What started out as a trickle of news stories suggesting social media was being manipulated to influence public opinion is now turning into a flood.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has summoned executives from Twitter to testify about the role of automated accounts, known as bots, in spreading propaganda and misinformation in the United States. The New York Times says the short form platform may have played a larger role than previously reported in the 2016 elections.
Facebook is giving up images of over three thousand ads paid for (in rubles, according to Sen. Mark Warner) by Russian entities attempting to influence the voting public. There is widespread speculation the $100,000 in direct payments from overseas accounts is just the tip of the iceberg.
Mother Jones is running with the headline: Fake News on Twitter Flooded Swing States That Helped Trump Win:
Millions of tweets were flying furiously in the final days leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. And in closely fought battleground states that would prove key to Donald Trump’s victory, they were more likely than elsewhere in America to be spreading links to fake news and hyper-politicized content from Russian sources and WikiLeaks, according to new research published Thursday by Oxford University.
Nationwide during this period, one polarizing story was typically shared on average for every one story produced by a professional news organization. However, fake news from Twitter reached higher concentrations than the national average in 27 states, 12 of which were swing states—including Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, where Trump won by slim margins.
There remains little doubt these efforts were directed by Russia.
In studying Russia’s propaganda efforts targeting both domestic and international populations, the Oxford researchers found evidence of increasing military expenditures on social media operations since 2014. They also learned of a sophisticated training system for workers employed by Putin’s disinformation apparatus: “They have invested millions of dollars into training staff and setting targets for them,” Bradshaw says. She described a working environment where English training is provided to improve messaging for Western audiences: Supervisors hand out topical talking points to include in coordinated messaging, workers’ content is edited, and output is audited, with rewards given to more productive workers.
What is doubtful, in my opinion, are claims of their effectiveness. My belief is the real target was our version of democracy. From what I have seen–and I’ll cover this on another day– voter suppression efforts had the most impact on election results. The autocratic tendencies of the current administration serve to amplify these disruptive Russian messages, rather than the other way around.
None-the-less, Twitter bots are still active.
An account for the “Boston Antifa” disappeared yesterday after Tweeting fake news about the NFL. The sender forgot to turn off their geotag, telling the world they were tweeting from Vladivostok.
Earlier this year the same social media account claimed credit for an anti-racism banner unfurled at a Boston Red Sox game.
— Rob Tornoe (@RobTornoe) September 27, 2017
From MassLive.com (who, unfortunately, bought the cover story the account was run by pranksters living in Oregon):
Boston Antifa’s antics have tricked conservative and mainstream media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, Townhall, RT, Gateway Pundit and Reuters. Independent Journal Review writer Benny Johnson dedicated a story to aggregating the fake pages’ most controversial social media posts, under the headline “Alleged Boston Antifa thanks Hillary Clinton, Democrats for their support as they burn American flag.”
Russian Internet trolls spent last weekend focusing on the NFL controversy, according to a statement made by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) during a hearing with the heads of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center.
From the Washington Post:
Russian trolls, he said, were cynically pushing both sides of the argument over whether players should take a knee at the playing of the national anthem before NFL games. Players have been doing so as a silent protest against police treatment of minorities, though critics — including President Trump — argue that doing so disrespects the American flag and members of the U.S. military.
“We watched even this weekend, the Russians and their troll farms, and their Internet folks, start hash-tagging out ‘take a knee’ and also hash-tagging out ‘Boycott NFL,’ ’’ Lankford said.
The Russians’ goal, the lawmaker said, was “to try to raise the noise level in America to try to make a big issue, an even bigger issue as they’re trying to just push divisiveness in the country. We’ve continued to be able to see that. We will see that again in our election time.’’
The situation regarding Facebook is more complex. Nobody likes to admit they’ve been played for a sucker, especially your crazy uncle who likely shared some of the Russian propaganda.
From the Washington Post:
The batch of more than 3,000 Russian-bought ads that Facebook is preparing to turn over to Congress shows a deep understanding of social divides in American society, with some ads promoting African American rights groups, including Black Lives Matter, and others suggesting that these same groups pose a rising political threat, say people familiar with the covert influence campaign…
…The divisive themes seized on by Russian operatives were similar to those that Trump and his supporters pushed on social media and on right-wing websites during the campaign. U.S. investigators are now trying to figure out whether Russian operators and members of Trump’s team coordinated in any way. Critics say Trump, as president, has further inflamed racial and religious divisions, citing his controversial statements after violent clashes in Charlottesville and limits imposed on Muslim immigration.
