Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Hybrid Warfare: NATO Investigates Putin's Troll War against the West 3/3

by Nomad

Part One
Part Two

In the third and final installment in this series, we finish up with a look at what NATO learned by studying Russian trolling activities in the Baltic nation of Latvia before 2015. How can we apply these findings to what went on in the US a year later?

So Why Latvia?

Back in 2015, NATO had several good reasons for choosing the tiny Baltic nation of Latvia to study how hybrid trolling operated.

When it comes to vulnerability, the nation has many unique characteristics. For one thing, Latvia and Russia share a 214 km border as well as a long and often contentious history. Even today, it is very much in the shadow of the Russian bear.
It is also a divided nation.
Demographically, ethnic Latvians form 61% of the population while a full 25.6% are ethnic Russians. There are other divisions as well. Latvia is historically predominantly Protestant Lutheran yet its ethnic Russians population is Eastern Orthodox Christians. Despite the fact that the sole official language of Latvia is Latvian, Russian, widely spoken during the Soviet occupation, is still the most widely used minority language.

It is also one of the limited club of NATO members that was once a member of the rival Warsaw Pact 1955–1991 and a part of the Soviet Union. Latvia regained its independence in August 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.  For that reason, Latvia will probably always be a politically divided nation.
For these and other reasons, Latvia is in many ways a perfect target for outside tampering by Russians.

There was something else that the study found. And it has to do with certain aspects of the media landscape that made Latvia susceptible to tampering. Most importantly, market forces had been found to increase the vulnerability of the media to outside influences, "especially in a society divided by language, where the two segments have very different media usage patterns."  

But, you might ask, how do market forces increase susceptibility to trolling?
It has much to do with corruption caused by profit-making and with the politicization of journalism.
The main goal of these media directors and founders is to generate profit and, in pursuit of this goal, the media enters into long- or short-term agreements with politicians. This is an imitation of independent media operations. Some media outlets only pretend to be independent while actually working in support of specific political and, often, business interests.
In other words, news driven by a political agenda.
This situation has crippled the quality of journalism, forcing media professionals to combine independent, neutral and balanced information with content that is created to service the interests of media owners.
Media owners with a political agenda.

Similarly, some media analysts in the US saw the end of the Fairness Doctrine - which mandated at least the illusion of "fair and balanced" journalism- during the Reagan era as the small end of the wedge for the same kind of weakness that the NATO study observes in Latvia.

All of these factors made Latvia’s cyberspace (the place where the Russian government maintains a troll army, or perhaps even several armies) an interesting case for NATO experts to study.

But the study organizers were faced with a problem: how to find the trolls. To try to remove the mask, so to speak.


In order to have clinically meaningful results, analysts for the study attempted, as scientifically as possible, to identify trolls through IP numbers and by studying patterns of comments in social media and comment sections of news outlets.

The broad criteria for identifying trolls for the Latvian study was as follows:

  • Must have posted more than 15 comments during the period under investigation;
  • Must be consistently pro-Russian;
  • Must either post links to pro-Russian websites or large chunks of copypasted information from such sites;
  • Must generally not engage in conversations with other users;
  • Must not comment on mundane and non-political topics unless such comments are political and pro-Russian;
  • Must be repetitive, reposting the same message multiple times rather than crafting purpose-made comments that are content specific (i.e., related to what other users are saying or putting forward an original argument); 
And finally, to eliminate everybody but suspected Russian-paid trolls, the study ignored authors/comments that might have conformed to the above criteria but are anti-Russian.

The chart below (taken from the NATO study) provides us with a step by step process from troll identification to disarming.

So, now that the mask was removed, the experts wanted to learn which topics (at that time) attracted the most troll comments. Here's a graph showing the breakdown.

As we see, the overwhelming majority of comments were directed at the coverage of events in Ukraine. However, there was also a great deal of activity in the Russian embargo and sanctions against Russia by the Obama administration. This topic attracted 27% of all comments.

So too, they uncovered much activity about alleged Russian involvement in the shooting down of a passenger airliner. Presumably, this represented an attempt to defuse an international crisis as well as a public relations disaster. 
Almost one-third of all troll comments were posted in relation to this topic. A closely linked topic, the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, also attracted a comparatively high proportion of trolling messages. If these two categories were merged into one, they would comprise 37% of all the messages posted by suspected hired trolls.
From this information, we can assume that these two topics in particular well a top priority for the employers of the trolls, that is, the Kremlin.

