Tag Archives: Russia

The Trolls Are Sophisticated–And Effective

A recent headline from Rolling Stone addressed an issue that is likely to keep thoughtful voters up at night. The headline? “That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent it.”

Rolling Stone is hardly the only publication warning about an unprecedented effort–and not just by Russian trolls–to use the Internet to sow disinformation and promote discord.

Who and what are these trolls?

Internet trolls don’t troll. Not the professionals at least. Professional trolls don’t go on social media to antagonize liberals or belittle conservatives. They are not narrow minded, drunk or angry. They don’t lack basic English language skills. They certainly aren’t “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as the president once put it. Your stereotypical trolls do exist on social media, but the amateurs aren’t a threat to Western democracy.

Professional trolls, on the other hand, are the tip of the spear in the new digital, ideological battleground. To combat the threat they pose, we must first understand them — and take them seriously.

The Russian effort is incredibly sophisticated: the article explained that non-political, often heartwarming or inspiring tweets are used to grow an audience of followers. Once a troll with a manufactured name or identity has amassed sufficient followers, the troll will use that following to spread messages promoting division, distrust, and above all, doubt.

The authors of the article are two experts in the use of social media to spread propaganda, and they admit to being impressed by the Russian operation.

Professional trolls are good at their job. They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors. The professionals know you catch more flies with honey. They don’t go to social media looking for a fight; they go looking for new best friends. And they have found them.

Disinformation operations aren’t typically fake news or outright lies. Disinformation is most often simply spin. Spin is hard to spot and easy to believe, especially if you are already inclined to do so. While the rest of the world learned how to conduct a modern disinformation campaign from the Russians, it is from the world of public relations and advertising that the IRA learned their craft. To appreciate the influence and potential of Russian disinformation, we need to view them less as Boris and Natasha and more like Don Draper.

Lest you think it’s only the Russians employing these tactics, allow the Atlantic to disabuse you in an article headlined “The Billion Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Re-elect the President.”

The article began with a report on the approach the re-election campaign had taken to Impeachment–” a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup.”

That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country.

The author, who had followed the disinformation campaign, writes of his surprise at how “slick” and effective it was.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate.

This, then, is where we are: in an environment in which facts–let alone truths–are what we want them to be. An environment in which the pursuit of power by truly reprehensible people working to re-elect a dangerous and mentally-ill President can target those most likely to be susceptible to their manipulation of reality.

I have no idea how reality fights back. I do know that Democrats too “pure” to vote unless their favored candidate is the nominee are as dangerous as the trolls.

I think it was Edmund Burke who said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Winning A War Without Firing A Shot

The American public has heard so much about Russian activities–about interference with the 2016 election,  about Russian “bots” that continue to infest Facebook and Twitter, and about Donald Trump’s longtime dependence on Russian money to finance his developments–that significant segments of the population have simply tuned it out. It’s last week’s story–and as a nation, we have a very short attention span.

That’s unfortunate, because Russia is winning Putin’s war on our democracy without having to fire a shot.

Roll Call recently had a headline that caught my attention.“The Most Important Document You May Ever Read.”

On the day that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on election interference came out, cable news anchors strained to race through its 448 pages and describe the findings, all in the same breath. Computer sleuths hacked the document’s setting to let users search for “Trump,” “president,” “collusion” and “Russia.” Talking-head lawyers feverishly opined that Volume I contained less incriminating information than Volume II.

But around the country, voters mostly gave an “Is that all there is?” shoulder shrug and went back to their corners. Many members of Congress admitted they didn’t even bother to read it.

Nearly six months later, and to almost no fanfare last week while Congress was in recess, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the second of two installments of its own bipartisan investigation into roughly the same topic. The slim, 85-page report reads like a Russian spy novel crossed with a sequel to Orwell’s most dystopian version of the future — right down to an interview with a paid Russian troll who said his experience in 2016, pitting American voters against each other with social media platforms of their own making, was like being “a character in the book ‘1984’ by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee is chaired by Republican Richard Burr; Mark Warner, a Democrat, is Vice-Chair, and the investigation that led to the report is as bipartisan as you are likely to get in today’s Senate.

The report–available here-– doesn’t mince words. First, it confirms that the Russians deliberately attacked the American electorate in 2016 with an active campaign intended to benefit Donald Trump and destroy Hillary Clinton. One of the former trolls told the committee that, on the morning following the election, exhausted hackers in St. Petersburg, Russia, uncorked champagne, looked at each other and uttered “almost in unison: ‘We made America great.’”

The tactics and strategies that the Kremlin directed included every major social media platform you can think of — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — and a few you’d never suspect, including Pinterest, LinkedIn and 4Chan. The hashtags alone tell the story— #MAGA #TrumpTrain #Hillary4Prison #ZombieHillary #SickHillary. Along with anti-Clinton stories, they also pushed out messages against Trump’s primary rivals like Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Once in the general election, they pumped up third-party candidates to siphon support away from Clinton with posts including, “A vote for Jill Stein is not a wasted vote.”

Online trolls were based in St. Petersburg and were given daily quotas for targeting Americans online, including 50 Facebook posts per day. They were even given a list of American holidays, to remind them of times to post less, so as to avoid detection from online providers.

Americans gobbled it up. The Senate Intelligence report details a troubling fact: in the three months leading up to Election Day, Russian-planted false information on Facebook outperformed real news.

Russian messages were crafted to erode Americans’ trust in investigative and political journalism, and to exploit racial divisions. The sheer volume was so enormous that it overwhelmed readers, who could no longer separate what was real from what wasn’t.

As the article in Roll Call concluded: “If you read nothing else now that Congress is back in session, take a moment to digest this report. It may be the most important document you ever read.”

