Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Securing Democracy Dispatch – 13 November 2017

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Securing Democracy Dispatch

November 13, 2017

News and Commentary

Russian disinformation supported Trump earlier than previously reported: An Associated Press analysis of deleted Twitter accounts operating during the 2016 U.S. election found Russia’s strategy was to “swiftly react, distort and distract attention from any negative Trump news,” often pushing alternative stories or narratives aimed at muddying the waters — a tactic we continue to observe on the Russian-linked accounts monitored by the Hamilton 68 dashboard. Underscoring the long-term planning that went into Russia’s campaigns, a Wall Street Journal analysis of Russian Twitter accounts shows that Russia began “lavishing praise on Mr. Trump and attacking his rivals … in June 2015,” six months earlier than the U.S. intelligence community cited in their assessment released earlier this year, Leslie Miley, former engineering manager of product safety and security at Twitter, reported that “In early 2015 … a vast amount of Twitter accounts with IP addresses in Russia and Ukraine;” but that “anything we would do that would slow down signups, delete accounts, or remove accounts had to go through the growth team … They were more concerned with growth numbers than fake and compromised accounts.” And The Daily Beast reported “In its final, climactic push for Donald Trump, the Kremlin’s troll army enlisted new members: semi-dormant propaganda accounts created as far back as 2009 … voicing praise for Trump and contempt for his opponent, from the early morning until the last polls closed in the United States.” This ominous finding takes on new relevance after this week announcement by Facebook’s announcement that “around 60 million” of its monthly average users are fake. (Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, The Hill)


Designing disinformation: Russel Brandom in The Verge examines research to determine “Why were the Russian Ads So Strange?” Citing research from Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Brandom finds that “the function of news is as much about drama as information, giving readers ‘a portrayal of the contending forces in the world.’” Russian ads fit this bill — they were “authentic,” “humorous,” “dark,” or “angry,” elements that catch people’s attention and encourage sharing. Brandom also finds that “weirdness can be a natural result of narrow targeting,” explaining how the Russians micro-targeted their ads to ensure they resonated with their target audiences. Farhad Manjoo echoes this sentiment, stating “drama sells,” as he compares Russian disinformation to reality TV where “Americans [are] duped into fighting each other in public, all at the whim of an unseen force … and their contestants are all of us.” (The Verge, Shorenstein Center, The New York Times)


Russia test drives its playbook: According to Gary Kasparov, Russia successfully employed disinformation in its neighborhood, and eventually employed it in the United States; “The whole industry of fake news, supported by troll factories, that was the invention of KGB … they extended [disinformation] to Russian speaking neighborhoods in the former Soviet Union … they tried it in Europe. Eventually they successfully tried it in the United States.” And as Janusz Bugajski, writing for the Center for European Policy Analysis, posits, “Russia’s ‘Ministries of Truth’ now have many more tools at their disposal than during Soviet times, including cable news networks, social media, and an array of duped or corrupted Westerners … as Moscow seeks to undermine the West while creating the illusion that Russia remains a great power.” Underscoring Moscow’s intention to influence what we think, Walter Pincuscautioned, “The 2016 presidential campaign was just a test run for Russia’s continuing use of disinformation on social media aimed at manipulating public thinking in the United States.” As we look toward the 2018 elections, Steven Rosenfeld believes “Russian propaganda has forever changed U.S. campaigning,” cautioning us to recognize “the introduction of propaganda on social media, whether by the Russians or the Trump campaign or the Democrats in the near future, is here to stay.” (CNBC, Center for European Policy Analysis, The Cipher Brief, Salon)


