Tag Archives: Russia

Odds and Ends

Today, rather than discussing a single topic, I thought I’d post a couple of observations that are related to some of the previous month’s discussions.

Russia. A fairly common response to the media’s focus on the Russia investigation–especially but not exclusively from supporters of Trump and/or the GOP–is that it is unlikely that Russian interference made a difference in the outcome, so why the big obsession with it?

Unless it turns out that Russia hackers actually changed vote totals, I tend to agree that the efforts probably didn’t change the election results. That said, let me respond to the “then why the fuss” question with an analogy.

Let’s say you own a company. Your internal auditor comes to you with evidence that one of the bookkeepers tried to embezzle from the corporation’s account, but was unsuccessful. Would you breathe a sigh of relief, and go about your business as usual? Or would prudence dictate that you investigate in order to find out what was attempted and why, so that you could 1) add safeguards to be sure the account is protected in the future; 2) determine whether the bookkeeper was acting on her own or in concert with other employees; and 3) inquire into management practices that may have given the impression that embezzlement was possible–or that so angered an otherwise good employee that she felt no compunction trying to steal from the company?

I should also note that success of a venture isn’t the key to whether it’s right or wrong. (If you try to kill someone and fail, you’re still guilty of attempted murder.)

Joe Donnelly. Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly is a big disappointment. (Not as big a disappointment as Fifth District Representative Susan Brooks, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Even conceding that he’s an Indiana Democrat and thus will need independent and even a few Republican votes, he’s been really bad on issues I care a lot about. That said, I will still vote for him in November, and you should too.  We don’t get to choose between perfect and not-perfect. Mike Braun, the Republican candidate, is dramatically, unacceptably worse. But even if Braun weren’t a self-satisfied, self-described “Trumper,” a vote for him would be a vote for Mitch McConnell–aka the most evil man in America– to continue leading the Senate.

The odds of the Democrats winning control of the Senate aren’t good, but if there is a blue “wave,” it is possible. In order for that to happen, however, we have to elect every Senate candidate who has a “D” next to his or her name–and that definitely includes Joe Donnelly. (And to be fair, he does support a progressive agenda about half the time–which is half more than Braun would do.) Think of it this way: a vote for Donnelly is really a vote against Mitch McConnell.

The Democrats and America’s myriad imperfections. A number of commenters to this blog have railed against the imperfections and misdeeds of the Democratic Party. I agree with some–hell, a lot– of those criticisms, just as I agree that any accurate history of this country documents a whole host of failures to live up to our national ideals. I also recognize that today’s America is more plutocracy than liberal democracy, and that needs to change.

What really drives me nuts about purists, however, is the naiveté. (Assuming, that is, that they truly want to effect change, and aren’t just satisfied parading their moral superiority.) In real life, making the perfect the enemy of the good simply rewards the bad. (See discussion of Donnelly election, above.) The Democrats are very imperfect. Today’s GOP is many multiples worse. Our choice is between not-so-good and demonstrably horrible.

Any honest look at history confirms that sustainable progress is incremental. If we can move from horrible to not-so-great (but a hell of a lot better) in November, we can get to work making the systemic and cultural changes that need to occur if we are to have any hope of salvaging democratic governance–not to mention the planet, the economy, the  justice system and public education.

If the purists stay home, and we don’t dislodge the horribles, we’re toast.

Speaking Of Treason

The dictionary defines treason as betrayal, treachery, disloyalty and faithlessness. I looked it up, because it was the word that came to mind when I read this article by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo.

Marshall was revisiting a report that first emerged in June, 2016, about a remark made by Kevin McCarthy, House Majority Leader, asserting that both Donald Trump and Dana Rohrabacher were on Putin’s payroll. When the comment leaked, staff members dismissed it as a “joke”–which it pretty obviously wasn’t. At the time, there was no way of knowing  what prompted the observation. But as Marshall writes,

Given all we know now, it’s worth revisiting not only the stunning quote but the context around it.

Let’s start by reviewing the gist of the news. Here, from Entous’s article, McCarthy pipes up in a conversation among House leadership about Russia and Ukraine.

That’s when McCarthy brought the conversation about Russian meddling around to the DNC hack, Trump and Rohrabacher.

“I’ll guarantee you that’s what it is. . . . The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp [opposition] research that they had on Trump,” McCarthy said with a laugh.

Ryan asked who the Russians “delivered” the opposition research to.

“There’s . . . there’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy said, drawing some laughter. “Swear to God,” McCarthy added.

“This is an off the record,” Ryan said.

Some lawmakers laughed at that.

“No leaks, all right?,” Ryan said, adding: “This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

Marshall notes that McCarthy and Ryan had each met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Groysman earlier in the day.

