At a glance.
- Beijing's deniable influence operations.
- Cyber aggression, and biowar, and...geophysically motivated aggression, too. It's those Anglo-Saxons (says TASS).
- The difficulties of content moderation.
- Transparency and authenticity.
- The challenges of official fact checking and rumor control.
Beijing's deniable influence operations.
Reports by Australian and US organizations outline different aspects of ongoing Chinese influence campaigns.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has published a study in which it describes the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party has fostered the development of an "influence-for-hire" sector among criminal organizations that operate in Southeast Asia. "This activity involves the Chinese government’s spreading of influence and disinformation campaigns using fake personas and inauthentic accounts on social media that are linked to transnational criminal organisations." The operation creates and procures inauthentic social media accounts, often accompanied by profiles festooned with AI-generated images and associated content. A fair amount of Party-sponsored influence shares features with activity designed to support illegal online gambling (and associated fraud) by Wagner International, a China-based gaming company. The researchers think it possible "that what we’re seeing here is an overlap in the outsourcing (of private contractors) being done between China’s security services, which need to maintain their global information operations, and those groups using inauthentic accounts to promote criminal networks, such as Warner International." The Institute sees this overlap as foreshadowing a period of greater danger from scalable disinformation and influence operations.
In the US, Mandiant has observed Chinese attempts to plant narratives designed to shape American opinion. In this case the work is organized, appropriately enough, by a Chinese public relations firm, Shanghai Haixun Technology Co., Ltd. (Mandiant calls its activity, punningly, HaiEnergy.) Last August Mandiant reported on Haixun's use of traditional PR tactics: purchasing billboard ads, placing stories through wire services, etc. More recently, "Mandiant has identified additional dissemination vectors leveraged by HaiEnergy, which includes two self-described 'press release' services—'Times Newswire' (timesnewswire.com) and 'World Newswire' (wdwire.com)—and at least 32 subdomains of legitimate U.S.-based news outlets resolving to third-party infrastructure associated with a U.S.-based company named 'FinancialContent, Inc.'” HaiEnergy is active in the freelance content production marketplace, and in many respects seems to avail itself of lawful resources in what's more of a grey- than a black-market operation. Mandiant thinks HaiEnergy has failed to gain much traction, but it also concludes that the operators remain determined, and are likely to escalate to the organization of in-person physical protests in the United States, some of which it's already trialed.
Cyber aggression, and biowar, and...geophysically motivated aggression, too. It's those Anglo-Saxons (says TASS).
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, attending the BRICS meetings in Johannesburg, South Africa, accused the US of running an aggressive cyber campaign against Russia. TASS is authorized to disclose that Mr. Patrushev said, "The Pentagon’s cybercommand, the National Security Agency and the Tallinn-based NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence are planning and steering information attacks under the Ukrainian flag on our country’s critical information infrastructure. American special services enlist Ukrainian hacker groups for such attacks." The operations, in TASS's recounting of his remarks, extend to "Russia’s financial infrastructure, transport, energy, and telecom facilities, as well as industrial enterprises and government services websites." Mr. Patrushev added, "It is a secret to no one that Washington and its allies are directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine. Along with the aggressive information and propaganda campaign and weapons supplies, the US Special Operations Command is supervising the activities of the Ukrainian Center for Information and Psychological Operations. The collective West has taken the course of militarizing the information space and improving computer attack methods."
Mr. Patrushev has been a font of implausibility in his earlier appearance on the international stage. In April he accused the US of preparing, inter alia, a biological war against Russia. In May he solemnly advised the Collective West not to cut itself off from the benefits of scientific collaboration with Russia. Russian scientific expertise might save the world, and the West in particular, from many disasters, like an eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera. TASS explained Mr. Patrushev's reasoning. "He recommended that Washington, which he said had the power to determine the fate of other countries and peoples, should bear in mind that the ancient Romans living in Pompeii also enjoyed an affluent lifestyle, 'while not being immune to various perversions and depravity.' Patrushev cited recent research showing that a simulated eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, which has shown increasing signs of active volcanic status over the years, and what consequences such a natural disaster could potentially leave in its wake. Thus, 'it is believed that all life forms extant in North America would inevitably die off,' he said, referring to a scenario whereunder an eruption at the heretofore dormant Yellowstone would trigger a chain reaction featuring the eruption of other volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and acid rainfall, affecting the bulk of the planet’s population. 'However, while this [scenario] may concern the population of America, its politicians seem unperturbed,' Patrushev opined."
How Russian geologists would be in a position to save America from an eruption of Old Faithful's volcanic granddaddy was unclear, but perhaps it's the thought that counts. Along of course with the stern avuncular advice to knock off the perversions and depravity, Yankees. Why such things as gambling, fast driving, hanky-panky, and too much television would affect the Yellowstone Caldera is unclear, but perhaps Russian geologists have made some surprising behavioral connections between moral decline and volcanic event.
