At a glance.
- China plays offense and defense.
- Commercial disinformation ("fraud," they used to call it).
- Moscow sees disinformation in British complaints that Russia harbors cybercriminals.
- Disinformation and political speech.
Beijing plays offense and defense.
China has been busily amplifying tweets and other online utterances by Liu Xiaoming, formerly Beijing's ambassador to London and currently China’s Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs, the AP reports. Liu has attracted a considerable online following of Wolf Warriors, but these appear to be largely astroturf, bogus accounts created and marshalled for purposes of amplification.
The Chinese government is also working to suppress "unhealthy online content," CGTN reports. The Cyberspace Administration of China is taking steps against "vulgar and violent content, internet algorithms abuse, online fraud, cyber violence, malignant cyber business operations and news distortion."
Disinformation for hire.
Facebook is seeing a rise in organizations offering disinformation-as-a-service. CyberScoop has an overview of what the social medium is seeing, and it appears that more contractors are offering to push deceptive narratives for customers. Some of those services are aligned with states, but others appear to be simply hired guns. In some respects this is an old practice: dishonest marketing, spin, and lobbying are by no means new. What is new is the exploitation of new methods of amplification.
Commercial disinformation, a.k.a. fraudulent reviews.
Another old problem, fraudulent reviews, is also gaining fresh attention. SlashGear has a follow-up to an investigation the Safety Detectives published earlier this year. The Safety Detectives had found an exposed ElasticSearch database associated with a dishonest campaign to goose Amazon reviews. The process worked like this:
- "The information found on the open ElasticSearch server outlines a common procedure by which Amazon vendors procure ‘fake reviews’ for their products."
- "These Amazon vendors send to reviewers a list of items/products for which they would like a 5-star review. The people providing the ‘fake reviews’ will then buy the products, leaving a 5-star review on Amazon a few days after receiving their merchandise."
- "Upon completion, the provider of the fake review will send a message to the vendor containing a link to their Amazon profile, along with their PayPal details."
- "Once the Amazon vendor confirms all reviews have been completed, the reviewer will receive a refund through PayPal, keeping the items they bought for free as a form of payment."
- "The refund for any purchased goods is actioned through PayPal and not directly through Amazon’s platform. This makes the five-star review look legitimate, so as not to arouse suspicion from Amazon moderators."
The Safety Detectives go one better than report the scam. They offer some useful rules-of-thumb (not algorithms) that might help people recognize fraudulent product reviews:
- "Be skeptical of extreme reviews." Any extreme, whether positive or negative, should be viewed with suspicion.
- "Look for suspicious language." The Safety Detectives think bogus reviews tend to seem less engagé, less "emotional." They also think genuine reviews seldom read like advertising, or bad-mouth competitors.
- "Look for generic statements about the product." Are they written as if they're pushing talking points, or as if they're designed for search engine optimization? That's suspicious.
- "Fake reviews can be shorter." Shorter is usually faster, and offer a quicker return.
- "Be extra-vigilant when buying from unknown brands."
- "Check for irrelevant information." A practice called "review merging" involves the labor-saving step of republishing reviews of other products.
- "Cross-examine five-star reviews with bad ones." Do negative reviews mention issues the five-star reviews don't? Do five-star reviews recast bugs as features?
- "Check the reviewer’s account." If they post multiple positive (or negative) reviews of the same vendor's various products, they may be fake. And a lack of personal information in their profile, or random buying habits, might also be a warning flag.
- "Check for patterns." If a bad review is followed by a cluster of highly positive ones, you may be seeing paid damage control.
- "Check the dates of reviews." In fact, clusters might well be treated as always suspect until they're cleared. "If a product’s five-star reviews have been posted before the product was listed, or over a short time-span, they could well be fake."
This discussion of product reviews might have broader implications. The Verge notes that a similar effort at astroturfing may have occurred during the US debate over net neutrality, with opponents mobilizing inauthentic voices in an effort to influence policy. They cite an investigation by the New York Attorney General, which looked into the public comment phase of the policy-making debate. (The title of the AG's report, "Fake Comments: How U.S. Companies & Partisans Hack Democracy to Undermine Your Voice," is itself a bit tendentious, but then see the discussion below of Flag Officers 4 America, below.)
UK criticizes Russia for harboring cybercriminals. Russian embassy in London charges disinformation, hypocrisy.
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab called out Russia for effectively permitting cybercriminals to operate from its territory with impunity:
"In the last year the National Cyber Security Centre dealt with 723 major cyber security incidents, that’s the highest figure since the NCSC was formed five years ago. In total, last year, they stopped 700,000 online scams targeting the UK.
"Now some of this activity is aimed at theft or extortion. But it is all too often just focused on sabotage and disruption, and I think its worth saying these actors are the industrial-scale vandals of the twenty-first century.
"But, that doesn’t mean it is random. These hostile state actors and criminal gangs want to undermine the very foundations of our democracy.
"And let’s be clear, when states like Russia have criminals or gangs operating from their territory they cannot hold up their hands and say not them but they have a responsibility to prosecute them, not shelter them."
Russia shrugs the accusation off as familiar British duplicity. "Another example of UK propaganda and disinformation. Britain is rejecting Russia's multiple offers of cooperation on cyber, fails to liaise with the dedicated Russian national coordinating centre, at the same time sheltering dozens of Russian money launderers and other criminals," the Russian embassy in London tweeted.
Disinformation, misinformation, and political speech.
A group of retired US generals and admirals, Flag Officers 4 America, has published an open letter excoriating the Biden-Harris Administration and its Congressional allies on a number of alleged failings, including creeping socialism, fiscal irresponsibility, hostility to civil liberties, recklessness with respect to national security, and hostility to measures that would ensure fair elections. Three-hundred-seventeen retired officers signed the letter.
There are at least two things going on here. One is that the signatories are retired senior military officers. The other is the appearance that the letter is pushing a clearly debunked conspiracy theory, that is, publishing disinformation.
The first is troubling because US military officers are generally precluded, by tradition and law, from engaging in partisan politicking. That tradition is frayed, to say the least, in the case of retired officers, and, while such officers aren't generally subject to prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in some cases they are. So the area is legally murky, but dangerous. (The punitive articles that might be invoked in cases of this sort of communication might be Article 88—Contempt toward officials, or perhaps Article 133—Conduct unbecoming an officer or even the final catch-all, Article 134—Conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.) It's unlikely in the extreme that any of the signatories are going to be recalled to face a court-martial, but the letter is, in the American tradition, unusual and unseemly, although not unprecedented. Do military people often hold politicians in low regard? Sure they do, but not every opinion needs expression.
What about disinformation? Most accounts of the letter have condemned it as pushing a conspiracy theory that maintains President Biden and his party corruptly stole the 2020 election from former President Trump. But the letter doesn't actually say this. It does argue that elections should be conducted more securely, and that evidence of possible fraud should be taken seriously and investigated zealously. That's perhaps in the sentimental ballpark of this particular conspiracy theory, but it's not itself conspiracy mongering. The letter as a whole is, of course, immoderate and strongly hostile to the Democratic Party (and also poorly composed, particularly with respect to conventions of capitalization), but it's difficult to see why this isn't a case of political speech, of the kind used every day, by partisans and activists of all ideological coloration.
The incident is another interesting case of the difficulty of distinguishing disinformation from ordinary speech, whether that ordinary speech is mistaken or credible, a voice of prophecy crying in the wilderness, or just the crazy guy yelling on the street corner. One point is worth noting: it shows that inauthenticity may be a better touchstone of disinformation than truth, falsity, or propriety. After all, none of the generals or admirals seem to be pretending to be anyone other than who they are.