Securing Democracy Dispatch

2018-06-21T16:06:20+00:00
December 11, 2017
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News and Commentary

Russian entities pose as U.S. news sites: According to Tim Chambers with DFR Lab, News-Store.com, a new “junk news site” that is retweeted by conservatives and claims to be located in the United States, is actually promoted by bots, “is hosted out of Armenia, is managed by Russian speaking webmasters, and is hosted using Russian domain name servers.” Created to deceive, the site uses a US.com address to promote pro-Trump and pro-conservative political news and popular content to a majority American audience. Chambers finds that while the site was just launched this month, it has already tweeted an average of 800 tweets a day, a clear indication that it is “automated and bot-assisted.” Chambers makes the point that junk news and fake news sites can only exist with the support of third party ad networks, which in this case was Google’s Adsense, stating, “The News-Store website supports display banner ads. This is the primary means for monetizing junk news sites overall.” Bloomberg also reported this week that the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency “operated dozens of Twitter accounts masquerading as local American news sources that collectively garnered more than half-a-million followers” and were even included in stories from more than 100 news outlets in advance of the 2016 presidential election. These imposter accounts, some of which “were impersonating local news outlets in swing states, like @TodayPittsburgh, @TodayMiami and @TodayCincinnati” have been suspended by Twitter. (DFR Lab, Bloomberg)

Russian government declares U.S. news outlets foreign agents: Russia on Tuesday declared Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty foreign agents. In a statement on its website, Russia’s justice ministry said it designated VOA, RFE/RL, and “seven separate Russian or local-language news outlets run by RFE/RL, as ‘fulfilling the role of foreign agents,’” which include Russian-language subsidiaries in the Caucasus, Crimea, Siberia, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan. The designation also covers RFE/RL program Current Time and a website, Factograph. A day after the designation, the Russian State Duma voted 413-1 to bar VOA and RFE/RL from entering its premises. Viewed as a tit-for-tat move after the U.S. Congress revoked press credentials for RT and Sputnik last month, a Duma statement read, “While defending democratic values, the deputies of the State Duma reserve the right to take symmetrical measures in connection with the decision to deprive a number of Russian journalists of accreditation in the U.S. Congress … Any infringement of the fundamental rights and freedoms of man is unacceptable … including the freedom of speech and the right to receive and transmit information.” According to TASS, the Russian news agency, “the restrictive measures may be lifted in case of abolishment of the corresponding decisions to restrict Russian media in the American parliament.” (Reuters, The Washington Post, The Moscow Times, CNN, TASS)

Strategies to combat influence operations: In Foreign Affairs, Vice President Biden and Michael Carpenter discuss Russia’s “assault on democracy and subversion of democratic political systems.” They call on the United States and its allies to strengthen energy cooperation and security, and “prevent Russia’s nonmilitary forms of coercion” by reducing the “vulnerability of their political systems, media environments, financial sectors, and cyber-infrastructure.” Urging Western countries to not “only play defense” but also impose “meaningful costs on Russia” in response to Russian meddling, they support NATO’s forward deployment of troops and military capabilities along NATO’s Eastern Flank and the maintenance of the sanctions regime against Russia. Underscoring the likelihood of continued Russian influence operations, they implore “Washington and its allies [to]stand firm and impose costs on Russia for its violations of international law and other countries’ sovereignty — those it has already committed and those it is likely planning.” As The New York Times reports, Australia is fighting back with a “ban on foreign interference in its politics — either through espionage or financial donations.” Following numerous reports about China’s influence operations in Australia, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated, “Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad.” It will now be a crime for “a person to engage in conduct on behalf of a foreign principal that will influence a political or governmental process” and soon “a bill on electoral reform […] will ban foreign political donations.” (Foreign Affairs, The New York Times)

Russian disinformation from East to West: In The Daily Beast, Anna Nemtsova describes the growing threat of Russian disinformation in the Czech Republic. She cites research from the European Values think tank which has “counted at least 30 websites spreading pro-Putin and pro-Trump propaganda, as well as conspiracies and hoaxes, in the Czech language.” Coda Story calls the onslaught of disinformation in the country a “crisis,” highlighting the rising political star of far-right MP Koten, a frequent purveyor of disinformation about how “the United States wants to liquidate the Slavic race,” who was recently appointed the head of the Czech parliament’s powerful security committee. While Koten denies any connection to Russia, he has mounted a full-throated defense of pro-Russian websites: “If Czech Television or any other TV channel was informing people in a balanced way about the presidential elections in America, or about the conflict in Ukraine … then I think people wouldn’t need to find other sources of media.” On the other side of the continent, Andrés Ortega, writing for Spain’s Royal Institute El Cano, cites the new Spanish Security Strategy, which “identifies online ‘influence and disinformation’ activities as a new threat to national security.” According to Ortega, Western countries are in a “position of weakness” because “we find ourselves in a time of general distrust, distrust in the institutions and in the media, which is exactly what the manipulators are exploiting.” Citing the work of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, he recommends “actively denouncing” disinformation campaigns in combination with a bottom up approach that engages civil society and social media companies in order to create “trust” in institutions. And in the United States, Ben Popken with NBC News conducted an investigation into the content of Russia’s tweets during the 2016 presidential election, finding they accused “Democrats of satanic practices and supporting rape,” themes that trolls were assigned as “specific topics and talking points” in order to meet daily quotas. According to Michael McFaul, quoted in the article, “The objective was to ‘sow doubt and discord in America’ … ‘That’s part of a grander strategy of making everything relative. There is no truth. There is no democracy versus autocracy.’” (The Daily Beast, Coda Story, Royal Institute El Cano, El Pais, NBC News)