Still, it's complicated. Mr. Patrushev suggested darkly that America's indifference to its coming obliteration by a Yellowstone eruption is due to a malign Anglo-Saxon plot to take possession of the "Heartland," that is, Russia. TASS explained, "The senior Russian security official also highlighted claims by 'some in America that Eastern Europe and Siberia would be the safest places to take refuge in the event of a potential eruption. This is perhaps why the Anglo-Saxon elites are seeking to take possession of the Heartland itself,' he concluded." So wave good-bye to Pocatello and shuffle off to Chelyabinsk; forget about the Grand Tetons and enjoy those Ural vistas.
The difficulties of content moderation.
The challenges of content moderation were on display in Facebook this week, where Julia Davis, Daily Beast columnist and founder of the invaluable Russian Media Monitor (which offers translations of current Russian television and other media) found one of her posts running afoul of the social medium's monitors. She had quoted a Russian state television personality who said, of the Ukrainians, "all these roaches have to be found and killed." It was quoted, of course, as a critique, but Facebook mechanically banned her account. "Your post goes against our Community Standards on violence and incitement," the screamer on the warning said. The monitors went on to explain, "No one else can see your post. We have these standards because we want everyone to feel safe, respected and welcome. If your content goes against our Community Standards again, your account may be restricted or disabled. You can disagree with the decision if you think we got it wrong." To its credit, Facebook restored the post a few hours later, saying, "Your post is now back on Facebook. We're sorry we got it wrong."
The incident suggests how difficult it is to monitor and police content directly, even with sound standards and good intentions. Facebook's concerns about incitement aren't prissy or frivolous. The platform has been heavily criticized for abuse by actual violent extremists in parts of the world where Facebook is practically coextensive with the local Internet, and where it's been used to organize ethnic violence. The problem is that it's difficult for human moderators to slog through the sheer volume of content, even if they approach their work well-informed, well-intentioned, and able to put their own prejudices aside, all of which can be, humans being human, pretty big ifs. And it's not obvious that the rise of the machines represents a short-term solution either: AI notoriously struggles handling both context and intensionality. It's ironic that a post exposing incitement to violence should itself be banned for incitement, but then content moderation also has trouble with irony.
Transparency and authenticity.
Facebook has for some time, and with commendable diligence, concentrated on transparency, exposing what it called "coordinated inauthenticity," that is, organized accounts whose nominal owners were not the real owners. It would identify and take down accounts found to be engaged in the practice. (See the discussion above of Chinese Communist Party influence operations for examples of coordinated inauthenticity.)
Facebook's corporate parent Meta had also pursued transparency by labeling state-operated media as such on its platforms. It's unclear, however, whether Meta will extend the practice of labeling accounts as state-run media to its new microblogging platform Threads. The Wall Street Journal notes that "State-backed news outlets from Russia and other authoritarian governments have rushed to join Meta Platforms’ new Threads microblogging service, posting propaganda such as a fake video purporting to show President Biden in a store perusing books on dementia. Unlike on Facebook and Instagram, their verified accounts on Threads aren’t labeled as state-controlled media, raising questions over how the Facebook parent intends to police content on its Twitter rival that launched this month. Twitter, now being rebranded as X, in 2020 began applying labels to state-run news organizations; under Elon Musk, it removed them in April."
The challenges of official fact checking and rumor control.
Facebook is a private company, and so its content moderation raises no immediate First Amendment problems. But government involvement with content moderation arguably does. On July 4th Judge Terry A. Doughty of the US District Court for the Western District of Louisiana handed down a preliminary injunction in the State of Missouri, et al. versus Joseph R. Biden Jr., et al., in which he barred a number of Federal officials and agencies from contacting social media companies for the purpose of discouraging or removing speech protected by the First Amendment. While Judge Doughty observed that most of the speech the plaintiffs alleged had been subject to unconstitutional suppression was conservative in ideology or political tendency (and that it arguably amounted to the sort of viewpoint discrimination that should trigger strict scrutiny) he also noted that this wasn't always the case (speech by Democratic dark horse Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, also came in for adverse attention). Much of the speech the plaintiffs allege the government attempted to suppress had to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. While acknowledging the seriousness of the threat to public health, the preliminary injunction suggests that such concern for public safety doesn't override Constitutional guarantees of free speech. The case is still pending--this decision was a preliminary injunction enjoining certain government activities--but it might reasonably be taken as a sign that future approaches to disinformation should be closer to traditional rumor control--that is, more speech--than to cutting-edge close attention to content moderation.
The current state of Russian censorship.
To see what official censorship looks like in a country whose government isn't shy about flexing its muscles with little regard for civil liberties, see the Kremlin's current engagement with Vkontakte. As internal stress increases with continued indifferent-to-poor performance in its war against Ukraine, Russia has increased its domestic censorship. The New York Times puts that increase at "thirty-fold." The Times cites a report by the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which yesterday released a study of censorship of the social platform Vkontakte (which translates to "In contact;" the service is roughly speaking a Russophone analog to Facebook). Citizen Lab found that 94,942 videos, 1,569 community accounts, and 787 personal accounts had been blocked. Vkontakte's censorship runs mainly inside Russia. The censorship doesn't appear to extend to Vkontakte users in Canada or Ukraine. The blocking and takedowns are driven by content, and include media reports on Russia's war against Ukraine.