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.
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.”]
“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.
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.