News and Commentary

Continuing social media response to Russian disinformation: Facebook announced that it is developing a tool in its Help Center that will show users a list of their followed or liked Facebook and Instagram accounts that were developed by the Russian IRA troll farm. The new transparency portal will be live by 2018. However, the portal will not show ads or organic posts, which Facebook estimates could have been seen by “more than 140 million people.” While Facebook takes these steps to increase its transparency, The Daily Beast finds that “Twitter has not provided the House and Senate Russia investigations with any additional Kremlin-backed imposter accounts and bots since at least November 1,” after it first identified 201 non-bot IRA accounts on September 28 and an additional 2,752 prior to appearing on Capitol Hill on November 1. BuzzFeed reported on Friday that it discovered 45 additional accounts with close connections to the accounts that Twitter reported to Congress, but which didn’t appear on Twitter’s original list. Only after BuzzFeed’s investigation did Twitter remove the newly identified accounts. According to BuzzFeed, “The relative ease of discovery raises serious questions as to just how many Russian-linked bots may still be active on Twitter, how the company identifies and removes such accounts, and whether its process for identifying accounts for its evidence was inadequate.” (TechCrunch, Slate, The Guardian, The Daily Beast)

Europe prepares to fight disinformation ahead of elections in 2018: As evidence of Russia’s meddling in elections across the transatlantic space continues to build, former Italian Prime Minister and leader of the Democratic Party Matteo Renzi has “ask[ed] the social networks, and especially Facebook, to help us have a clean electoral campaign … The quality of the democracy in Italy today depends on a response to these issues.” According to The New York Times, Renzi is fearful of “a misinformation campaign … devised to damage one of the last major center-left governments standing in Europe.” Sweden is also reinforcing its defenses against disinformation warfare aimed at “trying to turn Sweden’s strength — its open society — into a weakness” in advance of 2018 elections, according to The Local. Already targeted in disinformation campaigns that appear in other countries, such as forged documents that incorrectly portrayed Swedish officials as “cover[ing] up alleged war crimes to protect Ukrainian interests,” Sweden is promoting factual information that will be “shared farther and wider than the fake stories” and literacy media as early as primary school. As disinformation campaigns that operated during the 2016 U.S. presidential election show the divisive and emotive character of these campaigns, Claire Wardle, a research fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center, cautions “’people’s relationship to information is entirely emotional … People want to consume information that makes them feel good, because it reaffirms their worldview … disinformation agencies’ understand that psychology.” Europe is stepping up its efforts to combat disinformation, as European Council President Donald Tusk announced the European Union will fund the EU’s East Stratcom taskforce for the first time with a budget of one million euros annually through 2020. Previously, member state contributions were the main source of funding for the East Stratcom taskforce. Announcing the decision, Tusk warned Europe about the real threats from “cyber-attacks, fake news, and hybrid war.” The U.K. also pledged more than 110 million euros over five years to counter Russian disinformation in the former Soviet space. (The New York Times, The Local, Salon, The Guardian, EU Observer)

Putin retaliates for RT’s FARA listing: Putin signed into law amendments that will target foreign media outlets in retaliation for the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to register RT under FARA. According to the text of the law, “media that receive financial assistance from foreign states or organizations can be recognized as foreign agents, while the decision on which outlets will be classified as ‘foreign agents’ will be taken by the Ministry of Justice.” BBG CEO John Lansing, vowed that RFE/RL and VOA, likely targets of the Russian law, “will remain committed to our mission, stipulated by U.S. law, to provide accurate, objective, and comprehensive journalism and other content to our global audiences, including in the Russian Federation.” Lansing further states; “Russian media, including RT and Sputnik, are free to operate in the United States and can be, and are, carried by U.S. cable television outlets and FM radio stations. However, U.S international media, including VOA and RFE/RL, are banned from television and radio in Russia.” In addition to VOA and RFE/RL, BBC and USA Today identified at least nine other foreign broadcasters that could be targeted, including CNN and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. (CNN, PRNewswire, BBC, USA Today)