According to the recording obtained by The Washington Post, in his meetings with top US officials Groysman had focused on the dynamic we’ve all grown familiar with over the last two years: Russian funding of populist, rightist political parties, propaganda campaigns meant to throw competitor states off balance and into turmoil and even financial subsidies directly to key politicians.

Whatever else Groysman discussed with them, subsequent comments made by Ryan make it clear that he was aware of Russia’s very sophisticated cyber-warfare techniques, and that they weren’t confined to Ukraine: financing populists, financing people in various governments to sabotage those governments, interfering with oil and gas energy production, and a variety of other disruptive strategies.

The question is whether Groysman told McCarthy and the others something more specific. It’s not a stretch to imagine he did. The accounts suggest he was describing patterns and candidates very much like Donald Trump. We simply don’t have evidence to settle that question. The people in that meeting certainly aren’t talking. What strikes me is that the people in that meeting, certainly Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan had a very clear sense of Russian operations in Ukraine and Europe more broadly and how it matched what was taking shape with Donald Trump. The gist of Groysman’s message was that western countries needed to stand united because Russia represented a common threat. The first news of cyberattack the day before only put the equation in a sharper relief.

Whatever they knew then or suspected, the coming months would add dramatic weight to McCarthy’s suspicions. Wikileaks began releasing DNC emails a month later, throwing Clinton’s campaign repeatedly off track. Trump would more aggressively cheer on Russia’s actions. And remember: precisely what was happening – whether Russia was the power behind Wikileaks or someone else – wasn’t 100% clear at the time to ordinary citizens. But at least Ryan and likely McCarthy as well had contemporaneous intelligence briefings which made it crystal clear. Both men were among the 12 members of Congress who were briefed on the Russian campaign in early September 2016 by Jeh Johnson (DHS Secretary), James Comey and Lisa Monaco (White House Homeland Security Advisor).

At that briefing, according to reports,

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

As the sentences I’ve bolded indicate, McCarthy, Ryan and Mr. Evil–aka Mitch McConnell–have been aware of the nature and extent of Russian meddling since June of 2016. To get a complete and accurate picture of their disgraceful conduct, you need to click through and read the entire analysis, but as Marshall  concludes,

McCarthy and Ryan as well had clear warnings and a clear understanding of the Russian pattern of conduct and Trump’s probable connection to it. They would get a lot more evidence over coming months confirming this impression from June 2016. But they either ignored what they knew or decided to make a conscious decision to unknow it as they moved more and more firmly into lockstep support of Donald Trump. We see this especially clearly with McCarthy, the one who appeared most sure of the connection in this June 15th 2016 meeting and would become the most loyal and staunchest advocate for Trump in the ensuing months and years.

Treachery? Disloyalty? Faithlessness?

Ryan said the Republicans were all “family.” Right. Like the Corleones…

Chilling…And Compelling

One of my favorite anecdotes about the early days of America’s newspapers comes from a friend who has edited a number of small-town papers and is something of a journalism history buff.  Early newspapers did no reporting; they were just compilations of the circulars generated mostly by the political parties. According to my friend, the masthead of one such publication  proclaimed “interesting, if true.”

That pretty much sums up my reaction to a recent, lengthy and unnervingly persuasive article in New York Magazine.

And that was before Trump’s disastrous, groveling presser with Putin in Helsinki.

The article was written by Jonathan Chait, whose previous work I have found solid (to the extent I am capable of making such judgments). Chait didn’t claim his thesis is proven, only that it is plausible. It was a “what if” speculation that looked at the entirety of what we knew before that outrageous betrayal of his oath of office .

The unfolding of the Russia scandal has been like walking into a dark cavern. Every step reveals that the cave runs deeper than we thought, and after each one, as we wonder how far it goes, our imaginations are circumscribed by the steps we have already taken. The cavern might go just a little farther, we presume, but probably not muchfarther. And since trying to discern the size and shape of the scandal is an exercise in uncertainty, we focus our attention on the most likely outcome, which is that the story goes a little deeper than what we have already discovered. Say, that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort told their candidate about the meeting they held at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer after they were promised dirt on Hillary Clinton; and that Trump and Kushner have some shady Russian investments; and that some of Trump’s advisers made some promises about lifting sanctions.

But what if that’s wrong? What if we’re still standing closer to the mouth of the cave than the end?

The media has treated the notion that Russia has personally compromised the president of the United States as something close to a kook theory. A minority of analysts, mostly but not exclusively on the right, have promoted aggressively exculpatory interpretations of the known facts, in which every suspicious piece of evidence turns out to have a surprisingly innocent explanation. And it is possible, though unlikely, that every trail between Trump Tower and the Kremlin extends no farther than its point of current visibility.

Chait goes through the lengthy chronology of Trump’s connections with Russia, a chronology suggesting that the situation may be much worse than we now suspect. As he notes, publicly available information about the Russia scandal is extensive, but disjointed.