The previously undisclosed ads suggest that the operatives worked off evolving lists of racial, religious, political and economic themes. They used these to create pages, write posts and craft ads that would appear in users’ news feeds — with the apparent goal of appealing to one audience and alienating another. In some cases, the pages even advertised events.
In addition to ads targeting specific demographics, and accounts spewing vileness created by agents posing as Americans, Russian linked accounts invented and promoted protests, according to the Daily Beast.
“Due to the town of Twin falls, Idaho, becoming a center of refugee resettlement, which led to the huge upsurge of violence towards American citizens, it is crucial to draw society’s attention to this problem,” one page authored by a group called Secured Borders advertised. “Twin falls suffered the most from Obama’s immigration policy, because at least two horrific assaults by refugees happened there in just last two months.” No such assaults ever took place.
The Business Insider reported on a series of attempts at anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary Clinton rallies across Texas prior to the November election organized by a Russia-linked Facebook group.
The group, called Heart of Texas, had over 225,000 followers as of last summer. It was shut down last week as part of Facebook’s takedown of accounts and pages “affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia,” a Facebook spokesman told Business Insider on Wednesday…
…The event called on Texans in major cities like Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and Austin to protest “establishment robbers” and “higher taxes to feed undocumented aliens.” It further claimed that a “Killary Rotten Clinton” victory would lead to an influx of “refugees, mosques, and terrorist attacks.”
The page also created “an approximate map” for the rallies and explained, in awkward English, “what will be happening” at the event.
“Signing the petition, delivering speeches, Texas flags and signs waving, open carry, getting media coverage, producing photo and video content to spread on social media,” the post said. “This is how we’ll bring more awareness about our real needs. God bless y’all!”
Russian operatives placed Facebook ads supporting Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, according to a Politico article:
The ads show a complicated effort that didn’t necessarily hew to promoting Trump and bashing Clinton. Instead, they show a desire to create divisions while sometimes praising Trump, Sanders and Stein. A number of the ads seemed to question Clinton’s authenticity and tout some of the liberal criticisms of her candidacy.
There is no indication Stein, Sanders or Trump was aware of the advertisements, which were described to POLITICO by people with knowledge of them.
The foreign effort had an impact in San Diego. Activist John Mattes spent months looking in a flood of new people asking to join the San Diego Berniecrats Facebook group who started spamming the site with anti–Hillary Clinton articles from strange websites he’d never heard of.
“Around the time that Hillary collapsed in public, our page became increasingly populated with fake stories full of Hillary hate,” Mattes told BuzzFeed News. “People were accusing Hillary of murdering opponents. It was alleged that she utilized body doubles.”
Mattes, a lawyer, former journalist, and former investigative counsel to the US Senate, investigated the Facebook accounts and the sites they were promoting. What he found was that the websites being promoted were run by people in Veles, a town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Some of the Facebook profiles also listed that as their location…
…Mattes said his Facebook group splintered along pro- and anti-Clinton lines and lost members. “By September, Bernie supporters had left our page in droves, depressed and disgusted by the venom,” he said.
Director and actor Rob Reiner helped launch the Committee to Investigate Russia (CIR) last week. And it didn’t take long for the Russia-bots to notice. I even saw commentary claiming the effort was part of a “Neo” conspiracy to defend Hillary Clinton…or US imperialism…or…
According to Snopes.com:
[CIR] aims to “help Americans recognize and understand the gravity of Russia’s continuing attacks on our democracy”. The web site aggregates relevant information about the Russian active measures, hacking and collusion investigations into one place and offers links to relevant news stories, timelines, and a list of key players.
Its inaugural video features Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman cautioning Americans in his famous baritone about Russian influence operations and saying in regards to Russian interference in the 2016 election, “We were attacked. We are at war.” But even as the organization aims to point the spotlight on the Kremlin’s attempts to influence Americans’ political and social behavior, predictably, Russia-linked bots and trolls retaliated with social media-driven attacks that followed now-familiar patterns.
A group called the Alliance for Securing Democracy has created a wonkish tool called The Hamilton 68 Dashboard, which tracks real time activity from 600 monitored Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations.
Making sense of all the data takes some work, but they do provide analysis through blog posts.
I can’t finish this article without noting the irony of Americans being upset by foreign interference in our elections: we’ve been doing it to other countries all over the world for decades.
Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University says our government did it more than 80 times worldwide between 1946 and 2000, not counting covert support for coup d’etats.
Still, two wrongs don’t make a right.
Looking for some action? Check out the Weekly Progressive Calendar, published every Friday in this space, featuring Demonstrations, Rallies, Teach-ins, Meet Ups and other opportunities to get your activism on.
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