News and Commentary

Social media companies continue to respond to new revelations: In an updated blog post on its investigation of Russia’s use of its platform to interfere in the 2016 election, Twitter announced that the number of people who retweeted, quoted, replied to, mentioned, or liked “accounts potentially connected to a propaganda effort by a Russian government-linked organization known as the Internet Research Agency” has doubled from 677,775 to 1.4 million. According to Recode, “That’s more than double the amount that Twitter initially identified — and perhaps still just a fraction of the full universe of users who may have witnessed Kremlin propaganda over that period.” YouTube’s algorithm, which ranks billions of videos to identify the 20 videos that show up in the site’s “up next” section, was also subject to scrutiny this week by Paul Lewis. In The Guardian, Lewis profiles Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube employee, who believes that “YouTube is something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online … The recommendation algorithm is not optimizing for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy.” So Chaslot created a program to “explore bias in YouTube content” which he used to analyze activity during the 2016 presidential race, finding that “YouTube was six times more likely to recommend videos that aided Trump than his adversary.” Although Lewis states “YouTube presumably never programmed its algorithm to benefit one candidate over another … that is exactly what happened.” To address some of these concerns, YouTube announced a number of changes Friday that will “give users more context for videos promoting conspiracy theories or state-sponsored content,” including labeling “all videos coming from what it identifies as state-funded broadcasters,” and the company is considering “surfacing relevant videos from credible news sources alongside clips peddling conspiracy theories.” According to The Economist, “The Internet and social media are creating entirely new opportunities for influence operations (IO) and the mass manipulation of opinion,” writing that the “technologies [that] allow IO accurately to target those people likely to be most susceptible to their message” are in effect magnifying the “echo-chamber … where users see only news and opinions that confirm their prejudices.” (Twitter, Recode, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist)

The Kremlin targets new audiences: Charles Davis, writing for The Daily Beast, finds that Redfish, a new “Berlin-based media collective, launched with a promise to deliver ‘radical, in-depth grassroots features’” is actually run by staff who last worked for Russian government media. The organization’s first report, which covered the Grenfell Tower fire in the U.K. that killed over 70 people, ran exclusively on RT before being acknowledged by Vice as a “fantastic example of amateur community-produced media.” And a new digital content platform that is registered to RT’s parent company entitled “In the NOW” is targeting millennials and has more followers than RT America, France, Deutsch, and U.K. combined. DFR Lab describes how the channel’s content frequently promotes a pro-Kremlin agenda, including with its recent piece that accuses “the international community of failing to give Moscow the credit for ‘destroying ISIS.’” (The Daily Beast, DFR Lab)

Regulating social media — new actions by the FEC, CA, and NY: Nextgov reported that the Federal Election Commission has begun drafting regulation that would require online political ads, which advocate for a specific candidate, to “contain a disclaimer about where they originated.” “It’s all about disclosure,” said FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, “You know where the information is coming from and it allows citizens to make smart choices.” And states may be leading the way in social media regulation, the Los Angeles Times reported that Assemblyman Marc Levine of California introduced a bill that “would require a disclaimer to be displayed for automated accounts on sites such as Facebook or Twitter,” as well as verify that an actual person is purchasing the social media ads. On the other side of the United States, New York attorney Eric T. Schneiderman has opened an investigation into Florida-based Devumi, a company that has sold millions of fake followers to celebrities, politicians and anyone else seeking social media influence. The New York Times reported that “at least 55,000 of its ‘bot’ accounts used names, pictures, hometowns and other details taken from people on Twitter,” and that “More than a million followers have [now] disappeared” from the accounts of prominent Twitter users. On Tuesday, Senators Jerry Moran and Richard Blumenthal asked the Federal Trade Commission to begin investigating Devumi and other companies like it. But how does one recognize a fake account on social media? DFR Lab has outlined principles to do just that. They suggest analyzing the account’s activity by assessing whether the pattern of posting resembles that of an actual human; looking at the degree of anonymity and the number of original posts since bots typically retweet without providing much new or original content; whether there are stolen or shared photos; and the type of content the account promotes, whether single-issue or shared content with other users. (Nextgov, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, DFR Lab)