The way it has been delivered — scoop after scoop of discrete nuggets of information — has been disorienting and difficult to follow. What would it look like if it were reassembled into a single narrative?

It’s tempting to dismiss the article as yet another conspiracy theory in an age that seems to encourage them, but as Chait points out, the people who seem most convinced of its likelihood are not the radio shock-jocks or other “usual suspects.” They are people like John Brennan, former head of the CIA, and other high government officials.

If Chait’s “what if” speculation proves true, calling it “chilling” is an understatement.

If that’s true, we are in the midst of a scandal unprecedented in American history, a subversion of the integrity of the presidency. It would mean the Cold War that Americans had long considered won has dissolved into the bizarre spectacle of Reagan’s party’s abetting the hijacking of American government by a former KGB agent. It would mean that when Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the president and his inner circle, possibly beginning this summer, Trump may not merely rail on Twitter but provoke a constitutional crisis.

And it would mean the Russia scandal began far earlier than conventionally understood and ended later — indeed, is still happening. As Trump arranges to meet face-to-face and privately with Vladimir Putin later this month, the collusion between the two men metastasizing from a dark accusation into an open alliance, it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the summit is less a negotiation between two heads of state than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.

After that disgraceful press conference, Chait’s “possibility” seems all too likely.

Computational Propaganda

[Sorry to clutter your inboxes; I published this in error. Consider it an “extra.”]

I am now officially befuddled. Out of my depth. And very worried.

Politico has published the results of an investigation that the magazine conducted into the popularity (in social-media jargon, the “viral-ness”) of the hashtag “release the memo.” It found that the committee vote

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….Computational propaganda—defined as “the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior”—has been used, successfully, to manipulate the perceptions of the American public and the actions of elected officials.

I’ve been struggling just to understand what “bots” are. The New York Times recent lengthy look at these artificial “followers”–you can evidently buy followers to pump up your perceived popularity–helped to an extent, but left me thinking that these “fake” followers were mostly a form of dishonest puffery by celebrities and would-be celebrities.

Politico disabused me.

The publication’s analysis showed how the #releasethememo campaign had been fueled by  computational propaganda. As the introduction says, ” It is critical that we understand how this was done and what it means for the future of American democracy.”

I really encourage readers to click through and read the article in its entirety. If you are like me, the technical aspects require slow and careful reading. Here, however, are a few of the findings that particularly worry me–and should worry us all.

Whether it is Republican or Russian or “Macedonian teenagers”—it doesn’t really matter. It is computational propaganda—meaning artificially amplified and targeted for a specific purpose—and it dominated political discussions in the United States for days. The #releasethememo campaign came out of nowhere. Its movement from social media to fringe/far-right media to mainstream media so swift that both the speed and the story itself became impossible to ignore. The frenzy of activity spurred lawmakers and the White House to release the Nunes memo, which critics say is a purposeful misrepresentation of classified intelligence meant to discredit the Russia probe and protect the president.

And this, ultimately, is what everyone has been missing in the past 14 months about the use of social media to spread disinformation. Information and psychological operations being conducted on social media—often mischaracterized by the dismissive label “fake news”—are not just about information, but about changing behavior. And they can be surprisingly effective.

An original tweet from a right-wing conspiracy buff with few followers was amplified by an account named KARYN.

The KARYN account is an interesting example of how bots lay a groundwork of information architecture within social media. It was registered in 2012, tweeting only a handful of times between July 2012 and November 2013 (mostly against President Barack Obama and in favor of the GOP). Then the account goes dormant until June 2016—the period that was identified by former FBI Director James Comey as the beginning of the most intense phase of Russian operations to interfere in the U.S. elections. The frequency of tweets builds from a few a week to a few a day. By October 11, there are dozens of posts a day, including YouTube videos, tweets to political officials and influencers and media personalities, and lots of replies to posts by the Trump team and related journalists. The content is almost entirely political, occasionally mentioning Florida, another battleground state, and sometimes posting what appear to be personal photos (which, if checked, come from many different phones and sources and appear “borrowed”). In October 2016, KARYN is tweeting a lot about Muslims/radical Islam attacking democracy and America; how Bill Clinton had lots of affairs; alleged financial wrongdoing on Clinton’s part; and, of course, WikiLeaks.

There’s much more evidence that KARYN is a bot—a bot that follows a random Republican guy in Michigan with 70-some followers. Why?

It would be fair to say that if you were setting up accounts to track views representative of a Trump-supporter, @underthemoraine would be a pulse to keep a finger on—the virtual Michigan “man in the diner” or “taxi driver” that journalists are forever citing as proof of conversations with real, nonpolitical humans in swing states. KARYN follows hundreds of such accounts, plus conservative media, and a lot of other bots.

