At a glance.
- Chinese influence campaign taken down by Meta was long-running and persistent.
- Influence laundering as Russia's long disinformation game.
- Comment on disinformation as a threat to upcoming US elections.
- The Kremlin's line on Mr. Prigozhin's death: the Anglo-Saxons did it.
- Narrative themes in Russian influence operations.
- Direct propaganda on the big screen.
- The "first sin of journalism" is disinformation.
Chinese influence campaign taken down by Meta was long-running and persistent.
Facebook's corporate parent Meta has published its Adversarial Threat Report for the second quarter of 2023. The company continued its commendable practice of concentration on inauthenticity, and in particular coordinated inauthenticity, as opposed to direct content moderation in its work against disinformation. Of particular interest in this report is the work against a Chinese campaign that the New York Times characterizes as the company's "biggest single takedown."
Meta wrote, in an accompanying announcement, "We recently took down thousands of accounts and Pages that were part of the largest known cross-platform covert influence operation in the world. It targeted more than 50 apps, including Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, Medium, Blogspot, LiveJournal, VKontakte, Vimeo, and dozens of smaller platforms and forums. For the first time, we were able to tie this activity together to confirm it was part of one operation known in the security community as Spamouflage and link it to individuals associated with Chinese law enforcement."
The campaign ran for several years and showed a particular animus against the US, although that was far from its only target. Execution wasn't uniformly sound, and Spamouflage gained little traction among potential fellow travelers and amplifiers.
The Register notes Meta's conclusion that the influence operators learn from one another (by observation from afar, that is, not necessarily as a matter of formal collaboration). In this case, Spamouflage seems to have taken Secondary Infektion as its role model.
Jason Keirstead, VP of Collective Threat Defense at Cyware, wrote to urge companies to work toward more effective cooperation against disinformation. “One of the ways in which social media companies could more effectively combat disinformation campaigns is through more effective collaboration and coordination, made possible by using frameworks such as those provided by the DISARM Foundation. Cybersecurity practitioners should be encouraging large social media companies to become more actively involved in the work of the foundation, and of the disinformation sharing standards it supports such as DAD-CDM. Development and support of these standards will allow government and industry to work together to combat disinformation campaigns more effectively.”
David Mitchell, Chief Technical Officer, HYAS, observes that the goals of China's more recent influence campaigns have been positive. That is, they seek to persuade, and not simply to confuse, their audience. “China appears to be playing a PR campaign to shine their activities in a positive light, especially when it comes to Taiwan and human rights. While this campaign doesn’t appear to have made an impact, it shows that they are tuning their capabilities to mimic what the Russians have previously pulled off." There are probably other objectives in play as well, Mitchell observes. “Based on the ties to Chinese law enforcement, this also could be an op to target and identify ex-pats overseas that do not agree with their views — potentially to relay to the Chinese police stations discovered in US and other cities."
“Security personnel, whether executive level or operators, should pay attention to disinformation campaigns just as they would an attack campaign. Disinformation can target a company (Anheuser-Busch InBev) and the links may also include phishing or malware that employees may click on, if the targeted message fits their views,” Mitchell adds, and cautions that disinformation will be with us into the foreseeable future. “While it is fantastic that Meta is finally taking a proactive stance against disinformation campaigns, this problem is going to continue to get worse during geo-political strife and election seasons. Because these platforms do not verify the identity of accounts, nor charge for their services, they are rife for coordinated nation state abuse. Dealing with these campaigns will always be a global form of whack-a-mole and will not change until social media networks change how they are monetized & valued - just a few dollars per user per month significantly increases the barrier to entry for malicious actors.”
Influence laundering as Russia's long disinformation game.
The New York Times describes the organization of a Russian influence campaign that concentrates on the use of front groups to cultivate Western influencers who can be counted on to disseminate and amplify the Russian government's chosen narratives. The Russian services are playing a long game. "The newly declassified U.S. analysis looks at how Russian intelligence services, in particular the Federal Security Service or F.S.B., have been secretly using allies inside nominally independent organizations to spread propaganda and cultivate ties with rising leaders, efforts that are intended to play out over long periods of time." It's in some respects a familiar exercise in public diplomacy, but it differs from most of these in its use of front organizations and the cultivation of "co-optees" and what used to be called, during the Cold War, "useful idiots." A representative front organization is a nongovernmental organization, Creative Diplomacy. "The organization bills itself as a public diplomacy program for aspiring leaders to facilitate dialogue with Russia." Creative Diplomacy denies any association with the Russian government; the US government thinks otherwise.
