coverage has accepted and even reiterated the State Department’s explanation wholesale.

The truth is, the sort of sonic weaponry that might cause the concussions and persistent memory loss that the State Department claimed to have found in its diplomats doesn’t exist, as far as experts in this field know. “Nothing about this story makes any sense to us,” said a marketing director of a firm that manufactures acoustic devices, quoted in Wired. To imagine that such weapons have not only been covertly developed but also were then somehow hidden near the embassy is even more fanciful, for a variety of logistical and technical reasons. The fact-checking site Snopes.com provided a review of scientific data on sound and sonic weapons, concluding that it was false to claim that such weapons could be responsible for what happened to the United States diplomats in Cuba. Yet, this has not stopped the reverberation of sonic-weapon rumors. The press has continued to amplify the story, and the Trump administration has carried on with its narrative, even issuing a Cuba Travel Warning based on the “specific attacks” that it says targeted embassy employees. [Continue reading…]

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The notorious Kremlin-linked ‘troll farm’ and the Russians trying to take it down

The Washington Post reports: She rode into a pitch-black truck stop on a scooter, stepped out of the pouring rain into a gas station cafe on the outskirts of St. Petersburg and recounted her quest to bring down Russia’s infamous “troll farm.”

Lyudmila Savchuk is one of a disparate handful of Russian journalists, activists and legal experts who have tried to shed light on the shadowy operation that has become a focal point of U.S. investigations into Kremlin meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

And like most people who challenge the established order in today’s Russia, Savchuk and the others are jousting against a nebulous entity with apparent Kremlin ties and evident protection from government and law-enforcement agencies. For them, this is a task that entails significant risks and little chance of success.

How much the trolls affected the outcome of the U.S. election is unclear. But their omnipresence is evident on Twitter and in the comments sections of publications like The Washington Post, where trolls can be found criticizing news stories, lambasting other posters and accusing one another of being trolls. [Continue reading…]

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Russia recruited YouTubers to bash ‘racist b*tch’ Hillary Clinton over rap beats

The Daily Beast reports: According to the YouTube page for “Williams and Kalvin,” the Clintons are “serial killers who are going to rape the whole nation.” Donald Trump can’t be racist because he’s a “businessman.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign was “fund[ed] by the Muslim.”

These are a sample of the videos put together by two black video bloggers calling themselves Williams and Kalvin Johnson, whose social media pages investigators say are part of the broad Russian campaign to influence American politics. Across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, they purported to offer “a word of truth” to African-American audiences.

“We, the black people, we stand in one unity. We stand in one to say that Hillary Clinton is not our candidate,” one of the men says in a November video that warned Clinton “is going to stand for the Muslim. We don’t stand for her.” [Continue reading…]

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Russian propaganda may have been shared hundreds of millions of times, new research says

Craig Timberg writes: Facebook has said ads bought by Russian operatives reached 10 million of its users.

But does that include everyone reached by the information operation? Couldn’t the Russians also have created simple — and free — Facebook posts and hoped they went viral? And if so, how many times were these messages seen by Facebook’s massive user base?

The answers to those questions, which social media analyst Jonathan Albright studied for a research document he posted online Thursday, are: No. Yes. And hundreds of millions — perhaps many billions — of times.

“The primary push to influence wasn’t necessarily through paid advertising,” said Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “The best way to to understand this from a strategic perspective is organic reach.”

In other words, to understand Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election, the frame should not be the reach of the 3,000 ads that Facebook handed over to Congress and that were bought by a single Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency. Instead, the frame should be the reach of all the activity of the Russian-controlled accounts — each post, each “like,” each comment and also all of the ads. Looked at this way, the picture shifts dramatically. It is bigger — much bigger — but also somewhat different and more subtle than generally portrayed. [Continue reading…]

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