Mueller cracks a cold one

Friday afternoon, after this week’s newsletter had been written edited and produced Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for interfering with the 2016 election. In terms of computational propaganda, we didn’t learn much new about Russia’s influence operations. Regular readers will recognize most of what was covered in the indictments but if you’d like a refresher this tweetstorm from digital strategist Baratunde is excellent.

America was attacked. The goal was to sow chaos and discord. Mission accomplished. There’s no confirmation that anyone on the Trump campaign or the GOP knowingly colluded with Russia but per the indictment, we know for sure that Russian trolls made America connections. Given how much the Trump campaign’s digital and comms staff reached out to pro-Trump online communities during the campaign they almost certainly communicated with Russian trolls. Key questions: what did they know and when did they know it?

It’s been amusing watching the Frog Squad defend Trump (and themselves!) this weekend. I’ve seen everything from that the indictments clear Trump (they don’t), that Russians were actually working for Hillary (nope) and that the indictments were a distraction timed to turn attention away from the FBI’s mishandling of the Parkland shooter. But my favorite froggy hot take has to be this from our friends at r/the_donald.

Dispatch From the Senate Intelligence Committee

This week the Senate Intelligence Committee held an open hearing on global threats the U.S. faces where the head of every U.S. intelligence agency testified. These hearings are always a must-see and I learn more from listening to them than just about any other source. Whereas the House Intelligence Committee continues to be obsessed with dueling memos, their Senate counterparts continue to be the adults in the room. Open hearings are a chance for Senators on both sides of the aisle, who’ve done their homework, to ask questions and get information out to the public. It’s a curated experience but I always appreciate the information.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The consensus from our intelligence heads is unanimous. Russian influence operations targeting U.S. citizens are ongoing. Russia interfered in 2016 and they will attempt to do the same in 2018. It’s worth noting that all of these men are Trump appointees.
  • Despite the general agreement re: interference there’s no comprehensive cross agency plan to combat Russia’s actions. As Mark Warner stated during the hearing: “We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks. But we still do not have a plan.” Which is comforting.
  • This was a general hearing, not specific to Russian influence operations or technology, but cybersecurity is clearly a chief cause for concern for both committee members and agency heads. Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, noted that cybersecurity was his greatest concern and prioritized it over terrorism and weapons of mass destruction as our biggest security threat.
  • Chairman Richard Burr’s closing remarks were telling. Burr, a Republican, reminded us that “the special counsel’s investigation is not the only investigation going on in Washington.” Burr said that he was hopeful the committee would have parts of their report ready before the 2018 primaries begin. He promised that the report would be released to the public and that there would be another open hearing on election security. The committee plans to make recommendations to help combat continued Russian interference. The 2018 primary season begins in May which means we should expect to see a report from the Committee sometime before then.

Republicans Can’t Quit Fake News

The Republican Party has increasingly created and used political microsites designed to look like local news sites as a political tactic. Here’s why that’s bad for democracy.

Last fall, Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward touted an endorsement from the Arizona Monitor on her Facebook page. Ward’s campaign must have really liked the endorsement because it reprinted it in full on her campaign website. But what is the Arizona Monitor? Is it a local news site? A blog covering local politics in Arizona? Or is it something else entirely?

A Politico investigation found that the Arizona Monitor “launched just a few weeks before publishing the endorsement, and its domain registration is hidden, masking the identity of its owner. On its Facebook page, it is classified as a news site, but scant other information is offered.” Inquiries to Arizona politicos didn’t turn up anything either, with some telling the outlet that “they could only scratch their heads” and were befuddled by the site’s background.

The Litmus Test For All Arizona Candidates

 

There’s nothing wrong with a local political blog supporting Ward’s campaign, or Ward’s team touting a friendly endorsement on her campaign website and social media. But political campaigns are notoriously overcautious about what they post on social media. Campaigns don’t normally highlight an endorsement from entities no one has heard of, especially when it launched just a few weeks prior. Politico noted that Ward denied any knowledge about the site on Facebook. Given that, there are two obvious questions: Is Arizona Monitor a phony news site meant to fool voters on Kelli Ward’s behalf? If so, who exactly is paying for it?

We may never know who was behind the Arizona Monitor, as the site crumbled quickly after coming under scrutiny. Initially, it posted an article defending itself, but as I was writing this the website was deleted, as well as the site’s Twitter and Facebook pages. Local political blogs don’t generally operate this way; they relish being attacked by larger media outlets (the posture Arizona Monitor initially took) and do not disappear suddenly when attacked. Given its hasty exit from the internet, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that Arizona Monitor was some kind of front.

For more examples of political microsites disguised as local news sites head to Media Matters where this post originally appeared.


Misinformation and Mass Shootings

American mass shootings are by now a familiar tragedy. Mis/disinformation popping up immediately as news of another mass shooting breaks is just as familiar. Within minutes of the news breaking 4chan and 8chan were spinning conspiracy theories, flooding social media with disinformation just as Americans were turning to Twitter and Facebook to get breaking news about the shooting. I’ll confess to falling for a piece of misinfo myself and initially tweeting it, despite being well aware of this pattern.

As usual, Buzzfeed has the most comprehensive list of hoaxes related to this week’s mass shooting. Snopes debunks the rumor that the shooter was a Dreamer. Alex Jones told his listeners that the shooting may have been a false flag organized by Democrats and Gateway Pundit’s Lucian Wintrich promoted a fake Buzzfeed article ostensibly about the shooting. Disinformation meant to smear reporters covering the shooting has also appeared online. As J.M. Berger pointed out on Twitter, social media platforms continue to help false information and conspiracy theories spread.


ICYMI

Odds and Ends

Silicon Valley readers you won’t want to miss this one: CoWorker.org, one of my favorite advocacy organizations, is hosting an event on Computational Propaganda on Wednesday, February 28 at 7 PM. Learn more and RSVP at the link below.

Computational Propaganda: A Conversation With Tech Industry Employees

My article for The Progressive “How the President and Neo-Nazis Work Hand in Hand” has been liberated from the paywall and is now available to read online.

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