CNN notes that the narratives prominently feature the official Russian line on the war against Ukraine (the Ukrainians are Nazis, NATO is behind the war, Russia is defending its interests and protecting oppressed ethnic Russians, etc.) but they also extend to other areas of Russian interest, notably the ongoing civil conflict in Syria. One of the lines pushed about Syria accuses the White Helmets, a volunteer humanitarian relief organization operating in opposition-controlled Syrian territory, of trafficking in human organs and of faking chemical attacks by the Assad regime's armed forces.
Comment on disinformation as a threat to upcoming US elections.
Eduardo Azanza, CEO at Veridas, sent us comments on AI's potential use in influence campaigns designed to sway the upcoming US elections.
“With the upcoming US election in 2024, concerns regarding the influence of AI have come to the forefront. The pace of technological advancements has outrun the capacity of legislation to keep up, creating a race against time that the US will inevitably lose. So as constant consumers of content, we bear the responsibility of finding ways to secure the sanctity of our elections in the absence of AI regulation.
"It is of utmost importance for individuals to stick with trusted, non-biased news outlets when consuming content. As presidential candidates also begin to implement the use of deep fakes into their campaign strategy, voters must stay aware of this tactic and take caution when viewing content that seemingly aims to damage another candidate's reputation. Whenever possible, cross-referencing questionable videos or images with verified, authentic sources can help individuals validate whether what they are viewing is true.
"Deep fakes also often exhibit inconsistencies, causing facial movements to look unnatural or misaligned. Lip movements may not perfectly match speech or facial expressions and eye movements can often appear rigid.
"For other countries, the US must be looked at as a case study – the consequences of what happens when legislation is not fully equipped to handle the challenges posed by the rapid advancement of technology, especially at a pivotal time. Legislation often comes after the development of technologies and some organizations, such as NIST, are working on frameworks and guidelines to help companies unify against the wrong use of AI. However, while we await legal measures to catch up, individuals should take personal responsibility for verifying the content they encounter. Critical thinking, media literacy and a cautious approach to consuming online media are essential as technology companies, research institutions and government bodies work on developing countermeasures against deep fakes.
"As for individual threats of deep fakes, users should rely on technology companies to provide protection. Companies are developing robust technologies to fight deep fakes with AI algorithms. As the quality of deep fakes advances, these companies should be constantly evolving their solutions to incorporate new security measures. This will ensure detection accuracy and ultimately contribute to a safer digital environment.”
The Kremlin's line on Mr. Prigozhin's death: the Anglo-Saxons did it.
Russian television propagandist Vladimir Solovyov laid out the Kremlin's line on the crash that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin (via the Russian Media Monitor). "There is insane happiness in Ukraine! They are simply going wild! They are rejoicing! This demonstrates who ordered it!" His guests nodded. We will await the official results, but this is most likely a terrorist attack, and, I think," he added in the first of several non sequiturs, "the explosives were most likely placed during the repairs of the Embraer because no one can control which parts they are using. This means it couldn't have happened without NATO. It's totally obvious! It's obvious who is most inconvenienced by Wagner. That would be NATO's interests in Africa! This is a difficult situation. We should not relax!" It would seem, pace Mr. Solovyov, that President Putin was most inconvenienced by the Wagner Group, which pulled out of the line in Ukraine and undertook a march on Moscow, shooting down several Russian combat helicopters before calling off its advance. But the narrative has sought to shift attention to Africa, where the Wagner PMC has been heavily engaged for some years.
"What does this situation demonstrate?" asked Igor Markov, referred to as a "former politician." The lesson Mr. Markov draws is the importance of unity. "It shows how dangerous it is during wartime to have public conflicts among ourselves. Unfortunately our enemies did not hesitate to take advantage of that, counting on quick emotional conclusions that they anticipated people would make. Thank God our people have developed immunity against the villainy and cynicism of the West. I think the special services of only two countries were capable of this: the US and Britain. I have no doubt this is the handiwork of the British! Cynical, brazen, very calculating! With an immediate cover operation."
Narrative themes in Russian influence operations.