The administration delivered its Kremlin List: The Trump administration this week released its “Kremlin list” naming 114 senior Russian political figures and 96 oligarchs. The list, which was mandated by Section 241 of the CAATSA bill passed nearly unanimously by Congress last summer, was intended to be a who’s who of President Putin’s inner circle and individuals involved in corrupt activities. Instead, it is an uncritical list of names taken from the Kremlin’s official website and the Forbes list of Russian billionaires, which Julia Ioffe calls “as blunt as it is comical.” Following release of the report, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Anders Aslund wrote that “Somebody high up — no one knows who at this point — threw out the experts’ work […] rendering CAATSA ineffective and mocking U.S. sanctions on Russia overall.” Yulia Latynina, a prominent Kremlin critic who spoke with The Daily Beast remarked that she was “shocked” by the names on the list, which included “businessman Yuriy Shefler, who lost his business when it got eaten by Putin’s law enforcement agencies,” while excluding members of Putin’s inner circle, such as “the nationalist oligarch behind the Donbas war, Konstantin Malofeyev,” and Evgeny Prigozhin, the man behind Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). Lawmakers also responded to the administration’s decision not to levy sanctions under Section 231 of the bill, which mandates sanctions against individuals or entities “who engage in major transactions with Russia’s military and intelligence entities.” While Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin assured lawmakers that “there will be sanctions that come out of [the Kremlin list] report” and that the department is already “working on it.” (Treasury Department, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Atlantic Council, The Daily Beast, Lawfare, CNN)

Secretary Tillerson visits Latin America as Senators call on him to address foreign interference: Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez called on Secretary of State Tillerson to address Russian meddling in Mexico’s upcoming elections during his week-long tour through Latin America. The two senators warned that Russia is using “sophisticated technology” to influence the presidential election and emphasized the importance of “strong, independent electoral systems in Mexico and Latin America more broadly.” Secretary Tillerson, warned Mexico to “pay attention to Russian meddling in elections around the world,” and speaking prior to his departure, said that “Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people,” referring to growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region. Andrew Downie of the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote that Brazil’s federal police, with the backing of the Superior Electoral Court, is creating a commission “to decide how to combat false news items published on social media platforms and websites” ahead of the October elections. According to CPJ, “the proposed law would establish what constitutes criminal behavior and give the police a tool to fight the practice”. Cristina Tardaguila, director of the independent fact checking organization Agencia Lupa in Rio de Janeiro, has advocated for media literacy over legislation arguing that “It’s important that the average Brazilian understands that they are going to see a lot of fake news in the upcoming campaigns and that they have a way to check it out.” (The Hill, The Washington Post, Brisbane Times, Foreign Policy, CPJ, piauí)