Reporting reveals Russian influence in the U.K.: The BBC uncovered documents that show Russia’s Fancy Bear, the DNC hackers linked to Russian intelligence, used servers in the U.K. to “attack the German parliament, hijack traffic meant for a Nigerian government website and target Apple devices.” According to the BBC, “Fancy Bear had access to significant funds and made use of online financial services, some of which were later closed in anti-money laundering operations.” The Daily Mail uncovered a “Russian link to Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s successful plot to persuade Theresa May to take a tougher stance on Brexit.” According to The Daily Mail “a secret letter” sent by the Cabinet Ministers to the Prime Minister was co-drafted by Shanker Singham, economics director at the Legatum Institute, “a free-market U.K. think-tank founded by a tycoon who made a fortune in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union,” and who, according to The Daily Mail, “also helped President Vladimir Putin’s associates to take control of Russia’s state energy giant Gazprom.” Express U.K. reports “The investigation suggests that Mr. Singham has held at least seven secret meetings with Ministers and officials at the Department for Exiting the EU.” Labour MP Liam Byrne, a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has called for a thorough investigation into “this think-tank’s relationship with the government” following The Daily Mail’s report. And a Guardian investigation found that Russian IRA troll-factory members were “quoted more than 80 times across British-read media outlets before Twitter revealed their identity and banned them,” raising “concerns about the extent of Russian penetration of the British media, which would have disseminated their messages to a much wider audience than they might get on Twitter alone.”(BBC, The Daily Mail, Express U.K., The National, The Guardian)

FBI fails to notify U.S. officials they were targeted by Russian hackers: According to an Associated Press report, the FBI knew for at least a year that Fancy Bear was attempting to break into the personal Gmail accounts of U.S. officials and neglected to notify those officials in the lead up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The FBI responded to the AP report with a statement that read in part: “The FBI routinely notifies individuals and organizations of potential threat information.” The AP conducted 80 interviews with targeted officials, finding only “two instances in which the bureau informed the officials.” The report highlights continued questions about whether the U.S. is adequately postured to contend with evolving cyber threats. (Associated Press, The Hill)

Our Take

Alliance for Securing Democracy Director Laura Rosenberger joined Kori Schake, David Sanger, and David Rothkopf on Deep State Radio November 22 to wrestle with tough questions about Russia’s interventions in democracies. Addressing how hacking and disinformation in our elections will continue into the future, discussants called on us to respect our values while devising policies and solutions to counter and deter foreign actors from meddling in our democracies.

GMF Transatlantic Post Doctoral Fellow Giovanna De Maio appeared on Voice of America to discuss Russia’s ties to Italian Eurosceptic forces Lega Nord and Five Star Movement. De Maio discusses how Five Star Movement, which is leading in the polls going into national elections in 2018, recently called into question their ongoing ties to Russia. However, these ties are worth monitoring, as we have seen growing Russian support for other Eurosceptic forces influence the outcome of elections across Europe.

Dashboards Hamilton 68 and Artikel 38

Hamilton 68 dashboard: Since the launch of the dashboard in August, pro-Kremlin views on conflicts in Syria and Ukraine have been the two most prominent geopolitical themes promoted by monitored accounts on Twitter. Over the past several weeks, however, there has been a far greater emphasis on the supposed “Islamification” of Europe. Among the most popular URLs shared by the network, several headlines promoted anti-Muslim messages, including: “For the Third Time in Two Weeks Migrants Riot in Hellhole Brussels” and “France is in Panic and Close to a Migrant Explosion.” The increased focus on Europe’s Muslim minority suggests an effort to appeal to the xenophobic instincts of the targeted American population in order to degrade transatlantic bonds.

Artikel 38 dashboard: With coalition talks falling apart last week, the Russian-oriented Twitter network in Germany has been gleefully anticipating new elections. Accusing Merkel of hijacking democracy by not standing down immediately, the network has been predicting massive gains for AfD in the upcoming vote. That is not to say that old leitmotivs have been forgotten, as this morning’s top story narrates a violent act of aggression by “Southern looking people” on a group of “youngsters coming back from a party.”

Quote of the Week

“We’re not talking enough about disinformation and how we counter disinformation … That is where a broader conversation needs to be happening here in Congress. Because we do not have a strategy on dealing with disinformation from a nation-state actor… I say we have to broaden the conversation. Were they trying to influence the campaign, our elections? Yes. But they were doing it to erode trust in our institutions. The question becomes — how do you counter that?”

– Representative Will Hurd, Republican Representative from Texas to the U.S. House of Representatives, The Hill, November 22, 2017

Worst of the Week

From the pages of the Daily Crusader — a website with the stated objective of “saving the West” — comes a fear-mongering article about a local police department in the English county of Essex that supposedly adopted a scimitar — a traditional Muslim sword — as part of its logo. The article suggests that the use of the scimitar (which the author notes is used by Jihadists to behead captives) is yet further evidence of the Islamic takeover of Europe. A similar story circulated by Kremlin-oriented accounts last week advanced a completely fictitious rumor that Sweden was in the process of replacing the cross on its flag with a crescent. Both stories are part of a larger campaign to depict Europe as a continent whose values are under attack from “Muslim invaders.” (Daily Crusader)

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