Russian propaganda in the active theater has taken a tactical turn, apparently aimed at undermining Ukrainian morale while simultaneously shoring up Russian domestic resolve. The Institute for the Study of War confirms five themes the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) is pursuing. "The GUR reported on August 29 that the Russian Presidential Administration held a meeting on August 25 to approve the specific narratives that Russian media should promote in the information space. The Russian narratives include claims that Ukraine is conducting mass mobilization regardless of age, gender, or health; claims that Ukraine’s Western partners are disappointed in Ukraine‘s prospects for victory; claims that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is failing; claims that the Ukrainian government is completely corrupt and is not fighting corruption and; claims that Russian authorities provide good living standards and conditions in occupied Ukraine. Russian First Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko and Russian media representatives reportedly attended the meeting. ISW has observed all five false narratives in the Russian information space."
Direct propaganda on the big screen.
Russia's movie industry is beginning to produce, at government request, feature films to push the Kremlin's line on the war against Ukraine. In outline, the AP reports, the program goes something like this. "Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the Culture Ministry to ensure theaters screen documentaries about the 'special military operation,' as the Kremlin calls its war in Ukraine. The ministry also has prioritized themes when allocating state funding for films. These include 'heroism and selflessness of Russian warriors' in Ukraine and 'battling modern manifestations of the Nazi and fascist ideology' — a false accusation Putin makes about Kyiv’s leaders."
The AP predicts that the movies will fall flat, in part because of a growing unwillingness of Russian audiences to think about the war. One of the bigger productions, "Witness," a film about a visiting Belgian violinist who sees bestial Ukrainian Nazi atrocities and wants to tell the world about them, opened on August 17th and has so far done poorly at the box office. It earned only 6.7 million rubles (roughly $70,000) during its first weekend.
The "first sin of journalism" is disinformation. (That's arguably true. Also, one sin of leadership might be careless inspirational rhetoric.)
Barron's reports that Pope Francis, in an audience with Italian journalists, called disinformation "the first sin" of journalism. He said "Disinformation, when journalism does not inform or informs badly; slander (sometimes this is used); defamation, which is different from slander but destroys; and the fourth is... the love of scandal. I am concerned, for example, about the manipulations of those who interestingly propagate fake news to steer public opinion." This is, he said, particularly important to Europe during the war in Ukraine. "My hope is that space will be given to the voices of peace, to those who are committed to putting an end to this as to so many other conflicts."
Barron's says that Francis is "widely considered a savvy communicator himself," but he ran into some problems when he spoke by video conference to a gathering of young Russian Catholics this month. "Do not forget your heritage," the Pope said. "You are heirs of the great Russia -- the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II, the great, educated Russian Empire of so much culture, of so much humanity. Never give up this heritage." Some attention to Russian propaganda narratives during the war should have suggested that Peter the Great and Catherine II were particularly ill-chosen as role models and cultural treasures.
The remarks were met with widespread surprise, dismay, and outrage, particularly in the large Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church, so many of whose members are in Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal says a Vatican representative sought to walk back the comments. “The Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and ruling figures,” spokesman Matteo Bruni said. He mentioned Peter and Catherine “to indicate some historical periods of reference.”
But that's not how his remarks were received, and Sr. Bruni's gloss is a pretty tepid attempt to clean them up. The Wall Street Journal notes that Moscow liked what it heard. "Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reacted favorably to Pope Francis’ comments. 'The pope knows Russian history, and this is very good,' Peskov said Tuesday, according to Russian state news agency TASS. Russian authorities are working 'to bring this legacy to our youth, to remind them of it. And that the Pope speaks in unison with these efforts is very gratifying,' Peskov said."
At least Pope Francis didn't invoke Stalin, the other historical figure who's getting surprisingly good press from Russian state sources these days. President Putin and his spokespersons have consistently sought to claim the legacy of the two rulers as justification, in terms of national greatness, heritage, and historical continuity, for the brutal invasion of Ukraine and the threat to the rest of the Near Abroad. Their record is one of violent, imperialist expansion and domestic misrule. Citing Peter and Catherine would be like seeking to inspire Italian youth by reminding them that they should think of themselves as the heirs of the Borgias, only worse. The heritage of Peter and Catherine are not being claimed by "the voices of peace." Pope Francis would have done better to stick with Dostoevsky and Tolstoi, maybe Solzhenitsyn or even Servant of God Prince Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, Apostle of the Alleghenies.