I’m happy to be able to post Deb Galentine’s next piece on political warfare. Its vitally important to understand how the various elements of social media are now being used as weapons, not to simply to create discord but more importantly to magnify it to the point of direct confrontation and even violence.
We have had years of warnings about the threats related to viruses, malware, hacks, etc. Now its time for a serious heads up in regard to the threats you encounter in the world of social media.
The Political Propagandists
Who are the “Political Propagandists” on social media that we keep hearing so much about today? Where do they live? Are they paid? Who pays them? What’s their goal?
These are the questions our government, our journalists, our intelligence agencies, and we ourselves have been grappling with since a concerted effort to undermine our nation’s democratic principles first surfaced for the USA via the 2016 election. Even today, we don’t have all the answers to all the questions but our intelligence agencies appear to have come to a good understanding of the most dangerous and troubling aspects of interference in the election. What they have learned may be astonishing for many of us, but to the CIA— it’s familiar territory.
The United States has interfered in foreign elections since the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947. After WWII, our government determined that the United States would see to it that other governments would adhere to democratic principles— or at the very least, to principles that served U.S.A. interests even if it meant dealing with brutal dictators. In the 50’s, the CIA was instrumental in overthrowing governments (for example, Nicaragua & Iran) and supporting assassinations & violent coups in other countries around the globe to facilitate regime changes or to build nations more to our country’s liking.
To advance their efforts, CIA used a boatload of tools & techniques including political propaganda*— information composed of false or misleading messages meant to promote a specific political point of view. Propaganda requires a sender (the propagandist) and a receiver (the target— a pliable audience). CIA propagandists sent their messages in myriad forms. Before the Internet, they often used newspapers, both foreign and American. Many American newspaper editors willingly cooperated with CIA Cold War efforts since the risk always included nuclear warfare; publishers and editors saw their cooperation as patriotic. Foreign newspapers could be friendly assets, infiltrated, or tricked into reporting as needed.
CIA also employed the use of pamphlets and posters as well as radio and television messages all intricately laced with propaganda. They used any means available for getting their party line into the minds of their target audiences. They hired psychiatrists for myriad reasons including the construction of effective and appealing disinformation. CIA targeted the citizens of whatever government they were attacking with this psychological warfare— along with their known enemies. Typically, CIA also targeted US citizens to gain national support for our government’s efforts.
But in the 2016 election, the onslaught didn’t come from the CIA. Malcolm Nance, US Intelligence operative with 36 years’ experience and an expert in Russian cyber warfare, stated on “Hardball with Chris Matthews” (9/20/2018) that the citizens of the United States & our government were attacked as part of “a wide-ranging cyber warfare influence operation designed to break the American election process & to put Donald J. Trump into power. More than to just get Donald Trump into office (that was just one result that they wanted) … it was to break Hillary Clinton’s campaign, divide the Democratic Party, fundamentally change the American system of government, and push it away from where it was— a Democratic Constitutional Republic to what we’re leaning towards today— which is an Autocracy.” Nance agrees with the rest of the US Intelligence community which maintains that Russia waged the attack against the United States under the direct orders of former KGB Agent & now President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Russian operatives employed every available means of cyberwarfare including hacking into Senate and Congressional email accounts, the Pentagon’s computer systems, and the Democratic National Committee’s as well as the Republican National Committee’s computers and servers. They stole whatever they could find including research, software, cyber tools, documents and emails. Additionally, we now know that Russian hackers infiltrated voter databases in several states managing to go as deep as voter information.
Robert Mueller’s Indictment of 12 Russian Agents:
While most Americans demonstrate awareness that massive amount of evidence support our Intelligence agencies’ contentions that Russia attacked our most cherished institutions with cyber-warfare, only a small number of Americans appear to understand that Russia has been engaging in these kinds of activities for decades targeting all Western democracies before they attacked the United States. Intelligence agencies in the UK, Denmark, Australia, & the US found evidence of Russian meddling in the elections of not only the USA, but also Ukraine, France, Mexico, Austria, Germany, the UK, Italy, Norway, Greece, Estonia, Finland— up to at least 27 countries since 1991.
