Revisionist power’s disinformation finds fresh victims


Russia-linked hacking and information operations aimed at the US presidential election has overshadowed another related and important story: governments around the globe are increasingly using these same new digital tactics domestically, often to great effect, notes Will Wright, a program officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

For the big technology companies to truly champion the “don’t be evil” values they strive to embody, it is vital that they also address the manipulation of their platforms by nondemocratic actors aiming to manage public opinion and repress political opposition in their own countries, he writes for Open Democracy:

The companies can best do this by listening to targeted activists, independent journalists, and other in-region experts who understand how platforms are being used (and abused) in different countries, and then harnessing their tremendous internal technical capacities and creativity to implement solutions….

A 2017 paper by Oxford Internet Institute researchers concluded that cyber troops are now a “pervasive and global phenomenon,” citing organized social media manipulation in at least 28 countries. Across these countries, they found that every authoritarian regime has run campaigns targeting their own populations, while only a few have also targeted foreign publics.

Bad actors are also constantly evolving their techniques, Wright adds.

The Kremlin-funded Russian broadcaster RT was due to launch its French language news channel on Monday night amid heavy suspicion by the government and President Emmanuel Macron who has dubbed it “an organ of propaganda”, Reuters reports:

RT France has planned a budget of 20 million euros (£17.9 million) for its launch and aims to recruit a total of 150 people by the end next year. By comparison, BFM TV, France’s number one news channel, started with 15 million euros and now has an annual budget of about 60 million euros.

The Syrian volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets have become the target of an extraordinary disinformation campaign that positions them as an al-Qaida-linked terrorist organization (above). The Guardian has uncovered how this counter-narrative is propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government, the paper reports.

“This is the heart of Russian propaganda. In the old days they would try and portray the Soviet Union as a model society. Now it’s about confusing every issue with so many narratives that people can’t recognise the truth when they see it,” said David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century.

Terrorize, polarize, mobilize’

Fake social media accounts were used to spread socially divisive messages in the wake of a spate of domestic terrorists attacks in the UK, according to a study by UK academics, TechCrunch reports:

The researchers, from Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute, assert that the weaponizing of social media to exacerbate societal division requires “a more sophisticated ‘post-event prevent’ stream to counter-terrorism policy”.

“Terrorist attacks are designed as forms of communicative violence that send a message to ‘terrorise, polarise and mobilise’ different segments of the public audience. These kinds of public impacts are increasingly shaped by social media communications, reflecting the speed and scale with which such platforms can make information ‘travel’,” they write.

“It is wrong that any organisation should spread disinformation following a terrorist attack, with the purpose of spreading hatred and making worse an already desperate and confusing situation,” Damian Collins, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, told the BBC. “The methods of organisations such as the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency are becoming increasingly clear.”

The I.R.A.s toxic influence is also evident in the enduring popularity of a provocative post on Instagram, created by a company with connections to the Kremlin, which demonstrates why fighting propaganda on social media will be an uphill battle, the Times adds:

The photograph in the post, of a smiling woman wearing a black hijab, seems innocent. But the text around it was crafted to push buttons. This is a woman, readers are warned, who hates everything from Jews and Christians to lesbians and wine — yet she “complains about Islamophobia.”

Since it was posted on Nov. 8, the image has been “liked” by more than 6,000 people on Instagram, the image-sharing site owned by Facebook. What those people probably did not know was that it was created by the Internet Research Agency, or I.R.A., a so-called Russian troll farm that employed hundreds to influence discussions online by stirring debate in comment sections below online stories and creating provocative posts on social media.

“Instagram is a major distributor and redistributor of I.R.A. propaganda that’s at the very least on par with Twitter,” according to a report published last month by Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. …. “Instagram has all the social aspects of Facebook, but it is more powerful for visual messaging than Facebook,” he told the Times. “It’s all about sharing images from many different sources with a community. It’s more focused on the conversations sparked by those images, on the controversy around them.”

President Trump’s first national security strategy envisions a world in which the United States confronts two “revisionist” powers — China and Russia — that are seeking to change the global status quo, often to the detriment of America’s interests. But while the document outlines a detailed plan to push back against China’s global economic ambitions, it says little about dealing with the kind of cyber and information warfare techniques used by Moscow, the New York Times reports.

“China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity,” the strategy warns. “They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence,” it says, according to reported excerpts.

National Security Adviser H.R.McMaster last week publicly cited Russia’s “sophisticated campaign of subversion and disinformation and propaganda,” noting that the NSS would spell out this threat, and that the United States would respond accordingly, former State Department official Daniel Fried notes in Newsweek.

Russia, McMaster said, has pioneered “new generation warfare” that employs “subversion and disinformation and propaganda using cyber tools, operating across multiple domains, that attempt to divide our communities within our nations and pit them against each other, and try to create crises of confidence.”

The debate over whether social media helps or hinders political movements in authoritarian-leaning countries is as old as the technology itself, but as Facebook is increasingly becoming the dominant news source in many parts of the world, its power to boost or undermine democracy is only gaining strength, one observer suggests.

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