Russia denies interference as evidence builds of Russian and Chinese malign activity: European Values think tank published a report on foreign interference in the recent Czech presidential election, finding that a “Massive disinformation campaign was orchestrated by the pro-Zeman and pro-Kremlin disinformation community of several dozen disinformation-creating websites in order to demobilize some of the voters who would have voted for Jiří Drahoš,” which was “organized by unknown entities through direct-email chains.” Additionally, they found that the personal debt of Zeman’s campaign manager Martin Nejedlý was paid off by the Moscow headquarters of Lukoil and the campaign’s finances were conducted in a manner that makes it difficult to know who “really provided the majority of campaign funding for President Zeman.” However, “Disclosed funding of [Zeman’s] campaign and also the third-party which organized [the] smearing billboard and advertisement campaign against Jiří Drahoš has links to China,” underscoring the notion that other state actors are beginning to learn from and use elements of Russia’s toolkit in order to interfere in democracies. According to John Sipher, speaking with Alliance for Securing Democracy Advisory Council member and former acting director of the CIA Mike Morell on the podcast Intelligence Matters, this activity is a continuation of a pattern: “As we saw in 2016, efforts to interfere in our elections and create confusion, and disinformation, and deception, and all of these things is part and parcel of what they’re doing to all Western powers, so all throughout Europe they’re trying to support fringe groups, support violent groups, create chaos and problems, and around the world, almost anywhere we are, they’re trying to do the opposite of what we’re doing.” In Politico, former assistant secretary of state for Eurasia Victoria Nuland describes her response to Russia’s hacking of the DNC and release of DNC emails during the 2016 presidential election, stating “That’s when the hairs really went up on the back of our necks.” Nuland believed then and now that “Russia appeared to be trying to ‘discredit the democratic process’ in the United States as part of a concerted 2016 strategy” that marked “a major new escalation in ‘an ideological struggle’ with Putin’s resurgent Russia.” As Putin continues to deny Russia’s involvement in interference campaigns across the transatlantic space, CEPA’s Donald Jensen describes the Kremlin’s response to Senator Cardin’s report on Russian interference: Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of RT, called the Cardin report “a dull student report about how we assaulted democracy in all countries at once. Boring, my friends. Wake me up in five years when they find nothing and reluctantly acknowledge that there was no Russian interference.” (European Values, Intelligence Matters, Politico, CEPA)

Russian spy chiefs meet with CIA Director Pompeo: According to RFE/RL, the directors of Russia’s three major intelligence agencies—Sergei Naryshkin of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Aleksandr Bortnikov of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Lieutenant General Igor Korobov of the Russian General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) — met with U.S. officials in recent days to discuss “terrorism and other matters.” Former CIA station chief in Moscow told RFE/RL, “I can’t recall any time in the last 15 years” that all three Russian spy agency directors were in Washington at the same time. The Hill pointed out that not only was Naryshkin sanctioned by the Obama Administration in 2014, but he was also included on the newly released Treasury Department Kremlin list. (RFE/RL, The Hill)

Disinformation in the U.S. — the interconnected information ecosystem: Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, told the BBC “there had been no significant diminishing of Russian attempts at subversion in Europe and the U.S.,” while Senator Ben Cardin criticized Trump for not addressing Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and echoed Pompeo’s warning that “Russia is a major security threat to the United States of America,” and “It’s very likely they’ll be involved in our 2018 elections.” Molly McKew, in Politico, discusses how Russian trolls promoted the #releasethememo hashtag, finding “The vote [to make public the memo] marked the culmination of a targeted, 11-day information operation that was amplified by computational propaganda techniques and aimed to change both public perceptions and the behavior of American lawmakers.” Disinformation promoted and disseminated by the Kremlin continues to influence our domestic media environment; however, according to Nina Jankowicz, efforts by Twitter, Facebook, and Google have overlooked “the phenomenon [of] homegrown purveyors” of disinformation, which “is a huge part of the disinformation ecosystem. Its amplification of neo-Nazi rhetoric, abusive content and false or misleading stories spread by accounts with huge numbers of followers all affected rhetoric surrounding the 2016 election.” Interesting, however, that these are the same narratives the Kremlin promotes, underscoring the existence of domestic Kremlin-affiliated networks that amplify Kremlin content. And Jankowicz, writing in the Wilson Quarterly, posits that in our efforts to play Whack-a-Mole with disinformation narratives, we are” still neglecting to protect the people most susceptible to the Kremlin’s narratives and overlooking much of why they’re particularly vulnerable. By extension, we’re neglecting to protect our democracy itself,” urging us to address the “societal failures, that allowed Russian meddling to become so effective.” The New York Times reported on a new group, the Center for Humane Technology, founded by early employees at Facebook and Google, who are working to make technology healthier by educating “students, parents, and teachers about the dangers of technology, including the depression that can come from heavy use of social media.” Its first project, a “Ledger of Harms,” will “include data on the health effects of different technologies and ways to make products that are healthier.” (BBC, CNN, Politico, The New York Times, Wilson Quarterly)