Prominent Hungarian politician charged with spying for Russia: Hungarian prosecutors officially charged Béla Kovács, a member of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party who serves as a member of the European Parliament, with “spying on EU institutions for Russia.” In a statement, prosecutors said “This was followed by declaring reasonable suspicion, the essence of which was that the member of parliament had been involved in espionage on behalf of a foreign state for its secret service.” VSquare, an organization promoting independent investigative reporting in the Visegrad region, attempted to trace the source of Kovács fortune that he used to support the Jobbik party when he “appeared out of nowhere in the mid-2000s to help the then-struggling party with offering them at least tens of thousands of euros as an individual donor, and his regional network of likeminded far-right politicians.” Their detailed investigation yielded no information on the source of Kovács wealth, which he supposedly made while working in senior positions at Russian companies in Russia. VSquare concludes that “This means that the origin of Kovács’s money donated throughout the years to Jobbik remains a mystery …” Kovács is facing two to eight years in prison. (Deutsche Welle, Reuters, Vsquare, BBC)

Our Take

Vice News quoted the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Bret Schafer in its coverage of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban Russian athletes from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics after the International Olympic Committee acronym, IOC, quickly became the leading trending hashtag tracked by the Hamilton 68 dashboard. According to Schafer, “The reaction shows, quite clearly, that the narrative being formed around this decision is politically driven … It’s being cast as a tool to discredit Russia and keep Russia down.” (Vice News)

Dashboards Hamilton 68 and Artikel 38

Hamilton 68 dashboard: From December 1 through December 8, we cataloged the following themes on the Hamilton 68 dashboard. After a jury acquitted an undocumented Mexican immigrant accused of murdering a woman in San Francisco in 2015, Kremlin-oriented accounts used the verdict to inflame tensions over race and immigration. On December 1, more than 50 percent of the top and trending hashtags and topics focused on the verdict, with calls to boycott San Francisco and to build a border wall with Mexico. The topic faded rather quickly, however, with news that Michael Flynn had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Since the plea was announced, 18 percent of URLs shared by the network focused on discrediting the FBI, especially after it was revealed that an agent had been demoted for sending anti-Trump texts. Another 8 percent criticized ABC for an erroneous Trump-Flynn report and the Obama administration for allegedly “green lighting” communication between Flynn and Ambassador Kislyak. And finally, there was a transparent attempt to influence public opinion on Sudan. A Sputnik article that was among the top 10 URLs shared by the network claimed that the United States had plans to break Sudan into five states. Later in the week, BBC’s Russia service reported that Russian mercenaries trained in Syria and Ukraine were fighting alongside Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s forces: a clear indication that the Kremlin has a vested interest in shaping the Sudanese narrative.

Artikel 38 dashboard: On December 7, the Artikel 38 dashboard catalogued the Russian influence network in German primarily linked to stories about censorship and surveillance in Germany. It pushed two stories that legitimized xenophobic content as protected by freedom of opinion. First, the network cheered the acquittal of Michael Stürzenberger, the author of a German Islamophobic blog, as a victory for the “right to criticize religions.” Stürzenberger had earlier been convicted of bashing Islam. Then the network reported on another verdict, which decided that T-shirts with the imprint “refugees not welcome” do not constitute instances of sedition. The network also displayed outrage at the German Secretary of the Interior’s push for a new surveillance law. The law aims at stronger reporting requirements for the industry and is thus depicted by the network as a step towards widespread “digital eavesdropping.”

Quote of the Week

“We will never accept Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea … Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns full control of the peninsula to Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine, we join our European partners in maintaining sanctions until Russia withdraws its forces from the Donbas.”

– Secretary Tillerson, U.S. Secretary of State, OSCE Ministerial, December 7, 2017

Worst of the Week

Putin calendars selling like “hot cakes” in the U.K.: In yet another attempt to paint President Putin as a wildly popular international figure (see Putin burger coverage), the Russian media pedaled a story this week about a run on Putin calendars in shops across the United Kingdom. Izvestia claimed that the 2018 calendar featuring alluring spreads of Mr. January-December’s topless Siberian fishing expeditions and other exploits, were “bought out in just a few hours.” The pro-Kremlin website Riafan.ru added that the calendar has “caused great excitement among local residents.” But a BBC investigation revealed that none of the largest calendar retailers in the U.K. are even selling the Putin calendar and that only a few hundred copies were sold from online retailers. Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev concluded that “we [Russia] really have to do something with this mass inferiority complex. You can’t want praise from foreigners so desperately and make it up if you’re not praised.” (BBC, The Guardian)

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