Examining the Russian media war

A very interesting article by Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times that claims Russian influence in what has become known as fake news, used to promote discord and protest and to interfere in elections in countries around the world.

Examples are given of interference in Germany over immigration, in the UK over Brexit, and in the US election.

RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War

How the Kremlin built one of the most powerful information weapons of the 21st century — and why it may be impossible to stop.

…Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.

The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.

Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.

But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.

The allegations were false, but Russian news agencies kept publishing them, promoting protests and discord over immigration in Germany.

Officials in Germany and at NATO headquarters in Brussels view the Lisa case, as it is now known, as an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West. In the months that followed, politicians perceived by the Russian government as hostile to its interests would find themselves caught up in media storms that, in their broad contours, resembled the one that gathered around Merkel.

They often involved conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods — sometimes with a tenuous connection to fact, as in the Lisa case, sometimes with no connection at all — amplified until they broke through into domestic politics. In other cases, they simply helped promote nationalist, far-left or far-right views that put pressure on the political center.

What the efforts had in common was their agents: a loose network of Russian-government-run or -financed media outlets and apparently coordinated social-media accounts.

And this is effective. This is evident in New Zealand where ordinary people, especially those with conspiracy tendencies or with strong views about things like immigration or politics, pick up on and amplify the messages – which is of course one of the aims.

After RT and Sputnik gave platforms to politicians behind the British vote to leave the European Union, like Nigel Farage, a committee of the British Parliament released a report warning that foreign governments may have tried to interfere with the referendum.

Russia and China, the report argued, had an “understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals” and practiced a kind of cyberwarfare “reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion.”

I wouldn’t rule out other countries either, like North Korea, from the Middle East – and the US, who are also one of the main targets.

But all of this paled in comparison with the role that Russian information networks are suspected to have played in the American presidential election of 2016.

In early January, two weeks before Donald J. Trump took office, American intelligence officials released a declassified version of a report — prepared jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency — titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.” It detailed what an Obama-era Pentagon intelligence official, Michael Vickers, described in an interview in June with NBC News as “the political equivalent of 9/11.”

“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” the authors wrote. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency.” According to the report, “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The intelligence assessment detailed some cloak-and-dagger activities, like the murky web of Russian (if not directly government-affiliated or -financed) hackers who infiltrated voting systems and stole gigabytes’ worth of email and other documents from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.

But most of the assessment concerned machinations that were plainly visible to anyone with a cable subscription or an internet connection: the coordinated activities of the TV and online-media properties and social-media accounts that made up, in the report’s words, “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.”

The assessment devoted nearly half its pages to a single cable network: RT. The Kremlin started RT — shortened from the original Russia Today — a dozen years ago to improve Russia’s image abroad.

But it is not simple to isolate and combat.

Plenty of RT’s programming, to outward appearances, is not qualitatively different from conventional opinion-infused cable news.

Its fans point to its coverage of political perspectives that aren’t prominent on mainstream networks — voices from the Occupy movement, the libertarian right and third parties like the Green Party. The network has been nominated for four International Emmy Awards and one Daytime Emmy.

This makes RT and Sputnik harder for the West to combat than shadowy hackers.

 RT might not have amassed an audience that remotely rivals CNN’s in conventional terms, but in the new, “democratized” media landscape, it doesn’t need to.

Over the past several years, the network has come to form the hub of a new kind of state media operation: one that travels through the same diffuse online channels, chasing the same viral hits and memes, as the rest of the Twitter-and-Facebook-age media.

In the process, Russia has built the most effective propaganda operation of the 21st century so far, one that thrives in the feverish political climates that have descended on many Western publics.

It is a long article but worth reading if you have any interest in international propaganda and information wars.

As stated it is not just the use of news organisations, it is the use of social media as well. Facebook is gradually admitting how they were used during the US election campaign.

Reuters: Facebook says some Russian ads during U.S. election promoted live events

Some of the ads bought by Russians on Facebook last year promoted events during the U.S. presidential campaign, Facebook Inc said on Tuesday, indicating that alleged meddling ahead of the 2016 election went beyond social media.

Facebook said in a statement that its takedown of what the company last week called Russian-affiliated pages included shutting down “several promoted events.”

Facebook declined to provide details of the promoted events.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network, said last week that an operation likely based in Russia had placed thousands of U.S. ads with polarizing views on topics such as immigration, race and gay rights on the site during a two-year period through May 2017.

