At a glance.
- A different kind of TikTok challenge.
- Krasnyy osel?
NSA Director describes adversaries' use of social media for influence campaigns.
General Paul Nakasone, Director, NSA, this week told the Senate Armed Services Committee that foreign influence efforts continued to target Americans, and that such efforts can be expected to be used in attempts to disrupt or shape US elections. "We've seen it in the elections. We've seen it with Russia, Ukraine, we've seen it with Iran, the same actors that…interfere in our elections are the same actors that are doing influence operations,” DefenseOne quoted him as saying. “We see the influence piece much more prevalent these days.” General Nakasone sees cooperation with social media platforms as essential to blunting such attempts at influence.
Nakasone sees TikTok in particular as a problem in view of its widespread influence. CNN reports that he drew attention not only to the platform's ability to push messages through automated serving and collect data, but also to the potential it holds as a tool for censorship. “It’s not only the fact that you can influence something, but you can also turn off the message as well when you have such a large population of listeners.”
He didn't say, although we will, that TikTok probably has an unusually credulous and uncritical set of users, even by social media standards. And while any thinking person would welcome less twerking, no more nasal spray tanning products, fewer rotoscoped genitalia, and an end to Orbeez challenges, these are unlikely to be sorts of messages that would undergo suppression by Beijing.
Or at least, suppression in feeds served up to Western users. It's not as if the Chinese Communist Party is blind to the detrimental effects TikTok can have on teens and tweens in particular. MIT Technology Review describes the measures taken to restrict the amount of time users below a certain age can spend on the platform. The problem is seen as the risk of addiction.
Troll calling. Will you hold?
Proofpoint on Tuesday described an ongoing campaign by a "Russia-aligned threat actor," TA499 (also known as "Vovan" or "Lexus"), to engage Western political and business leaders in voice or video calls. The calls are recorded, and they appear designed to gather raw material that can be used to produce content that would tend to discredit those who have publicly supported Ukraine. "The calls are almost certainly a pro-Russia propaganda effort designed to create negative political content about those who have spoken out against Russian President Vladimir Putin and, in the last year, opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine," Proofpoint summarizes, adding, "TA499 is not a threat to take lightly due to the damage such propaganda could have on the brand and public perception of those targeted as well as the perpetuation of disinformation."
TA499 clearly functions as an auxiliary of the Russian security and intelligence services, although how much direction and support it receives from its masters remains unclear. Proofpoint calls the group "an impersonation-based, patriotically motivated misinformation pair of actors aligned with the Russian state, adding: "The group has a record of targeting high-profile persons of interest that have spoken out about the Russian regime, in favor of sanctions against Russia, and against the detainment of well-known Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. While the level of official government support TA499 receives is unknown, the recordings are generally used to garner support and sympathy for the current Russian regime and their actions."
Engagement begins with emails inviting the target to join a call. The emails commonly impersonate a Ukrainian embassy. Should the target agree to a call, TA499 will use a video deepfake to impersonate a trusted interlocutor. Once the target is induced to make a statement in the Ukrainian interest, the threat actor engages in what Proofpoint calls "antics" designed to fluster the target into doing or saying something embarrassing.
This is disinformation for the influencer age. "TA499 is a very public group that is garnering a fan following," Proofpoint concludes. "They have personas that not only post the material discussed in this report online but also perform reenactments on Russia state-sponsored media as well as attend conferences. With the war between Russia and Ukraine unlikely to end in the near-term and Ukraine continuing to garner support from organizations worldwide, Proofpoint assesses with high confidence that TA499 will attempt to continue with its campaigns in support of its influencer content and political agenda. TA499 is likely to reuse old or establish additional infrastructure in support of this activity." It's Jackass from Red Square, the Jerky Boys in geopolitical harness. I.P. Freeley, call your office.