Russian influence and Shadow Brokers’ message ‘to elites’

Weeks after the Shadow Brokers Equation Group leaks, there has been plenty of speculation over the origin of the data tools auction and the timing of their release. Even Edward Snowden’s Twitter Account helpfully weighed in, directing his followers in the tech world and the public in how best to interpret the meaning of the leaks.

Just today comes the report from the Washington Post about the US investigating Russian influence operations ahead of the US election.

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Hillary Clinton

A closer look at the message released with the Shadow Brokers leak, written in a kind of Charlie Chan English, strikes me how closely its themes conform to a broader storyline Russia has been pushing about power in the West generally and about Hillary Clinton specifically. Whether this means that Russia is behind the leak – we will probably never know. But the marketing of the message fits pretty closely.

First, let’s be clear: there are legitimate (very, legitimate) reform movements, parties, leaders seeking to address the excesses of economic globalization and inequality which have hurt middle classes in advanced societies.

Now on to the Shadow Brokers statement.

A feature of Russian propaganda is to fuse their strategic message with a legitimate message or messenger or cause.

What’s significant about the anti-elite message in the Shadow Brokers message, is that it matches Russian messaging elsewhere, which equates so-called “globalism” with America. This Russia-backed campaign has directed a lot of energy against Hillary Clinton, who is, to be sure, an elite insider.

But in a race between a competent insider such as herself and a candidate who could well prove to be a wrecking ball for democratic institutions in the West, well, you can see the choice American voters are faced with.

By now, most people following the Shadow Brokers intrigue have heard of the message that begins: “How much you pay for enemies cyber weapons?”

But it’s the “Closing Remarks” which carry the message that hits many of the same notes as the global anti-Hillary campaign/pro-Trump campaign against elites.

Consider this final part of the message.

We have final message for “Wealthy Elites”.

We know what is wealthy but what is Elites? Elites is making laws protect self and friends,
lie and fuck other peoples. Elites is breaking laws, regular peoples go to jail, life ruin, family ruin, but not Elites. Elites is breaking laws, many peoples know Elites guilty, Elites call top friends at law enforcement and government agencies, offer bribes, make promise future handjobs, (but no blowjobs). Elites top friends announce, no law broken, no crime commit. Reporters (not call journalist) make living say write only nice things about Elites, convince dumb cattle, is just politics, everything is awesome, check out our ads and our prostitutes. Then Elites runs for president. Why run for president when already control country like dictatorship?

The implication that all power and elites are corrupt and there seem to be nods even to Hillary’s email woes.

“Elites is breaking laws…”

[The feeling that Clinton has somehow evaded prosecution over her handling of her emails while Secretary of State.]

“Many peoples know Elites guilty”

[The general perception of untrustworthiness by voters].

“Elites call top friends at law enforcement and government agencies, offer bribes, make promise future handjobs, (but no blowjobs). Elites top friends announce, no law broken, no crime commit.”

[FBI Director James Comey not recommending charges against Clinton. At the time, to the dismay of the Hillary-hunting right in the US politics, Comey said: “I see evidence of great carelessness, but I do not see evidence that is sufficient to establish that Secretary Clinton or those with whom she was corresponding both talked about classified information on e-mail and knew when they did it they were doing something that was against the law.”]

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FBI director James Comey

“Why run for president when already control country like dictatorship?”

[Again this notion of a rigged system in which government itself is unaccountable].

“The Elites runs for president” is a curious line, not only because the 2016 election in the US is happening, but surely because the elites of the world aren’t all in systems that elect presidents rather than prime ministers, chancellors, etc. So the message is written either by or for people close to a constitutional republic like the US.

This is a message to hackers that seems to have a lot to say about “elites” who sound a lot like Hillary Clinton running for president. Even the discussion of “blow-jobs” would seem to name check the most famous “blow job” to ever reported in the White House – again a Clinton-related matter.

