Concerned with the growing furor over "deep fakes," that is, fabricated digital media designed to push a false narrative, Congress charged the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA, the US Intelligence Community's analogue of the more famous DARPA) with organizing a research competition to reward anyone who can come up with ways of reliably detecting such deep fakes, presumably at scale. C4ISRNET says a $5 million prize is being offered.
Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty has published a round-up of what it calls the top-ten pieces of disinformation that were peddled to unwary and uncritical consumers of news during 2019. Most of them betray the hidden hand of Moscow's intelligence and security organs. They are, in no particular order, the following:
- Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 US elections. This story, alas, gained currency when the White House carelessly woofed about the Democratic National Committee's server having been handed over to a Ukrainian company and withheld from the FBI. The company in question, CrowdStrike, is an American company (based in southern California) the DNC hired to image their server when they were warned they may have been compromised by Russia's GRU and FSB. CrowdStrike and the US Intelligence Community concluded that in fact first Cozy Bear and then Cozy's noisier sister Fancy Bear had indeed been in the DNC's networks. CrowdStrike's founder is Dmitri Alperovich, who immigrated to the US as a child, but either "Dmitri" or "Alperovich" strikes people as close enough to a Ukrainian name to arouse (groundless) suspicion. This particular bit of fake news originated with Russia, according to testimony by Russia specialist and former National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill gave to a House impeachment panel. Other US Intelligence Community officials corroborated her testimony to the New York Times.
- Ukrainian 'reeducation' camps. Rossiya-1, a Russian state television channel, said that Ukraine's government had a secret plan for ethnic and linguistic cleansing should it recapture territory lost to Russian forces and their implausibly deniable "green-men" proxies. Websites retailing the bogus story have been connected, by the RFE|RL Russian language service Current Time, to Moscow-aligned separatist groups.
- American officers training Ukrainian troops deride them as "lazy slackers." Also, corrupt, greedy, drunk dummies. These assessments appeared in a fabricated blog purporting to be the work of US Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Tracy, who commands the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine in Yavoriv. The fake blog has been debunked by the US Department of Defense, which calls it the work of "an unidentified troll," but one obviously aligned with Moscow. The phony blog has disappeared, but it found plenty of takers while it was up.
- Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg was denounced as a tool of the Swedish government, an ISIS sympathizer, and (our favorite) a secret time traveler. Much of this seems to have been spontaneous animosity, but at least one group, described as a "radical free market network," has acknowledged an interest in discrediting her.
- Russia and Serbia are investigating cancers caused by NATO bombings in the late 1990s. The cooperative cancer research is real, but the connection between NATO and cancer is the fabrication of Serbian tabloids.
- US Speaker of the House Pelosi is slurring her words. This appeared on Facebook as a relatively shallow "deep fake."
- Serbian troops commit sexual assault against Albanian women. A Kosovar lawmaker displayed disturbing photos as evidence that Serbian troops were guilty of wartime rape. They may indeed have been, since mass rape has long been credibly reported, but the pictures the parliamentarian brandished were no evidence at all: they came from a porn movie, as journalists were quick to recognize.
- Russian cadets design advanced robots. RIA Novosti showed President Putin with a cadet's invention. But, as Znak pointed out, the robots weren't inventions at all, but rather South Korean toys anyone can buy from Amazon.
- Gays are buying children in a Belgian "livestock bazaar." Russia's NTV tweeted this bogus story, consistent with its narrative concerning Western moral degradation.
- Estonia is effectively under gay occupation. No again, but that's the story in St. Petersburg's Channel 5.
Connoisseurs of information operations will recognize the familiar goals of disruption. Six and possibly seven of the stories appear to have been retailed in the Russian interest, one appears to have been seized upon by politicians in Kosovo, and the remaining two appear to be the work of political cranks. But don't spend too much time deconstructing them for a hidden agenda. The agenda came down to instilling mistrust and eroding civil society in the adversary.
Disinformation doesn't always emanate only from Russia. Facebook has taken down another set of accounts for the coordinated inauthenticity the social network has fixed on as the touchstone of disinformation. One of the two networks was centered in Georgia and produced material for domestic consumption. The other originated in Vietnam and the US, and appeared to be operating in the interest of Hanoi.
And the US is said, by the Washington Post, to be working to build a retaliatory information operations capability it could deploy against Russian officials and oligarchs, should the expected Russian disinformation campaign emerge during the US 2020 election season.