Trump's little helpers
I assume you've heard about Donald Trump Jr meeting with Russians in Paris last month. And you know how much Trump admires and respects Vladimir Putin. I guess all that's not completely beyond the norm. Perhaps he just has a different view of geopolitics and maybe it will all work out. I'm not crazy about authoritarian thugs wherever they are, but that's just me.
However, this is a brave new world and it's very, very concerning, regardless of who's doing it. I don't think we have any idea of just how pernicious this is:
The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.
I think we can be sure that the Trump administration isn't going to be interested in pursuing this, for obvious reasons.
Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.
Two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment, as an insurgent candidate harnessed a wide range of grievances to claim the White House. The sophistication of the Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news,” as they have vowed to do after widespread complaints about the problem.
There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump, but researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders. The tactics included penetrating the computers of election officials in several states and releasing troves of hacked emails that embarrassed Clinton in the final months of her campaign.
“They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests,” said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who along with two other researchers has tracked Russian propaganda since 2014. “This was their standard mode during the Cold War. The problem is that this was hard to do before social media.”
During a Facebook live discussion, reporter Caitlin Dewey explained how fake news sites use Facebook as a vehicle to function and make money.(The Washington Post)
Watts’s report on this work, with colleagues Andrew Weisburd and J.M. Berger, appeared on the national security online magazine War on the Rocks this month under the headline “Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy.” Another group, called PropOrNot, a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds, planned to release its own findings Friday showing the startling reach and effectiveness of Russian propaganda campaigns.
The researchers used Internet analytics tools to trace the origins of particular tweets and mapped the connections among social-media accounts that consistently delivered synchronized messages. Identifying website codes sometimes revealed common ownership. In other cases, exact phrases or sentences were echoed by sites and social-media accounts in rapid succession, signaling membership in connected networks controlled by a single entity.
PropOrNot’s monitoring report, which was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its public release, identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans. On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.
I am going to be generous and assume that Trump and his family of wealthy morons are among the useful idiots as well. But who knows? Trump is driven solely by his business opportunities and we know that he has exposure to Russian financial interests so it's possible that he had some "incentives" to sign on.
Some players in this online echo chamber were knowingly part of the propaganda campaign, the researchers concluded, while others were “useful idiots” — a term born of the Cold War to describe people or institutions that unknowingly assisted Soviet Union propaganda efforts.
Here's just one example of how this worked. I watched it in real time, wrote about it, but had no idea about the fake news aspect of it. Drudge and his minions pushed it hard as well (and so did more than few anti-Clinton lefties.)
The speed and coordination of these efforts allowed Russian-backed phony news to outcompete traditional news organizations for audience. Some of the first and most alarming tweets after Clinton fell ill at a Sept. 11 memorial event in New York, for example, came from Russian botnets and trolls, researchers found. (She was treated for pneumonia and returned to the campaign trail a few days later.)
I get a lot of correspondence from right wingers because I write a daily column for Salon. You can imagine how horrific it is. The "health" story was huge, and my email was full of people writing to me with gross stories about Clinton's catheter falling out (which is why she had to go to the bathroom during the debate) and tales of her having to travel with a doctor to quickly inject her with seizure medication while she was on stage. There were dozens of different conspiracy theories floating around.
This followed a spate of other misleading stories in August about Clinton’s supposedly troubled health. The Daily Beast debunked a particularly widely read piece in an article that reached 1,700 Facebook accounts and was read online more than 30,000 times. But the PropOrNot researchers found that the version supported by Russian propaganda reached 90,000 Facebook accounts and was read more than 8 million times. The researchers said the true Daily Beast story was like “shouting into a hurricane” of false stories supported by the Russians.
I guess we can feel comforted by some idea that this election was decided because Clinton's ads didn't target the right people in the rust belt with messages about jobs and trade. I'm sure that had an effect and I'm sure that the Democrats will adjust their messages to appeal to those folks with an intensity we haven't seen since the Reagan era. (The argument about how to do that will rage on.)
But they might just be missing the forest for the trees. Many of those people may be hearing some other messages from their "trusted" friends on Facebook that supersede the normal political channels.