Trolls' Goals

Who are these trolls for hire in real life you might ask? Back in December, the New York Times reported:
For more than three years, rather than rely on military officers working out of isolated bunkers, Russian government recruiters have scouted a wide range of programmers, placing prominent ads on social media sites, offering jobs to college students and professional coders, and even speaking openly about looking in Russia’s criminal underworld for potential talent. 
Mandatory military service in Russia also allowed for screening of university students with some computer skills.
University students subject to mandatory conscription in the nation’s armed forces, but who wanted to avoid brutal stints as enlistees, could opt instead to join a science squadron. 
So it would be fair to say that the line is blurred between independent hacking groups or individuals and government/military organizations.
Researchers in the Latvian study also made some interesting conclusions about the overall goals of these trolling activities within Latvia’s news portals.
These goals were summarized as:
  • to furnish massive amounts of information supporting Russian propaganda messages;
  • to change the opinions of other readers about certain issues;
  • to maintain an atmosphere of alarm and distrust;
  • to create fear of the further development of events (“Russia is the most powerful state in the world”, “Russia will seek revenge”, “EU sanctions only benefit the US”, “other EU countries benefit from the suffering of the Latvian population”, “Latvians are hurting themselves by joining EU sanctions”;
  • to create doubt over whether information published by a news portal is the truth and not one-sided;
  • to raise suspicion of a conspiracy, which the users of the site are party to, because they disagree with the opinions expressed in the trolls’ comments;
  • to keep an issue alive within commenters’ daily agenda.
When it came to interaction with the general public, the trolls were generally shy creatures, afraid they might give themselves away Or perhaps they were too busy to return comments.
From time to time, the trolls’ comments include rhetorical questions and some of the other users post answers to those questions or try to react to the content published by the trolls, but the trolls usually do not interact with other users, they avoid discussions.
Given all the effort involved in the trolling operation, it was surprising to learn that, according to the findings, there was very little detectable change of attitude of the general public. Perhaps there's a good reason: the public’s exposure to potential trolls is relatively limited. 
Most trolls post comments only on one site or section of a site. Some of the trolls selected for the analysis commented on the same articles. This means that their messages do not reach all of the potential audience. Even in terms of the articles to which these trolls posted comments (usually two or three), the proportion of their comments is insignificant.
Even though the results of the barrage didn't really seem worth the effort, researchers found that the online influence of the troll attacks could be increased by a few simple techniques.

That would include intensive posting of the same messages, active inclusion of links to ‘alternative’ sources of information (in the US that would include sites like Fox News, for example) or by discrediting of particular opinions, beliefs, interpretations of events, organizations.
Now let's turn to that aspect.

Negligence of the Gate-Keepers

The Latvia study noted that the majority of troll comments were deleted by technical tools or by moderators of sites. When commenting policies are strictly enforced and when offenders are banned, the impact of trolling is greatly decreased. For this reason, one can conclude that the most effective means of limiting the influence of paid trolls is for site owners and moderators to conscientiously remove objectionable remarks before they are widely read.

As we have found, sites that do not use comment filtering tools may be part of the problem. The study also points out that automated comment moderation isn't a foolproof system but it is better than no moderation at all.

The study offers a few sensible suggestions for larger site owners, as well as casual users of the social media. As the Latvia learned,   hybrid warfare and trolling prospers when there are certain pre-conditions in the media environment. When they are more interested in clicks-for-cash than upholding any kind of journalistic standard.

For the sake of profits or agenda, the mass media has forsaken its role as a "gate-keeper" separating fact from fiction, truth from rumors. This, says the report, requires critical thinking and more thorough appraisals of sources.

The experts from the study stress that the public needs to know about the threat of hoaxes, fake news and online trolling. Making the public more aware of the misinformation activities in online media is one way to protect them from the effects.
Putting trolling in the headlines and encouraging people to share their experiences of being attacked/harassed by trolls would facilitate discussion on how to identify the malicious use of social media and seeking ways to counter it.
In fact, the problem may be worse than that. It was more than mere neglect.

Right-Wing Media Complicity

Many Americans, who have become cynical of mainstream media journalism sought out alternative views. This gave birth to conspiracy sites like InfoWars. which over the years had promoted stories such as "Beyonce is funded by the CIA" to create mayhem," and how the government uses estrogen-mimicking chemicals in juice boxes to turn children gay.

Recently, Alex Jones, the proprietor of InfoWars accused Michelle Obama of murdering Joan Rivers because Rivers exposed Michelle Obama as transgender. Who on earth would believe such garbage? you'd rightly ask.
And, keep in mind, this is the general fare at InfoWars. Think that's nuts? That's a slow news day at InfoWars.

Interestingly, Jones has in the past boasted about his private conversations with Trump, claiming the then-Republican nominee “listens to what we have to say,”

In mutual admiration, Trump has lavished praise on Jones’ “amazing” reputation, and the campaign previously partnered with Infowars to get out the vote.
*   *   *
It has been reported that a few of the right wing sites, like InfoWars and Breitbart, are also being looked into. Breitbart is, of course, the former home for Stephen Bannon, Trump's right-hand man in the White House. The supposed crafter of executive orders and national policy.