Doug Masson Quotes The Federalist

Doug Masson is a lawyer in Lafayette, Indiana, and one of the most thoughtful and erudite Indiana bloggers. He has a post on the Democratic primary that is well worth reading in its entirety–and with which I entirely agree–but I was particularly struck by this quotation from Federalist 68

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”

The “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant…by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.”

Whatever propaganda Republicans employ to dismiss the findings of the Mueller Report or denigrate America’s Intelligence operations, the evidence is overwhelming that Russia raised a creature of its own during the 2016 election. That evidence was recently confirmed by a bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence committee, about which I will report more fully in due course.

As Doug says, Trump is “emotionally fragile, intellectually bankrupt, and utterly corrupt”.

He believes that the office of the Presidency is there to serve him rather than the other way around. His trading on public resources to induce foreign powers to meddle in our elections was exactly the kind of thing the Founders were concerned about when they wrote the Constitution.

Most readers of this blog have already joined me in my determination to “Vote Blue No Matter Who,” (I would personally cast my ballot for a potted plant if it was the alternative to Trump) but that doesn’t mean that most of us don’t have favorites in–and opinions about– the Democratic Primary. At this point in the process, I find myself agreeing with Doug’s analysis.

For my part, I don’t mind Biden, but I like Mayor Pete and Elizabeth Warren. I don’t have strong feelings about Bernie himself, but his online supporters have been fairly off-putting in a way that doesn’t seem nearly so common for supporters of other candidates. In a perfect world, I should be comparing policies, but Presidential campaigns are won or lost on the basis of personalities. The electorate says they care about policy, but when it comes time to vote, they mostly don’t understand the policies and have shaped their understanding of the policies to conform with their personality preferences. I may have better than average understanding of some of these issues, but ultimately, I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of federal laws, rules, and regulations to truly assess the candidates’ plans beyond a pretty superficial level. Nevermind the fact that whatever they propose will have to navigate the legislative process. I’m going to have to trust that the person will do the best they can and will generally make sound decisions.

I have previously called Bernie and Biden analog candidates for a digital age. Either would be immensely preferable to Trump, but I would prefer to see both of them as honored elder statesmen. I love Elizabeth Warren, but I worry that she would make a fairly easy target. Plus I’d hate to see her leave the Senate, where she has been such an effective voice for fairness.

And I really love Mayor Pete.

I’m ready to turn this country over to a new generation–to the people who will have to live with the results of the economic and environmental decisions they make, who grew up with and understand the immense impact of technology on everyday life, and who have the intellect and energy that the Presidency requires and that the current President so clearly lacks.

The men who wrote The Federalist and crafted our Constitution were young. I Googled it, and it turns out that many of the Founding Fathers were not yet 40 years old in 1776. The average age of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was 44 (Ben Franklin undoubtedly raised the average!), but more than a dozen of them were 35 or younger.

The impressive Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand was born in 1980 and elected at age 37, and Emmanuel Macron of France just turned 41.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m Bernie’s age, and most days, I need a nap.

All that said–whoever emerges will have my activism and my vote. Whoever it is won’t have Russia’s.

 

Does Deutsch Bank Have The Goods On Trump?

A journalist friend tells me that some early “newspapers”– more accurately described as pamphlets compiled from recently circulated broadsides–used to have a tag line beneath their mastheads. It read “Interesting, if true.”

Lawrence O’Donnell recently supplied us with a humdinger of “interesting if true” news.

According to Raw Story–and subsequently, several other news outlets, including Salon–Deutsche Bank may have the evidence the Mueller investigation was unable to find.

Fast-tracked impeachment hearings will occur this fall if the bombshell report is true that President Donald Trump had loans with Deutsche Bank co-signed by Russian oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin.

 “The source close to Deutsche Bank says that the co-signers of Donald Trump’s Deutsche Bank loans are Russian billionaires close to Vladimir Putin,” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell reported Tuesday.

If true, this would explain why Trump was so agitated (I know, he’s always agitated, but this was notable even for him) when Congress issued a subpoena to the bank for records of their loans to Trump and the Trump organization. It would explain the lawsuit he filed in an effort to quash that subpoena.

It would also explain his slavish attention to Putin’s interests, most recently highlighted by his behavior at the recent G7 meeting. According to several reports, Trump cornered the other heads of state and aggressively lobbied for Russia’s re-admittance to the group.

Finally, it would explain why Deutsche Bank continued to make loans to Trump after American banks would no longer do so. After several of Trump’s business disasters and bankruptcies left lenders with enormous unpaid obligations, American bankers cut Trump off. That cutoff is not speculation, and Don Junior has been widely quoted for a speech in which he bragged that the Trump Organization no longer needed homegrown lenders, because Russia was supplying all the cash they needed.

Salon quoted journalist and tax expert David Cay Johnston, who has covered Trump for years.

“Deutsche Bank, in making these loans, had to have someone in the background that was guaranteeing these loans. It would be surprising if they’re actually co-signers,” Cay Johnston said in response to the news.  “That would be absolutely astonishing, and I would think mandate his removal from office.”

The only thing Deutsche Bank has confirmed (to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals) is that the bank has possession of the tax returns of at least one member of President Donald Trump’s family.

A lawyer for Trump has now threatened to sue O’Donnell for “false and defamatory” statements. It would be extremely difficult to win such a suit, since O’Donnell himself cautioned that his bombshell report was based upon information provided by a single source–a person who works with Deutsche Bank–and that he had been unable to verify it. (He may have breached journalistic ethics by reporting an unverified accusation–spreading gossip, essentially– but proving intentional defamation would be extremely difficult given his transparency about the source and his inability to confirm that source’s account.)

That said, the information seems so accurate, because it’s so incredibly plausible. Russian oligarch guarantors or co-signers would explain a number of otherwise inexplicable things…

It’s VERY interesting…if true.

 

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.