The role of independent hackers in state-led cyber-attacks: In a new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Tim Maurer finds that “More and more states are using supposedly independent hackers as proxies to project power both at home and abroad,” and that governments are not prepared to address these “proxies and how they facilitate state actors to develop and quickly deploy offensive cyber capabilities.” While attributing cyber-attacks to state actors has become easier, even once attribution occurs Maurer argues that “they have to fear few consequences,” in part due to the fact that states think about cyber-threats differently, with some, such as Iran, equally as concerned about the effect of dissidents and espionage as with information security. Maurer states that if the U.S. government is successful at raising the costs on these actors, they may well “tighten the leash on their proxies;” otherwise, they will likely just “invest a little more time and money to become stealthier and better at hiding their tracks.” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

Our Take

he Alliance for Securing Democracy’s David Salvo and Bret Schafer speak with GMF’s Rachel Tausendfreund and Peter Sparding in the third episode of the Out of Order podcast entitled “From Russia with Love: Disinformation and Division,” in which they examine Russia’s hybrid toolbox of trouble, and what it means for the future of the liberal international order as we know it. They talk Twitter, the Hamilton 68 disinformation dashboard, Russian money trails, and covert invasions, as they respond to the questions — How much success is Russia having in its efforts to undermine Western democracy? And how much should we care? (GMF)

Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, spoke at the Atlantic Council on January 31 about the administration’s Kremlin Report and failure to issue new sanctions against the Putin regime. Ms. Rosenberger appeared alongside Ambassador Daniel Fried, Dr. Andrei Illarionovm, and Dr. Andrei Piontkovsky. (Atlantic Council)

Hamilton 68 dashboard

Hamilton 68 dashboard: The URLs shared by pro-Putin accounts on Hamilton 68 not only give context to the hashtags and topics being discussed by monitored accounts, they also reveal the media landscape from which these accounts source their information. At any given time, the top ten domain list on Hamilton is largely indistinguishable from what one might expect from organic, right-leaning American social networks (with the exception of the presence of RT and Sputnik), but analysis of the top 100 URLs shows a much more complex tapestry. In January, the 16th most linked-to domain was Russian news agency TASS, Russia Insider was 20th, Tzarism (a blog focusing on the post-Soviet space) was 29th, Fort-Russ (a pro-Kremlin blog) was 32nd, and Stalker Zone (an anti-Ukrainian blog) was 33rd. These sites (and many others in the top 100) are generally not sites that average Americans of any political persuasion access, and their presence on the top 100 list suggests that our pro-Kremlin network uses popular American content to attract eyeballs to content that is of more direct importance to the Russia’s geopolitical agenda.

Quote of the Week

“I have every expectation that they will continue to try to do that [interfere in the 2018 midterms] … I haven’t seen a significant decrease in [Russia’s] activity … Think about the scale of the two economies … The Chinese have a much bigger footprint upon which to execute that mission than the Russians do.”

– Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, January 29, 2018 

Worst of the Week

The effort to discredit the Mueller investigation took a new turn this week, as Judicial Watch published a story (later picked up by several far-right blogs) that attempted to connect special counsel Mueller to an alleged FBI cover-up of the connections between a Florida-based Saudi family and the 9/11 hijackers. Mueller’s involvement in the Sarasota Saudis Affair is largely unclear, other than references in court documents to Mueller being “briefed” about the investigation. But the supposed non-partisan Judicial Watch claims that this revelation “chips away at Mueller’s credibility as special counsel to investigate if Russia influenced the 2016 presidential election.” Judicial Watch takes additional, seemingly irrelevant shots at Mueller, claiming that as FBI director “Mueller bent over backwards to please radical Islamist groups and caved into their demands.” Unsurprisingly, the effort to tarnish Mueller and his investigation were seized upon by Kremlin-influenced accounts on Twitter: Last week, three of the top ten stories featured Judicial Watch’s reporting. (Judicial Watch)

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