The message even echoes rhetoric used against Democrat Hillary Clinton – overtly, by Trump’s campaign, by unnamed trolls.

https://twitter.com/realkingrobbo/status/771302789192511488

https://twitter.com/P0TUSTrump/status/761399740890243072

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archie

The writer of the message for the Wealthy Elites seems to acknowledge they’re at risk of going off course with their manifesto on the nature of power in the 21st Century. The next line:

What this have do with fun Cyber Weapons Auction? We want make sure Wealthy Elite recognizes the danger cyber weapons, this message, our auction, poses to their wealth and control. Let us spell out for Elites. Your wealth and control depends on electronic data. You see what “Equation Group” can do. You see what cryptolockers [ransomware] and stuxnet can do. You see free files we give for free. You see attacks on banks and SWIFT in news. Maybe there is Equation Group version of cryptolocker+stuxnet for banks and financial systems? If Equation Group lose control of cyber weapons, who else lose or find cyber weapons? If electronic data go bye bye where leave Wealthy Elites? Maybe with dumb cattle? “Do you feel in charge?” Wealthy Elites, you send bitcoins, you bid in auction, maybe big advantage for you?

It’s entirely possible that whoever crafted the ‘Wealthy Elites’ message isn’t the same group who got hold of the Equation Group exploits. What does ideology and politcal spin like this matter to hackers more concerned with the technical challenge? And what do propagandists care about the technical details on an exploit, as long as it is authentic, or appears authentic enough to inject the message in high-credibility circles online.

The ‘Wealthy Elites’ message is oblique. It doesn’t mention Hillary Clinton – but it certainly conveys Hillary Clinton. It’s oblique in much of the way a lot of effective propaganda is. Rather than being a full frontal attack on a specific person, it’s a broader and more effective sideswipe. Accordingly, as the Washington Post report on the US investigation notes:

The Kremlin’s intent may not be to sway the election in one direction or another, officials said, but to cause chaos and provide propaganda fodder to attack US democracy-building policies around the world, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

A broadside against elites, that seems to fit Clinton’s description would do this.

There is a long history of this kind of Russian propaganda towards the West in general and the US specifically. Here is an example of the rhetoric used in making Soviet propaganda attractive to Western thinkers and intellectuals in the 1930s – during the Great Depression, a period, not unlike today, when the Western economic and political system is being questioned at home and abroad. The person relating it explained how propaganda in the West was most effective – not by being pro-Joe Stalin – but being an outspoken innocent with high ideals.

You do not endorse Stalin. You do not call yourself a communist. You do not declare your love for the regime. You do not call on people to support the Soviets. Ever. Under any circumstances. You claim to be an independent-minded idealist. You don’t really understand politics, but you think the little guy is getting a lousy break. You believe in open-mindedness. You are shocked, frightened by what is going on right here in our own country. You are frightened by the racism, by the oppression of the working man. You think the Russians are trying a great human experiment, and you hope it works. You believe in peace. You yearn for international understanding. You hate fascism. You think the capitalism system is corrupt.

(from Stephen Koch’s Double Lives)

That pattern fits closely to the talk of “globalists” and “elites’ and “neoliberalism” today.

As the Washington Post story notes of the Russian influence efforts in the US election: It “seems to be a global campaign,”

Clearly, the hunger for reform in Western democracies is being co-opted by the wizards of propaganda in the East (look at the Bernie Sanders supporters who now oppose Sanders in their quest for “revolution.”). So I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the timing and message of Shadow Brokers leaks is related to this. The message to the wealthy elites seems to share some DNA with the anti-Hillary Clinton messages flooding the internet.

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Information war and propaganda: a brute force attack on reality

Why is it so hard to get information about the source of computer hacks? Because the lag time between the hack and the discovery of the intrusion or theft can be months, if not longer. The Shadow Brokers exploits, for example, (supposing they were actually hacked), are thought to date from 2013.

The DNC hack was known about by Washington insiders since last year, but only became major news this year during the election.

“The average time it takes a victim of a cyber attack to detect that they have been breached is 205 days,” writes strategist Peter W Singer.

And that’s just when a target detects the attack.

“In cybersecurity…time operates by different rules,” Singer said, contrasting the idea of Cold War missile deterrence with the realities of today’s cyber conflict.