The Daily Beast, the news website that first reported on the promoted events posted on Facebook, said one advertisement promoted an anti-immigrant rally in Idaho in August 2016.

The rally was hosted by a Facebook group called “Secured Borders,” which was a Russian front and is now suspended, according to the Daily Beast.

In social media they commonly target people who want to believe certain things and  spread issues that have dubious merit.

Putin concedes Russian hackers could have interfered in US election

NY Times: Putin Hints at U.S. Election Meddling by ‘Patriotically Minded’ Russians

Shifting from his previous blanket denials, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Thursday that “patriotically minded” private Russian hackers could have been involved in cyberattacks last year to help the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump.

While Mr. Putin continued to deny any state role, his comments to reporters in St. Petersburg were a departure from the Kremlin’s previous position: that Russia had played no role whatsoever in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and that, after Mr. Trump’s victory, the country had become the victim of anti-Russia hysteria among crestfallen Democrats.

Raising the possibility of attacks by what he portrayed as free-spirited Russian patriots, Mr. Putin said that hackers “are like artists” who choose their targets depending how they feel “when they wake up in the morning.”

“If they are patriotically minded, they start making their contributions — which are right, from their point of view — to the fight against those who say bad things about Russia,” he added.

All the same, Mr. Putin stuck firmly to earlier denials that Russian state bodies or employees had been involved, an accusation leveled by United States intelligence agencies. They concluded in January that Mr. Putin himself had directed a Russian “influence campaign” involving cyberattacks and disinformation intended to tilt the November election in Mr. Trump’s favor.

“We’re not doing this on the state level,” Mr. Putin said on Thursday.

That could mean anything from Putin.

UK & Europe

Topics about the UK, EU and Europe.

UK-EU


BBC: Russian arrested in Spain ‘over US election hacking’

Spanish police have arrested a Russian programmer for alleged involvement in “hacking” the US election, Spanish press reports have said.

Pyotr Levashov, arrested on 7 April in Barcelona, has now been remanded in custody.

A “legal source” also told the AFP news agency that Mr Levashov was the subject of an extradition request by the US.

El Confidencial, a Spanish news website, has said that Mr Levashov’s arrest warrant was issued by US authorities over suspected “hacking” that helped Donald Trump’s campaign.

Mr Levashov’s wife Maria also told Russian broadcaster RT that the arrest was made in connection with such allegations.

Several cybersecurity experts, including Brian Krebs, have also linked Mr Levashov to a Russian spam kingpin, who uses the alias Peter Severa.

 

Q & A: US election

Q & A is looking at the US election this morning.

President Elect Donald Trump – what next?

  • NZ businessman Chris Liddell has been working with the Trump campaign team on their transition to the White House – he tells Corin Dann what kind of presidency we should expect.

Liddell things President Trump will be much more moderate than Candidate Trump, but will want to get things done quite quickly.

Temperament to be a good president? To be determined.

Will the Republican Party be a check on Trump? Also to be determined.

“Being anti-trade is not exactly a Republican thing”.

“This is one of the most significant events in my lifetime. It’s monumental”.

A warning for New Zealand? “A warning for any government if you ignore emotional issues like inequality and immigration.”

Impact on New Zealand

  • NZ’s Ambassador to the US, Tim Groser, gives his take on the President-elect and how his policies will impact New Zealand.

Groser also expects to be a moderation – how far it goes and for how long wil be seen in the future.

US Election – where did Clinton go wrong?

  • Basil Smikle is the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party and a close friend of Hillary Clinton’s – his view on where the Democrats went wrong and why Clinton lost.

Assange denies influencing election: yeah, right

Politico reports that Julian Assange has denied trying to influence the outcome of the US election.

The email jar must be just about empty, and crumbs are all over Assanges face. Plus jam. Plus egg.

Assange denies WikiLeaks trying to influence election outcome

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Tuesday defended the group’s decision to post troves of Democratic documents during the height of the election season, saying a moral imperative drove them to do so.

“This is not due to a personal desire to influence the outcome of the election,” he wrote in a 1,000 word statement posted as Americans streamed to the polls on Election Day. “The Democratic and Republican candidates have both expressed hostility towards whistleblowers … Publishing is what we do. To withhold the publication of such information until after the election would have been to favour one of the candidates above the public’s right to know.”

Yeah, right.

There may be public interest in illegally hacked emails.

