News and Commentary

Russian disinformation during Brexit: Following a request from Britain’s Electoral Commission, Facebook and Twitter provided data on Russian-purchased political advertising, but the focus on purchased advertising left open the question of how much pro-Brexit organic content was posted by Russian trolls and bots that have not been identified. Facebook announced that Russia’s Internet Research Agency purchased only three Brexit-related advertisements for a total of 97 cents and Twitter found only six ads promoting Brexit that it could link to Russian sources. British MP and Chair of the Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Damian Collins responded to the tech giants, stating, “No work has been done by Facebook to look for other fake accounts and pages that could be linked to Russian-backed agencies and which were active during the EU referendum,” seeming to urge the company to look at the prospect of additional Russian troll farms that promoted pro-Brexit content. According to The New York Times, “Facebook is by far the most widely used social media platform in Britain. But because the content of its pages is not publicly accessible, researchers seeking evidence of Russian interference in the Brexit vote have focused mainly on Twitter.” (BBC, The New York Times, Bloomberg)

Russia accused of meddling in Scottish independence referendum: Ben Nimmo from DFRLab assesses that Russia meddled in the U.K.’s other recent referendum, the Scottish independence referendum, finding pro-Russian accounts used social media to spread false allegations that the vote was rigged to ensure victory for pro-U.K. campaigners. Nimmo believes “The allegations of fraud demonstrably had an impact; pro-Kremlin accounts demonstrably boosted those allegations. The anger and disappointment felt by many yes voters were entirely sincere [and] those sentiments were fanned by pro-Kremlin trolls, in a manner characteristic of Russian influence operations.” Nimmo is calling on the U.K. to expand its investigation of Russia’s Brexit activity to include events in Scotland. As the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Dave Salvo and Etienne Soula wrote earlier this year, the Kremlin spread pro-independence content throughout social media platforms in the run up to the vote and even installed a Sputnik studio in the Scottish capital, as part of its pattern of supporting separatist movements across Europe. (The Guardian, The Herald, GMF)

Disinformation targets elections and gets sexist: The Washington Post reported this week on Russian policy a year after Russia meddled in the United States presidential election, citing U.S. intelligence officials who assess that Russian president Putin and his inner circle “regard the 2016 ‘active measures’ campaign … as a resounding, if incomplete, success,” calling into question what United States policy measures have been put in place to deter and defend against such activities in the future. Freedom House’s Michael J. Abramowitz, writing in The New York Times, finds that disinformation has played an important role in at least 18 elections over the past year “From the Philippines and Ecuador to Turkey and Kenya, governing parties used paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites, and propaganda outlets to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves.” He states that while “There is no panacea; constant vigilance and education are required to attack this problem.” Denise Clifton discusses in Mother Jones how “Kremlin-linked news sites and trolls have battled vigorously on behalf of Roy Moore” to influence Alabama’s senate race, finding that they “attacked the credibility of the women accusing Moore as well as U.S. news media reporting the allegations.” And in Coda Story, Nina Jankowicz discusses the onslaught of disinformation experienced by “female politicians and other high profile women worldwide [who] are facing a deluge of what you could call sexualized disinformation. It mixes old ingrained sexist attitudes with the anonymity and reach of social media in an effort to destroy women’s reputations and push them out of public life.” (The Washington Post, The New York Times, Mother Jones, Coda Story)

Resisting Russian disinformation in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan: The United States Embassy in Tbilisi is ramping up its work with Georgian officials in rural areas to improve “official messaging promoting Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration with [the] Georgian public” in order to combat both Russian disinformation and “conservative elements in Georgia” who “argue that ties with Europe are harmful to Georgia’s economy and its traditional cultural values …. [and] that Russian hegemony is, ultimately, an unavoidable reality.” Radio Ukraine announced that it is offering a new service to combat Russian narratives targeting another vulnerable population — Crimean Tatars. The service, which will begin next year, will broadcast in the Crimean Tatar’s native language against the wishes of the local official in charge of communications who told Sputnik last week that “only Russian TV and radio will be broadcast to Crimea — all states have to take certain measures to defend their territory and information space.” In Kazakhstan, where “Roughly 75 percent of [the] population, including its substantial native Russian population and urbanized Kazakhs, regularly tune into Russian broadcasts,” attempts to limit Russian broadcasting in the country have stalled as channels NTV-Mir, RTR Planeta, Russia 24, and Russia Culture will continue broadcasting until at least early next year. In order to combat Russia’s reach into the Kazakh media space, “the government has been investing heavily in content this year, including a 10-part epic widely marketed as Kazakhstan’s own ‘Game of Thrones.’” (Coda Story, BBC, The Diplomat)