For trafficking propaganda, Russia focuses largely on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. These platforms comprise three of the largest targets for Russian disinformationists in their World-Wide Cyber War. Information spreads like wildfires on these platforms, and it still to this day remains virtually unchecked. The largely anonymous nature of social networks provides propagandists with the necessary hiding places from which to use their multiple fake identities with their fake locations.
The “Internet Research Agency” located at 55 Savushkina Street, St Petersburg, Russia bears the distinction of being the most well-known and publicized Russian propaganda outlet, or troll farm. The true location (IP addresses) of trolls working out of 55 Savushkina Street lie hidden behind proxy servers that workers turned on first before beginning work on their daily assigned tasks. To be hired as Internet trolls, Russian workers needed to display strong written English language capabilities. They agreed to work 12 hour shifts so that Russian trolls would cover online communities 24 hours a day; the pay of around $800 a month made it seem worthwhile.
They worked in three to six member teams. One team member would start a topic on a social media platform, another would then post a comment on the topic, the third would come along to start an argument, and so on. Every day they were handed a series of tasks & topics to complete for each of their online identities. They learned to post several mundane comments about their daily lives to lend the appearance of real people. These posts would be interlaced with political propaganda & controversial memes which were either geared to influence political thinking against US political candidates or the US government or in favor of beautiful Russia or a Far-Right Wing candidate their wished to promote. The funding for Russia’s several propaganda outlets came from the Russian government.
Some sources indicate that thousands of propaganda bloggers worked from their homes in Russia but evidence of this is sketchy, so far.
Russian propaganda outlets also operated socialbots, “socbot,” or simply bots. Bots aren’t real people but real people do operate them to some extent; someone must program them and set them in motion. The goal of Bots is to disrupt the free exchange of ideas— and they operate at remarkable speeds. Estimates of Bot activity on Twitter, which is the platform most useable by Bots, runs at about 15% of the total traffic volume, but confirmed statistics remain elusive. Bots can amplify Twitter hashtags, thereby convincing people that a topic is important.
Since the 2016 election, Twitter has become more proactive about disrupting & eliminating Bot activity. However, an ongoing problem for some Twitter users—the fast thinkers and typists— is that Twitter’s system sometimes mistakes speedy real people for Bots. During the 2016 campaign season, Twitter suspended my daughter for 48 hours for that very reason; they picked up on the speed of her posts & judged that she had to be a Bot.
Cyborgs, humans who amplify their posts using software to automate posts, were all over Twitter and Facebook during the 2016 campaign and election and they are now ramping up their efforts once again— along with the trolls and the Bots— for the October US midterm elections.
The goal for the Russian trolls and the bots and the cyborgs and the bloggers remains the creation of chaos, division, and disharmony. They spread their propaganda 24/7 throughout the Internet using social media, websites, blogs— even via comments on news articles. They toss pieces of propaganda around the Internet anywhere and everywhere. Once again, they are reaching fever pitch ahead of our midterm elections.
But they are not the only ones using propaganda on the Internet. Others who submit US propaganda— false or misleading political information designed to sway options in favor of the bearer— include the Alt-Right, White Supremacists, Nazis, 4-Channers, Republicans, Democrats, the RNC, the DNC, and sites masquerading as “news” sites. Even candidates and campaign workers engage in organized propaganda efforts from time to time. Most of these groups have at some time or another utilized their own trolling efforts, bots, and cyborgs to agitate for and against various stances and certain candidates. As such, we Americans must realize that when we engage in these activities, we become Putin’s warriors—facilitating his Cyber War— by creating more chaos, more division, and more hostilities from the inside.
So, how are we to know who to believe, who to trust, where to get the correct information, and how to avoid or stop the propaganda? I’ll write about that next time.
Adrian Chen wrote the definitive story on the Internet Research Agency for “The New York Times,” published 6/7/2015:
*Propaganda takes many forms beyond the political. For example, advertisers use it all the time to try to get us to purchase their products. But for these purposes, I will be focusing on political propaganda.