“The physics of a ballistic missile’s speed and arc determined conceptions of deterrence during the Cold War,” Singer writes.

Another place where time is operating by different rules is the world of news – and this has important considerations for information war and propaganda.

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There’s the data. You have minutes to decide. (National Archives)

In fact, competition for eyeballs in news has media outlets in a situation with troubling parallels to that of a Cold War missile launch stand off. Decision-makers must act on incomplete or not fully digested information in minutes rather than days with the fear of being beat by competitor a major factor.

Thankfully, the button to push is only marked ‘publish.’

Overall, the concept of time that is understood by editors, producers, reporters, bloggers has been completely transformed from a generation ago. Social media amplifies the effect, giving the public a lever to help shape – and manipulate – the news as its crystallizing.

Singer writes about “The critical 30 minutes” it takes an ICBM to “fly across continents” as being essential to “planning and strategy.”

Because of the digital reality of the internet, the time frame between learning about breaking news and publishing the first take has been reduced from hours – a generation ago – to mere minutes. Or even seconds.

Breaking news from one outlet can trigger almost universal follow-on stories everywhere else. The first mover advantage when the story is breaking is enormous. Search engines reward you. Twitter and Facebook reward you. With high traffic stories translating to revenue from advertisement, media outlets can have a financial incentive to ‘publish first’ that extends past mere professional competition.

That is another reason why when one media outlet has a big story, the pack is likely to pile on quickly, creating what looks like a stampede online.

Of course, there was always fierce competition with media. Today, though, the ability of the masses to shape the terms of the coverage, through repostings, and indeed, their reaction to the news is a novel situation.

https://twitter.com/realkingrobbo/status/768340321054916608

In this way, organisations with a disinformation/misinformation agenda along with allied social media players (partisans and trolls, alike) can strongly influence traditional news websites.

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NORAD

The first few minutes between awareness of a new story and the initial draft are prime time for manipulation of the media. As soon as the news story is published online, it begins to crystallize in the audiences imagination. From there, it can be hard to change.

Research indicates readers often remember the incorrect fact, even after the correction has been published.

First impressions have never counted so much.

The Truth doesn’t always win

When you factor into the mix the proliferation of social media the possibilities of manipulating the news become much clearer. The news momentum surges online, bringing expectations for content. A Trump fan describes what happens next:

Social media has become a source of news in and of itself for the very lazy journalism industry over the last few years. They skim what other people find interesting, put it into 300-700 words or less of boilerplate, and boom, content. Hundreds of millions of people rely on Facebook’s trending column or their Twitter feeds for this kind of news, and some of that news itself is recursively drawn from those trend lists. Nothing has to even happen in the real world … for us to become newsworthy anymore. We just meme things into reality.”

Once the momentum for a story is happening online and on social media, the role of traditional news outlets can be to legitimize, rather than to report an event.

The case of the gruesome Islamic State videos is a good example.

In an earlier time, media would block those images of IS captives in their final moments. These days with the explosion of choice online and social media, the mainstream media’s use of the images ensured they circulated even further.

Unlike the old days, when the media was elite and there was a scarcity of news outlets, today, online, simply refraining from reporting an item doesn’t mean the story dies.

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A different pace of news  in past – legendary editor Harold Hayes (Magazine.wfu.edu)

With enough interest, the traffic will simply flow around the site that doesn’t offer the images, to find the one that does. Few editors could afford (literally) to not run still photos of the chilling IS imagery, for example, at least for the first few times it happened.

Russian misinformation exploits a similar swarm dynamic, by marshaling diverse voices to say the same thing – even from contradictory angles – in the process creating what is in effect a brute force attack on reported reality. 