Equally distressing, Russian-based sources have been tailor-made for reinforcing doubts about the honesty and veracity of Western news sources. As one source notes:
Today, RT and Sputnik push Kremlin-approved English-language news on television and the Internet. These outlets broadcast a mix of true information (the vast majority of content), manipulated or skewed stories, and strategically chosen falsehoods. RT’s slogan, “Question More,” aptly fits their reporting style — seeding ideas of conspiracy or wrongdoing without actually proving anything.
Despite solid evidence that RT was receiving its programming directions from the Kremlin, it was successful in recruiting American names like Thom Hartmann, Larry King and Ed Schultz. This would have gone a long way in promoting its credibility with a particular demographic of the American audience. Not the right-wing fringe but the left-wing dissenters.

All of these fake news/gray news sites play an important supporting role in Putin's disinformation campaign. Spoof sites, wacky conspiracy theory sites, and sites that mixed truth and lies all provided the material for trolls to propagate online. 

Putin's Rubicon

Even while acknowledging the threat posed by the weaponization of online media, NATO's Latvian study had nuggets of reassuring news to offer. It was, they noted, easy to exaggerate this danger and the effectiveness.   
Despite the fact that the danger of Russia’s propaganda war is often blown out of proportion, there is evidence that the Kremlin does use regime-funded online trolls to disseminate misinformation and project a pro-Russian stance in online media comment sections.
At the time the NATO study was published, Russia's official strategy is based on a defensive approach to information warfare.
Russia is waging information warfare against its adversaries in order to sway international opinion in its favour, and to create confusion and mistrust in public information as such.
Trolling did not seem to have much effect in Latvia. That might have been true at the time it was written.
However, Putin crossed his own Rubicon in the 2016 presidential campaign when he decided to back Trump and apply what was learned in Ukraine and Poland and elsewhere to influence the outcome of the election. The candidate was famous for latching onto the Obama birther hoax.

In the months prior to the 2016 election,  Nomadic Politics featured two reports on this subject. In September, a post entitled "Lying Game: How Fake Online Polls are Used to Deceive and Energize Trump Supporters" uncovered a fairly elaborate disinformation campaign.  That campaign involved a sophisticated system of fake sites, fake online polls and (possibly) a few trolls in the comment sections, all working together to create an alternative reality for right wing voters. 

In the other article called "Poisoning The Well: How Satire and Spoof Have Become The New Way of Spreading Disinformation" we quoted BuzzFeed's, Craig Silverman. He had this to say about the strange (or not so strange) influx of misleading news links found on Facebook.
The BuzzFeed News analysis of more than 1,000 posts from hyper partisan Facebook pages found that false or misleading content that reinforces existing beliefs received stronger engagement than accurate, factual content. The internet and Facebook are increasingly awash in fake or deeply misleading news because it generates significant traffic and social engagement.
The trend was pretty obvious all through the campaign that something strange was going on. Many sites were claiming to be spoof news sites when, in fact, the websites were simply sources of disinformation.
At least, that was the effect, if not the intention.  

Warfare In the Trump's Post-Truth World

There were recommendations for government institutions in the Latvia study commissioned by NATO. However, those now belong to a different time. the pre-Trump world.before the post-truth era. 

President Trump has been called the conspiracy theory president and in the last weeks he has lived up to that title by criticizing news outlets as "fake news" while himself tweeting information found only on disreputable and inaccurate news sites. 

This is a president whose closest advisor is Stephen Bannon, former editor of Breitbart and calls Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy his pal. Among other things, Newsmax has been called "clickbait" and " an echo chamber for the conservative viewpoint."
So, it's really something as basic as the old "Garbage in, garbage out" (GIGO) idea. 
Pretty difficult to defend too, considering all of the classified information at his tiny fingertips.

In some ways, the hybrid warfare that the NATO report examines is really nothing new. The media has been used as a weapon since at least the beginning of the 20th century. The only variation today is that an autocratic regime might well have successfully found a way to irrevocably damage the West.

There are some things to take away from the study.
  • The disinformation campaign was tested on smaller nations prior to being implemented in the US elections in 2016.
  • Putin's troll army is mocking and abusing one of liberal democracy's most cherish possessions and greatest strengths: the freedom of speech and the power of a free press. 
  • Putin's campaign's greatest advantage has been public ignorance and the extent to which it has been able to undermine the stability of the nation. That is now changing.
  • Indeed, despite the fact that intelligence agencies were well aware of some aspects of what Russia was attempting to do, the public was not properly informed about fake news, Russian paid trolling, hacking and hoaxes.
  • Russia's assault was aided and abetting by weaknesses in the system. These include a society divided by partisan politics, profit- or agenda-driven news outlets and a basic neglect of journalistic standards.
  • Finally, and the most disturbing suspicion of all is that Putin's disinformation campaign was assisted by the candidate and his party might well have collaborated with a foreign power.  
The NATO study was written in 2015 and it provided a warning to the wise. Unfortunately, outside of the intel agencies, few could have foreseen the role Russian hybrid warfare would play in 2016 and beyond.