Tag Archives: Russia

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.

To Russia, With (Trump’s) Love

MarketWatch is a subsidiary of Dow Jones, and a property of News Corp. It operates a financial information website that provides business news, analysis, and stock market data. It is neither a fake news site nor a particularly ideological one (certainly not left-wing–News Corp also owns Fox News), so I was surprised to read a column headlined “Top 10 Signs that American President is a Russian Agent.”

The “signs” the column identified were: (1) U.S. Intelligence has concluded that the Kremlin helped put him in power; (2) the new President sides with the Kremlin against the CIA; (3) He receives vast sums of money from mysterious Russians (Including an astonishing $95 million that Trump personally received from a Russian billionaire during the 2008 collapse); (4) His election made a lot of people in Moscow rich–their stock market is up 20% since the U.S. election; (5) He wants to end Russia’s global isolation and terminate U.S. and international sanctions against Russia; (6) He has surrounded himself with known Russian allies and sympathizers; (7) He repeatedly refuses to criticize the Kremlin; (8) One of his first steps as President-elect was to drive a wedge between the U.S. and China, Russia’s chief Asian rival; (9) He has announced policies that would undermine NATO; and (10) He once had his own brand of vodka.

Okay, that last one is a stretch.

The column gives “chapter and verse” for each of these signs, so those interested in more detail can click through.

My reaction to this seemingly outlandish theory is not altogether dismissive. Two points are worth consideration: first, whether Trump is simply being his clueless self or knowingly acting on behalf of the Kremlin–being blackmailed by the Russian oligarchs who financed several of his projects after American banks stopped doing business with him, perhaps, or otherwise being bribed to do so–is irrelevant. If he were a knowing Russian agent, how would his behavior differ?

Second, MarketWatch’s list of ten signs is missing a huge one. Russia’s economy is heavily dependent upon oil, and Putin’s stranglehold on the Russian people is heavily dependent upon the economy.  The Kremlin is thus threatened by U.S. efforts to address climate change–efforts that diminish reliance upon and use of fossil fuels.  Trump’s cabinet nominees are virtually all anti-science climate change denialists. His energy transition team has already signaled a witch hunt against government scientists working to protect the environment.  

A military friend recently told me that Russia’s conventional armed forces are substandard. Evidently, according to the CIA and the New York Times, they are much better at cyberwarfare. (Slate also has a good overview of the history and tactics of the Russian hackers.)

Wouldn’t it be ironic if Russia subdued us without having to deploy a soldier or fire a shot?

 

From Russia, Without Love

There is a lesson for all of us in Russia’s dramatic repression of gays and gay advocacy, and it isn’t necessarily the lesson we think.

For readers who may have spent the last few weeks on an ice floe in Antartica, here’s the quick-and-dirty: Russia strongman Vladimir Putin suddenly (at least it seemed sudden from an American vantage point) announced what amounted to an official war on homosexuality. The Russian legislature unanimously rubber-stamped a measure imposing huge fines on people found to have engaged in “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” which has increasingly been used to harass, fine and imprison anyone expressing pro-gay sentiments.

Although same-sex relationships are not criminal in Russia, anti-gay sentiment is very strong there, and support for Putin’s vendetta against the GLBT community is high.

Putin is engaging in a time-honored tactic employed by autocrats when things aren’t going so well. His personal prejudices or lack thereof are irrelevant. His goal is distraction, and his  tactic is to identify the most useful “shiny object”—a group sufficiently powerless and unpopular to guarantee that a high-profile campaign against its members will shift citizens’ focus away from what’s wrong with the country.

Eventually, history suggests that the group won’t just be used as a distraction; it will be made the scapegoat for all the things that are wrong with the country. Hitler blamed Germany’s problems on the Jews; in other countries, it has been communists or Muslims or Shi’ites. An academic paper on scapegoating explains why it works:

A strong advantage in scapegoating is that the whole society or a whole social group is raised in status against the targeted minority or individual, and any societal behavior is at the same time legitimized (“Of course we are full of defects, but we do not act like them”).

In order to reap the political benefits of scapegoating, however, it is first necessary to dehumanize members of the targeted group. So gays are promiscuous pedophiles, Jews are scheming, rapacious businessmen, lazy black men lust for white women, Muslims are obsessed with jihad…. Whoever they may be, “they” aren’t people like us. History provides us with a long list of convenient and available stereotypes for almost any group you might want to target.

Scapegoating as a political tactic almost always arises in times of national stress—times  when things aren’t going well, and those in charge need someone to blame.

What is happening in Russia right now is a textbook example. The dissolution of the Soviet Union did not bring nirvana to the long-suffering people of Russia—far from it. Russians have struggled to form democratic governing institutions in a country that has never had them, a country without a culture of self-rule. Much the same upheaval—for many of the same reasons—is occurring in the Middle East, in the wake of the Arab Spring. For that matter, there is unrest in many other parts of the world, including much of Africa.

These are profoundly dangerous times for people who belong to marginalized groups. The temptation to “pull a Putin” will be very great in many of the countries experiencing upheaval. (And yes, if we don’t address America’s growing inequality, it can happen here.)

Gay people are at risk in Russia. We must bring political pressure to bear, and we must work to moderate and reverse Putin’s discriminatory policies. But the real lesson to be learned from this is that we are all in this together. In a dangerous world, we are all vulnerable.

When I was director of Indiana’s ACLU, I constantly reminded people that rights are indivisible. If everyone doesn’t have them, no one really does. A country that can pick on gay people today can pick on Muslims or Christians—or redheads—tomorrow.

As a friend of mine once put it, “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”