But drip feeding them throughout the last months of the US campaign is clearly aimed at influencing the election, and using the election to get attention.

If it was important enough and justified to make emails public they would have been made public when they were available, not drip fed through the campaign.

Assange and Wikileaks have lost a lot of credibility and support through this exercise. He has made himself no better than his target, Hillary Clinton, and no better than the person he may enable, Donald Trump.

If Trump wins I expect a lot more disappointment will be directed at Assange in particular.

Power corrupts, and WikiLeaks has been absolutely been corrupted in trying to manipulate the US election.

Polls point to US uncertainty

The presidential polls closed up substantially over the last week, since FBI director James Comey’s announcement, but seem to have leveled off still slightly in Hillary Clinton’s favour. But the states decide who the president, not overall vote, so it’s complicated.

And there’s many unknowns, in particular the turnout. There’s signs that many Americans are tired of and aghast at the election, so it may come down to motivation of voters. The Democrats have a much better country wide organisation but Clinton’s campaign has struggled to last the distance so getting jaded supporters to vote could be challenging.

Trump’s campaign has been helped, even saved, by the FBI announcement, and seems to have a more energetic base of supporters, and appears to be winning the ‘undecided’ vote, but also has higher dissatisfaction ratings.

This is far from a normal sort of election, and no one is sure what the outcome will be.

The only thing that’s certain is a high degree of uncertainty. This applies to the election, and to after the election, with a number of legal problems and threats plaguing both candidates.

And then there’s concerns over what the result will mean for the United States.

Is Clinton pre-bought by ‘the establishment’ and would she ensure ‘business as usual’? Would a Clinton presidency become mired in investigations and attempts to impeach her? There are signs that Republicans would render their country ungovernable.

There were hopes that once Trump had his nomination confirmed he would start to show that he could be a responsible leader, but instead he dragged the campaign down even lower. Amongst other things he has virtually promised his followers that Clinton will be locked up.

Are the polls right? Not all of them because there are wide variations and fluctuations.

There seems to be an obsession to try and use polls to predict an outcome, but polls only try to measure opinion and report on that in the past.

In the simplest of elections polls cannot predict who will vote and how they will vote on the day. In an election as riddle with controversy as this one, with widely fluctuating polls, predictions are guesses.

The outcome of the election is uncertain to say the least, as is what will happen afterwards.

WikiLeaks – October fizzer

WikiLeaks have been talking up a big October surprise that was apparently aimed at making Hillary Clinton unelectable. Interfering in a country’s elections, especially when the action would potentially ensure a Donald Trump win, was very controversial to say the least.

Julian Assange was going to make a big announcement from the balcony of the embassy he is holed up in in London. That was switched to a video link.

assangeberlin

But all Assange seems to have announced was that WikiLeaks would be releasing documents ‘related to the US election and ‘three governments’ over the next few weeks, and he denied the release was aimed at damaging Clinton.

Reuters: WikiLeaks’ Assange signals release of documents before U.S. election

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said on Tuesday the group would publish about one million documents related to the U.S. election and three governments in coming weeks, but denied the release was aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton.

Assange, speaking via a video link, said the documents would be released before the end of the year, starting with an initial batch in the coming week.

Assange, 45, who remains at the Ecuadoran embassy in London where he sought refuge in 2012 to avoid possible extradition to Sweden, said the election material was “significant” and would come out before the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election.

He criticized Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, for demonizing his WikiLeaks group’s work after a spate of releases related to the Democratic National Committee before the Democratic political convention this summer.

Assange said her campaign had falsely suggested that accessing WikiLeaks data would expose users to malicious software.

But he denied the release of documents relating to the U.S. election was specifically aimed at damaging Clinton, saying he had been misquoted.

“The material that WikiLeaks is going to publish before the end of the year is of … a very significant moment in different directions, affecting three powerful organizations in three different states as well as … the U.S election process,” he said via a video link at an event marking the group’s 10th anniversary.

He said the material would focus on war, weapons, oil, mass surveillance, the technology giant Google and the U.S. election, but declined to give any details.

October anticlimax.

If you want to watch the non-event (nearly 2 hours long):

A press conference marking WikiLeaks’ ten year anniversary will be held at Volksbuhne Theatre, Berlin on Tuesday, October 4. Among the speakers will be, via videolink, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks Julian Assange, his lawyer Melinda Taylor, WikiLeaks media partner John Goetz and WikiLeaks