Cyber weapons facilitate influence operations: Nick Espinosa in Forbes cites Russia’s cyber actions in Ukraine as an example of what he calls “warfare 101,” where they hacked “into a major power plant in Ukraine and knock[ed] out power to roughly 80,000 Ukrainians and then, to really drive the point home, also allegedly hit the phone system in the area with a denial-of-service attack so no one could actually call the power plant to alert representatives of the issue.” Espinosa cautions that Russia is already using this strategy in the United States where they are combining their cyber-attacks with a hefty dose of disinformation. Ars Technica reported that Internet “Traffic sent to and from Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft was briefly routed through a previously unknown Russian Internet provider Wednesday under circumstances researchers said was suspicious and intentional,” raising questions about the “trust and reliability of communications sent over the global network.” Meduza reported that the confession of Russian hacker Konstantin Kozlovsky that he acted “under the command of Russian Federal Security Service agents” when he hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016, has been authenticated by two sources and posted to Kozlovsky’s Facebook account. These reports come as the chief of the British defense staff, Sir Stuart Peach, warned that “Russia could pose a major threat to the U.K. and other NATO nations by cutting underwater cables essential for international commerce and the Internet.” (Forbes, Ars Technica, Meduza, The Guardian)

Chinese influence operations gaining momentum: Josh Rogin writes in The Washington Post this week about the extent of China’s influence operations in the United States, which he regards as undertaken to “defend its authoritarian system from attack and at most to export it to the world at America’s expense,” whose strategy is “to cut off critical discussion of China’s government, then to co-opt American influencers in order to promote China’s narrative.” Rogin describes how this agenda is pursued through investments in academic institutions, urging policymakers to acknowledge “the Chinese combination of technology, coercion, pressure, exclusion, and economic incentives is beyond anything this country has faced before.” Following Australia’s announcement on December 5 that it is enacting laws to “prevent political interference from foreign countries,” Australia’s Ambassador to China was summoned for a talk with a high-ranking Chinese official on “the relevant issue of our bilateral relations.” The moves come as Australia is recognizing the extent of Chinese investment in its political parties and interference on Australian campuses. The Sydney Morning Herald reported this week on an open letter shared on Chinese social media that urges “Chinese Australians to ‘take down the far-right Liberal Party ruling party’ by voting against John Alexander in the Bennelong byelection.” The letter, which is attributed to “a group of Chinese who call Australia home,” reads in part, “When we look at the Liberal Party we see it’s already totally different from before. It’s a far-right ruling party and they are privately against China, against Chinese, against ethnic-Chinese migrants and against Chinese international students.” (The Washington Post, The Diplomat, The Sydney Morning Herald)

Our Take

Mother Jones quoted the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Bret Schafer discussing the ongoing trending of Roy Moore-related content on the Hamilton 68 dashboard, stating “The fact that this has continued for so many weeks means that this is clearly something the accounts have latched onto.” (Mother Jones)

Dashboards Hamilton 68 and Artikel 38

Hamilton 68 dashboard: The Alabama Senate election took center stage this week on Hamilton 68 dashboard, as Kremlin-oriented accounts made a last-ditch effort to promote and support Republican candidate Roy Moore. The day of the election, was the second most commonly shared URL on the dashboard, and the weeks-long effort to discredit his accusers and the “fake news media” continued unabated. After Moore’s lose, an article claiming election fraud in Alabama was widely circulated among monitored accounts. The source of the information was a for-profit fake news site run out of Macedonia that is known for publishing salacious and completely fabricated stories (see worst of the week). It should be noted that the network’s pro-Moore stance was likely less about the Kremlin’s interest in Southern politics and more about gaining a position of influence among Moore’s supporters.

Artikel 38 dashboard: The release of new archives from the organization the National Security Archive are being used by some to bolster the Kremlin’s long-standing claim that the Western powers broke their promise to not expand NATO “one inch eastward” after Germany’s reunification was a top topic on the Artikel 38 dashboard on Friday. An RT article that was the second most shared URL at one point on Friday asserted that the release vindicates what Putin and other have claimed for years while being accused of lying and spreading propaganda. The article highlights a quote from former CIA Director Robert Gates’s criticizing the “pressing ahead with expansion of NATO eastward [in the 1990s], when Gorbachev and others were led to believe that wouldn’t happen.” The disputed claim has long been a point of contention between Russia and the West, and the new revelations could be an effective propaganda tool for the Kremlin, particularly as it relates to efforts to influence Germany’s Russian-speaking population.

Quote of the Week

“We’re facing a threat from Russia that involves also so-called new generation warfare … And these are very sophisticated campaigns of subversion — and disinformation, and propaganda, using cybertools 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.”

– H.R. McMaster, United States National Security Adviser, December 12, 2017 

Worst of the Week

The fake news site (DailyPostFeed) in Macedonia, which posted a story claiming that Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer had an affair with a friend of his teenage daughter (who later committed suicide, according to the article), was among the most-shared URLs on Hamilton 68 dashboard on Monday. The article appeared around the same time a forged document accusing the senator of sexual misconduct with a former staffer was sent to multiple mainstream media outlets. While that document is now the focus of a criminal investigation, the fabricated story about Schumer’s affair remains on DailyPostFeed, a site enabled and supported by third party advertisers in the United States. Many ad networks have policies against advertising on fake news sites; however, DailyPostFeed and other for-profit fake news operations skirt those rules by providing a disclaimer (usually buried on the site) that claim that the content is “satirical.” If the comment section on the Schumer article is any indicator, it seems most readers miss that message. (DailyPostFeed)

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.