Russia’s interference efforts in Europe continue: The Spanish government confirmed this week that “Russian and Venezuelan hackers have been interfering in the ongoing crisis in Catalonia,” pledging to deal “with the issue at the next European Union Foreign Affairs Council meeting.” And expressing how one of Russia’s European influence operations is nearing its intended objective, Anna Nemtsova argues in The Daily Beast, “The Kremlin seeks out ideologues who embrace its xenophobic message and share its enemies list. Hungary’s alt-right government — and its rivals — fit that profile perfectly,” describing how Putin’s influence operations in Hungary have led the country to pursue Russia’s interests and agenda in the European Union. The Hungarian case depicts the end game of Russia’s influence operations: mutually beneficial cooperation with far-right governments in control of the state apparatus who will weaken the West. And as Twitter agreed this week to store its Russian user data on Russian servers, which “puts users’ personal information at risk of being accessed by Russian intelligence services,” Russia is gaining even more control over its influence operations both at home and abroad. (El Pais, The Daily Beast, Telegraph)


Russian IRA supported Brexit: New details emerged this week that confirm Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) “posted dozens of pro-Brexit messages on the day of the referendum.” Barbara Wesel, writing for Deutsche Welle, finds “If Vladimir Putin’s spies lent a hand to elect Donald Trump, they seem to have used Brexit as a trial run.” Remarking how “British journalists have begun looking for a Russian behind every bush,” Wesel contends that “they seem to be finding them. All you had to do was follow the money.” Wesel points to the Electoral Commission’s investigation into the finances of UKIP donor Arron Banks and the Paradise Papers as a trove of information on Russians’ shadowy investments in the UK. Despite the growing evidence of Russian involvement in Brexit, Neil Barnett writing in the American Interest finds “The fact that such an operation happened is not surprising. What is extraordinary is that it has taken over 15 months for the news to be properly discussed in public.” Barnett questions why the U.K. government is staying silent, finding “The Conservative Party itself has accepted sums from Russian sources and would therefore risk being discredited itself [by improving its investigation of Russian interference].” (CNN, Deutsche Welle, American Interest)


Information Laundering Masks Source of Disinformation: BuzzFeed reported this week that popular conspiracy website InfoWars “over the past three years … copied more than 1,000 articles produced by Russian state-sponsored broadcaster RT to its website,” and The Washington Post reported that Drudge Report “regularly linked to propaganda” in 2016. And in Medium, Jonathan Albright describes how these messages found their way into the social media ecosystem — through Instagram. Albright’s analysis “shows that Facebook’s sibling property, Instagram — a service larger than Twitter and Snapchat combined … is far more impactful than Twitter for content-based ‘meme’ engagement  — especially for certain minority segments of the American population;” finding that the “cross-posting of memes and posts from … Instagram back into Facebook … and also into Twitter … helped the memes get over to Pinterest.” These are the latest examples of how Russian-origin disinformation was laundered through intermediaries, leaving readers unaware of its origin, and further amplifying its reach. (BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, Medium)


Responding to disinformationThe Cipher Brief published a collection of experts addressing how we can be less vulnerable to disinformation, including Clint Watts, non-resident senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, who believes we need “Nutrition labels for information … People can opt out of being informed … [but] if they get mind fat, that’s on them.” According to Drew Sullivan, the founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant;” arguing for greater transparency of Russia’s initiatives. And according to former CIA Director General Michael Hayden, “Part of this is improving our own political dialogue so we are far less tribal and less susceptible.” While Dalibor Rohac writing for AEI argues that “Tech companies must regain trust … address the public’s concerns to escape the ire of regulators.” Writing in The Guardian regarding the growing role of technology companies in our daily lives, Senator Al Franken states, “Not only do they guide what we see, read, and buy on a regular basis, but their dominance — specifically in the market of information — now requires that we consider their role in the integrity of our democracy.” Posing more questions than answers in his essay, Franken argues that we first need a better understanding of technology companies’ practices, stating “we desperately need to conduct vigorous oversight — in the form of investigations and hearings — to fully understand current practices and the potential for harm. We must work together to make this happen.”

