Britain went to the polls today in a general election whose result won't be known until tomorrow, and for which even exit polls will be unavailable for several hours yet. The contest has been marked by one late-breaking incident that appears to be a Russian information operation: last week Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn brandished papers that he said amounted to a secret Tory plan to "sell" the National Health Service to the Americans in order to sweeten a bilateral trade agreement then under negotiation. Mr. Corbyn indeed had some documents to brandish, but Reddit, their apparent source, traced them to a Russian influence campaign that prompted Reddit to shutter sixty-one accounts and one subreddit for "misuse of the platform." The operators appear to be the ones Atlantic Council researchers flagged earlier this year as responsible for the Secondary Infektion campaign, which also had a threat-to-NHS theme. As the Guardian reports, Mr. Corbyn says the documents are genuine, as they appear to be, and that it's all nonsense to worry about a Russian provenance for the leak, and besides, he's not saying where they came from. Wherever the documents came from (and it looks a lot like Russia), Reuters reports the general opinion of British and US intelligence agencies that they were obtained by sophisticated operators who took unusual pains to cover their tracks. British investigators are looking into the possibility that this was a "hack and leak" operation. What was the truth behind the papers? It's not, apparently, the implausible gambit of offering to "sell" NHS to the Yanks. Rather, there seems to have been some consideration of giving NHS data to some US big data firms for presumably mutually beneficial analysis.
Russian trolls have been active against public opinion in Lithuania, with an uptick in activity noticeable since early September. The target is NATO, and the messaging trades on Second World War fears of Germany and Cold War fears of the US. And there are the now-familiar class of memes that portray local authorities as untrustworthy. Lithuania’s government is working against the disinformation, but Kaunas is tight-lipped concerning specifics on grounds of operational security, Nextgov reports. The topics are tailored to domestic, hot-button issues, and the lies get their customary bodyguard of truth. For example, German Bundeswehr troops are said to be desecrating cemeteries with swastikas. That didn’t happen, of course, but memories of the World Wars remain a lot rawer in Europe than they are on the other side of the Atlantic. And besides--here’s the true part--Germany is a NATO ally, and German troops do exercise with Lithuanian forces. Or consider this theme: the US is moving the nuclear weapon detachments it used to keep in Turkey over to Lithuania. Did the US establish nuclear weapons detachments in some NATO countries during the Cold War? Yes it did. Here’s the true part: Turkey is still a NATO ally, and there have been US detachments at Incirlik. And US-Turkish relations have been strained recently, especially since Turkey decided to purchase some Russian-built air-defense systems. Is the US moving tactical nuclear weapons to Lithuania? No. The fake news feeds generally represent NATO troops as a barbarian threat to the peace and safety of the locals, and the Lithuanian government as ineffectual dupes. The disinformation campaign is instructive in the way it's consistent with the style established in earlier Russian information operations. It probably foreshadows themes and tactics that will appear in other places, especially during elections.
The Russian effort against Lithuania is noteworthy in that it has a positive objective: alienation of popular opinion from NATO. The prevailing Russian style has been disruptive, more interested in increasing the opposition's friction than in bringing about any particular result. The Baltic States have shown unusual sensitivity to cyber attacks and other information operations, punching far above their weight within the context of the NATO alliance. That sensitivity, of course, was honed over five unhappy decades of Soviet rule. Jānis Sārts, the Latvian officer who directs a NATO group in Riga that works against Russian disinformation operations, told POLITICO that, unfortunately, the West hasn't been able to keep up with the Russian informational optempo. "At best, we've had modest success in combating these threats," he said. "The issue is evolving so quickly. If there's a gap, someone is going to exploit it." Western governments continue to struggle with developing an appropriate response to disinformation. Social media have proven effective channels through which highly targeted memes can flow, effectively eroding what common ground might be found between contending groups. Such erosion has been the Russian government's characteristic goal.
Thus recent disinformation operations are seen by many observers, the Washington Post among them, as amounting to a foreshadowing of what can be expected in the US 2020 elections. And the New York Times sees one effect of such operations already evident in the context of the British general election: political parties are increasingly adopting tactics used by nation-state adversaries and trying to turn them against their domestic electoral opponents.
Some other predictions about the near future of disinformation surfaced this week. Recorded Future described the extent to which Russia's FSB (probable home of Cozy Bear) had succeeded in hijacking Iranian cyberattack infrastructure for use against other nations. This is not only convenient for Russia, but it also affords their operators an easy and specious false flag to fly above their own campaigns. The Register reports on a Black Hat Europe presentation that outlined how easy it is to mount plausible false flag operations. And credit bureau Experian takes a look at the ongoing development of deep fakes and concludes that, with respect to next year's US elections, we ain't seen nuthin' yet.