Just look at the stories about Hillary Clinton’s health. It first originated years ago in the US around the time of Benghazi hearings. But the meme has had a powerful comeback during the 2016 election, helped by the full force of Russia-backed trolls and media outlets.

https://twitter.com/SputnikInt/status/767559439641567232

It brings to mind the RAND Corporation’s analysis of what they call the “Firehose of Falsehoods” propaganda strategy:

Russian propaganda is produced in incredibly large volumes and is broadcast or otherwise distributed via a large number of channels. This propaganda includes text, video, audio, and still imagery propagated via the Internet, social media, satellite television, and traditional radio and television broadcasting. The producers and disseminators include a substantial force of paid Internet “trolls” who also often attack or undermine views or information that runs counter to Russian themes, doing so through online chat rooms, discussion forums, and comments sections on news and other websites.

“It may come as little surprise that the psychology literature supports the persuasive potential of high-volume, diverse channels and sources, along with rapidity and repetition. These aspects of Russian propaganda make intuitive sense…This next characteristic, however, flies in the face of intuition and conventional wisdom, which can be paraphrased as ‘The truth always wins.’

“…Why might this disinformation be effective? First, people are often cognitively lazy. Due to information overload (especially on the Internet), they use a number of different heuristics and shortcuts to determine whether new information is trustworthy. Second, people are often poor at discriminating true information from false information—or remembering that they have done so previously.”

Hashtag hegemony

Glaring distortions appear to be a common tactic. Consider the DNC Leaks story. A reasonable examination of the facts shows the emails of the Democratic Party weren’t “leaked” but rather, hacked – by Guccifer 2.0, who is thought to be linked to Russia.

Yet the message of the DNC Leaks, we were relentlessly told by WikiLeaks and Russia-backed media, was that it supposedly showed “election fraud.” The reality was the emails showed some Democratic Party insiders were partial to Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders before the nomination process ran its course.

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Searches on Hillary’s health

There was inside party favouritism. But that’s not quite the same as outright election fraud, which involves “misrepresentation or alteration of the true results of an election.”

Even the hashtag “DNCLeaks” is incorrect. But in the initial push from the partisans and trolls (and WikiLeaksand WikiLeaks) to get the story online, “DNCLeaks” was the hashtag.

For media to write their stories, they would likely use the “DNCLeaks” hashtag (because it was trending) when publishing it onto social media. This decision reinforced the meme of news that supports Donald Trump (and presumably Russia’s) position – that the US election is somehow rigged.

If the mainstream media wants to buy into the story, they have to use the partisans’ terms.

In the early moments of the breaking news situation, the short window of time media outlets have to match each others stories, even if people pushed back against DNCLeak to call it DNCHack, the sheer volume of partisans, and then innocents, retweeting and posting and titling headlines with “DNCLeak” establish a kind of hegemony of the hashtag.

In this way, debunking and fact-checking is of limited use. As the the Great Communicator said, “If you’re explaining, your losing.”

During a brute force attack on reality, the hope that Truth will always win out seems a bit quaint and wrapped up in the communications technology of the 20th Century.

Ideology part of psychology

The effect of these campaigns is visible today: If Hillary Clinton is not facing a grave, yet hidden disease,  why is Western media talking about her health? If Russia is fomenting rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, why does Western media discuss the issue as a populist uprising by local Ukrainians? Did Russia make the first move in destabilizing Ukraine? Or did the US by expanding NATO too close to Russia? Nothing conclusive. Just enough to sow doubts in the mind of the public.

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Another way to communicate: Brubeck in Krakow (U of the Pacific)

Russia media is adept at getting breaking news stories up online quickly. RT and Sputnik apparently devote considerable resources to their breaking news desks. Sputnik has a direct line to the Kremlin to “discuss secret things”, which could be handy for some stories. The strength of the well reported fact serves the larger cause of foisting ideological distortions and propaganda on Western publics.

Russia-originated fictions migrating into mainstream Western news create doubt about the entire political Western political process. In this way, today’s Russian propaganda draws on a storied history.

The great advance of Russia propaganda in the 20th century was “making ideology part of psychological warfare.” 

The landscape of the internet is more fertile for this than the print world. So the arguments – globalized online – are even more seductive to Western publics genuinely searching for answers in a post-growth world.