(The Cipher Brief, American Enterprise Institute, The Guardian)


Paradise Papers reveal Russian illicit financial activities: Julia Ioffe in The Altantic highlights how revelations in the Paradise Papers show Russia’s strategic investments in social media aimed at establishing influence in Silicon Valley, citing “the Kremlin’s evolving methods in learning to control and manipulate the Internet to advance its own interests — first at home, and then abroad.” In a bizarre story, the Paradise Papers uncovered a connection between the Bank of Utah and Russia’s richest oligarch and Putin ally Leonid Mikhelson. The bank “served as a stand-in so Mr. Mikhelson could secretly register a private jet in the United States, which requires American citizenship or residency.” For an analysis of some of the key Russian players in the Paradise Papers, reports on the backgrounds of Marina Sechina, Roman Abramovich, the Rotenberg brothers, and others. And as details continue to implicate specific Russians involved in these activities, Masha Gessonargues in The New Yorker that the West should use the information uncovered in the Paradise Papers to impose more sanctions against the “poligarchs, oligarchs, and stooges” in Putin’s “mafia state” in order to “take away what [Putin] has given.” (The AtlanticThe New York Times,, The New Yorker)


Dashboards Hamilton 68 and Artikel 38

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Hamilton 68 dashboard: In a week where a number of public figures were drawn into the ever-widening net of sexual assault allegations, Kremlin-oriented accounts showed a clear, partisan-bent in their treatment of the accused. URLs shared by the network that focused on allegations against Hollywood figures were universally negative, with many sites using the news to reignite old claims of pedophilia rings and general depravity among liberals. On the other hand, allegations against far-right Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, who has also denied the allegations, were slammed as a “hit piece,” and multiple URLs shared by the network attempted to discredit both the accuser and the original reporter. While no one has ever accused the Kremlin’s minions of being objective, the use of sexual misconduct allegations to inflame partisan tensions is yet another example of their efforts to turn cracks in our society into chasms.

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Artikel 38 dashboard: Taking a cue from their trolling brethren in the United States, Kremlin-oriented accounts in Germany used a salacious sex story to smear an entire population. Instead of Democrats, however, German accounts attacked their favorite target — Syrian refugees — after a story appeared in the Berlin Morgenpost linking a Syrian man to a rather uncouth encounter with a pony in a Berlin petting zoo. While the story seems to be factual, the focus on the man’s ethnicity by accounts on the dashboard reveals a motive that goes well beyond concern for the well-being of the country’s equines.

Quote of the Week

“Today is an election day…. Since last year’s election, we have learned a great deal about President Putin’s campaign to undermine the confidence of the American people in their democratic institutions. We know that the authorities responsible for administering our elections in more than 21 states were probed by President Putin’s intelligence apparatus. These actions by President Putin are no doubt part of a broad, ongoing campaign to undermine American democracy and advance his autocratic agenda around the globe.


To date, we have done nothing to build up our defenses against this real and burgeoning threat. Before the end of the year, the Senate should pass comprehensive election security legislation that assists states in securing their networks against cybersecurity threats. As Americans go to the polls today, we in Congress should be doing everything we can to protect our democracy and ensure the integrity and security of every American’s vote.”


– Senator Chuck Schumer, November 7, 2017

Worst of the Week

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

In a concerted effort to distract from sexual assault allegations against Roy Moore, no fewer than three unique stories promoted by the network attempted to paint the accusers as liars, unstable, or democratic plants. The most egregious of the bunch (and the top URL on Hamilton 68 as of Sunday night) was a completely fictitious story from a website registered in the Republic of Georgia(that has since been taken offline) which claimed that one of the accusers is currently on Michelle Obama’s personal payroll. While the story could be laughed away as an obvious example of for-profit fake news, the theme was later incorporated into a Fox News story that sought to discredit the accuser by revealing that she had once worked on democratic campaign. While the latter claim happens to be true, the incorporation of themes from unverified sources into credible news streams is an example of the online information laundering ecosystem.

Donate to ASD  | Manage My Subscriptions  | Forward email
Alliance for Securing Democracy | German Marshall Fund | 1744 R Street NW | Washington, DC 20009 | USA