KARYN triggers other bots and political operatives, and they combine to create a “tweet storm” or viral message. Many of these accounts are “organizers and amplifiers”—accounts with “human conductors” that are partly automated and linked to networks that automatically amplify content.

The article is very long, and very detailed–and I hope many of you will read it in its entirety. For now, I will leave you with the concluding paragraphs:

So what are the lessons of #releasethememo? Regardless of how much of the campaign was American and how much was Russian, it’s clear there was a massive effort to game social media and put the Nunes memo squarely on the national agenda—and it worked to an astonishing degree. The bottom line is that the goals of the two overlapped, so the origin—human, machine or otherwise—doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that someone is trying to manipulate us, tech companies are proving hopelessly unable or unwilling to police the bad actors manipulating their platforms, and politicians are either clueless about what to do about computational propaganda or—in the case of #releasethememo—are using it to achieve their goals. Americans are on their own.

And, yes, that also reinforces the narrative the Russians have been pushing since 2015: You’re on your own; be angry, and burn things down. Would that a leader would step into this breech, and challenge the advancing victory of the bots and the cynical people behind them.

 

Humans: Clever, But Not Wise….

The election of Donald Trump (aka “Agent Orange”) is only one of many, many signs that we humans aren’t as smart as we think we are.

Consider our ability to invent technologies we then prove unable to use wisely.

Actually, being destroyed or enslaved by the machines we’ve created is a favorite theme of science fiction. Robots who turn on their makers, unanticipated consequences of laboratory experiments, the dehumanizing substitution of human-machine interaction for human contact–all are familiar scenarios of “futuristic” fantasy.

Being overwhelmed by our own inventions, however, is neither “futuristic” nor “fantastic.” Anyone who doesn’t believe that human society is being inexorably changed by social media and the Internet hasn’t been paying attention.

The Guardian recently ran a chilling column about those changes, and about our tendency to see new threats and challenges in terms of the past, rather than as harbingers of our future.

Both sides of the political divide seem to be awakening to the possibility that letting the tech industry do whatever it wants hasn’t produced the best of all possible worlds. “I have found a flaw,” Alan Greenspan famously said in 2008 of his free-market worldview, as the global financial system imploded. A similar discovery may be dawning on our political class when it comes to its hands-off approach to Silicon Valley.

But the new taste for techno-skepticism is unlikely to lead to meaningful reform, for several reasons. One is money. The five biggest tech firms spend twice as much as Wall Street on lobbying Washington. It seems reasonable to assume that this insulates them from anything too painful in a political system as corrupt as ours.

The FCC’s decision to repeal Net Neutrality despite the fact that 83% of the public want to retain the policy would certainly seem to validate the author’s assertion that our government responds to money, not public opinion.

The columnist, Ben Tarnoff, is especially concerned that the focus on Russia’s efforts to weaponize the Internet and influence the election is diverting our attention from far more serious issues. It is unlikely that Russian game-playing had much of an effect on the Presidential election (racism aka White Nationalism clearly played a far greater role), and while Congress fixates on Russia, far more significant threats go unnoticed.

As Tarnoff sees it, the focus on Russia isn’t just misplaced because that country’s social media influence wasn’t really all that effective. It’s misplaced because the Russians used the Internet platforms in precisely the way they’re designed to be used.

As Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, the business model of social media makes it a perfect tool for spreading propaganda. The majority of that propaganda isn’t coming from foreigners, however – it’s coming from homegrown, “legitimate” actors who pump vast sums of cash into shaping opinion on behalf of a candidate or cause.

Social media is a powerful weapon in the plutocratization of our politics. Never before has it been so easy for propagandists to purchase our attention with such precision. The core issue is an old one in American politics: money talks too much, to quote an Occupy slogan. And online, it talks even louder.

Unfortunately, the fixation on Russian “cyberwarfare” isn’t likely to bring us any closer to taking away money’s megaphone. Instead, it will probably be used as a pretext to make us less free in other ways – namely by justifying more authoritarian incursions by the state into the digital sphere….

The tragedy of 9/11 has long been weaponized to justify mass surveillance and state repression. The myth of the “cyber 9/11” will almost certainly be used for the same ends.

Tarnoff reminds readers that–as usual–America’s wounds are largely self-inflicted.  We could and should take note of Russia’s efforts to subvert our election without ignoring the “deep domestic roots” of that catastrophe. As he reminds us,

Russia didn’t singlehandedly produce the crisis of legitimacy that helped put a deranged reality television star into the White House. Nor did it create the most sophisticated machinery in human history for selling our attention to the highest bidder.

It’s odd to blame Russian trolls for the destruction of American democracy when American democracy has proven more than capable of destroying itself. And rarely is it more self-destructive than when it believes it is protecting itself from its enemies.

We Americans are really, really good at whiz-bang technology. Creating a society that is just, fair and free? Not so much.