If you are aggrieved by globalization, you are for nationalism, Russian propaganda says. (The return of nationalism is the supposed takeaway message from Russia’s discussion of the UK’s Brexit), an event which RT and Sputnik backed.

In the 1927, the Communist International’s slogan used to be “Against War, for the Soviet Union”.

See? So if you didn’t want war, then you were implicitly aligned with the Soviet Union, a country that – before fighting Hitler’s Nazis – would first make a pact with them.

Today if you’re fed up with the status quo in the West, then you should be really angry about Hillary Clinton’s actions in Libya, or the fact that the billionaire George Soros supports pro-democracy NGOs in Europe.

The new online reality we all live with means news travels so fast that no one can seem to stop the momentum once it starts. That being the case, governments in the West should fear the effect of propaganda like this. As in past times, when they turned even to jazz to get their message out, today Western governments may have to look for a fresh way to counter efforts that resist traditional fact-checking and accurate reporting.

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Donald Trump and his fascist, klansmen Twitter fans

Just an update with some information. According to hashtag parsing site, Hashtagify, two of Donald Trump’s biggest “influencers” tweeting out messages about the businessmen have “facists” [sic] and “klansmen” in their Twitter handle, and they follow hardly anyone. (all links as of May 1, 2016). Influencers are based on “the activity of each user for that hashtag, on the engagement the activity creates and on its reach”

The @Klansmen4Trump Twitter feed simply retweets the same gif of a soccer player with the phrase “The Jews did this.”

The top “influencer”, @amrightnow, belongs to a site in “New Jersey, USA” that has no other information available for it.

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Klansmen4Trump’s Twitter page – repeats the same tweet without interruption.

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With a swastika on Trump’s forehead, Facists4Trump doesn’t even look like a authentic fascist page.

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By contrast, the top “influencer” of Hillary Clinton’s tweets was FoxNews in same time.

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Clearly Hashtagify is only one measure of Twitter influence, but it’s indicative. The analysis suggests there is something fishy with Donald Trump’s phantom tweet army. His dominant online presence aids the perception that his campaign has real-world mass appeal. The flood of Trump social media exaggerates the support he has from Americans. But on social media we don’t really know where in the real world anyone is. New Jersey, St Louis, or Saint Petersburg – the social media account holders could be anywhere. But the influence on the perceptions in the US election cycle, as Trump as dominant online figure, are real.

 

Russian propaganda, Europe and the news confusion

It seems so matter of fact. European nations want the EU to begin to counter Russian propaganda. Four EU nations including Britain, Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania have written to the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, saying the EU needs to “provide credible and competitive information alternatives to Russian speaking populations and those use Russia’s state-controlled media.”

They blame Russia’s “disinformation and propaganda campaign” calling it an “asymmetric response to Western economic power.”

EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini
EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini

UK prime minister David Cameron has raised the issue of Russian propaganda with US president Barack Obama, with fears Russian news channels were “pumping out a distorted picture” of events in Ukraine. The Baltic leaders tabled the issue at the G20 summit in Brisbane, where Russian president Vladimir Putin was getting the cold shoulder from a lot of other leaders.

It seems so matter of fact. But this could be one of those moments when the world changes. The great, chaotic commons of news shared across nations since the end of the Soviet Union may now start to slowly fade. In its place could, we could begin to see a Balkanized news environment, where competitive, competing, even conflicting world views color accounts of events.

Then the anything-goes freewheeling nature of a lot of free media may have to give way to news that is more verifiable, more sober, even. We will see. As I wrote for Fairfax:

Today’s Russian propaganda doesn’t advocate for a new utopian world. Instead it sows doubt in the minds of Western citizens. RT’s motto of ‘Question More.’ is telling.

And historians will dwell on the irony that Russia’s propaganda these days aims to exaggerate and exacerbate Westerners’ skepticism for their own governments and leaders. A lot of skepticism is legitimate and natural (look at the Great Recession, the Wall Street bailouts, the uneven austerity of Europe). But the intent of the Russian propaganda is to increase Western doubt, confusion and scorn, rather than letting these critical wind flow east, back to Ukraine and Moscow.