New Whistleblowers Highlight How Russia's Information War On U.S. Was Larger Than Initially Reported

from the pouring-gasoline-on-a-bonfire dept

A few years ago, Russian whistleblowers like Lyudmila Savchuk began to reveal that Vladimir Putin had built a massive new internet propaganda machine. At the heart of this machine sat the “Internet Research Agency,” a Russian government front company tasked with operating warehouses filled with employees paid 40,000 to 50,000 rubles ($800 to $1,000) a month to create proxied, viable fake personas — specifically tasked with pumping the internet full of toxic disinformation 24 hours a day. Initial reports on these efforts were often playful, suggesting little more than shitposting and memes.

Subsequent reports by folks like Adrian Chen at the New York Times highlighted in great detail how deep this particular rabbit hole went. Chen detailed how these efforts often went well beyond routine online trolling, and frequently extended into the real world (like the time online trolls urged American citizens to visit a Russian-operated Chelsea art gallery solely to try and distort and downplay the country’s annexation of Crimea). By the summer of 2016, reports began to emerge that these same employees were also posing as Trump supporters to help stoke already raw political divisions in the States.

Fast forward to this week, when Russian newspaper RBC issued a fairly massive and comprehensive report (in Russian, the Guardian has an alternative take here) showing that these efforts went even further than most initial reports indicated. From the creation of popular Texas secessionist Facebook groups to the hiring of more than 100 U.S. activists who had no idea they were working for Russia — all tasked with stoking division inside the United States:

Perhaps the most alarming element of the article was the claim that employees of the troll factory had contacted about 100 real US-based activists to help with the organisation of protests and events. RBC claimed the activists were contacted by Facebook group administrators hiding their Russian origin and were offered financial help to pay for transport or printing costs. About $80,000 was spent during a two-year period, according to the report.

And while some on both sides of the political spectrum have tried to downplay Russia’s propaganda and disinformation efforts as amateurish, unimportant and ineffective, the collective scope of the IRA’s work revealed by whistleblowers continues to indicate otherwise:

Today, business site RBC revealed the numbers that allegedly made the company work. It reports that over two years the agency spent $2.3 million on its US operations. Most of that was spent on Russian staff?around 90 employees were working on the US at the height of the trolling campaign in 2016?but it also paid for 100 US activists to travel around America, organizing 40 rallies in US cities, and spent $120,000 spreading their message on Facebook. (The Silicon Valley giant has admitted that thousands of ads were bought under Russian IP addresses during the campaign.) The 100 activists didn?t suspect any Russian involvement in the funding, RBC reports.

In addition to the RBC report, Russian journalists at Dozhd interviewed a new whistleblower named “Maxim” who worked at the Internet Research Agency. According to Maxim, the organization included a “Russian desk,” a “foreign desk,” a “Facebook desk,” and a “Department of Provocations.” Whereas the Russian desk operated the country’s now infamous Twitter bots and online trolls, the foreign desk was notably more sophisticated in its information assaults, trained in the more nuanced aspects of U.S. politics in order to “set Americans against their own government,” and “provoke unrest and discontent.”

Meanwhile, the Russian government’s Facebook desk was tasked with battling Facebook administrators who would try to delete fake accounts and groups — and who would often buckle to opposition from Russian trolls who raised First Amendment concerns when challenged:

“The troll farm also had its own “Facebook desk,” whose function was to relentlessly push back against the platform’s administrators who deleted fake accounts as they began gaining traction. When Internet Research Agency employees argued against having their accounts deleted, Max said, Facebook staffers would write back, “You are trolls.” The trolls would in turn invoke the First Amendment right to free speech ? occasionally, they won the arguments.

By the latter half of 2016, up to a third of the Internet Research Agency was tasked with stoking existing tensions ahead of the U.S. election, according to yet another report by Russian media outlet Meduza. Another whistleblower claims that the IRA’s goal wasn’t always specificlly to aid Trump, but to help encourage American infighting, contributing to partisan gridlock in the States (though the IRA’s disinformation work is just one prong in Russia’s efforts, and the Mueller investigation may obviously have more to say on this subject in time).

The RBC report notes that Chen’s 2015 bombshell story in particular forced the Russian government to notably revamp its disinformation efforts, so what it looks like now is far from certain. What is certain is that Russia’s online disinformation efforts — a response to years of equally brazen efforts by the United States — are just the latest in a multi-generational cold war that perpetually seeks to take horrible ideas to new and obnoxious levels. The biggest concern now isn’t just how a country immeasurably susceptible to bullshit combats this kind of attack, but just how ham-fisted and harmful the United States’ inevitable response will be.

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Comments on “New Whistleblowers Highlight How Russia's Information War On U.S. Was Larger Than Initially Reported”

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116 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Congratulations

It is clearly not just Americans. Populism, and pandering to people’s worst instincts, and exploiting people’s general dissatisfaction with ‘the establishment’, is an effective way to manipulate populations everywhere. The only real defence is an educated and informed populace. Turn off the TV and don’t watch/listen/read anything produced by a company owned or funded by any billionaire. It’s ALL propaganda.

Narcissus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

That, to me, is not even remotely the point. I’m also surprised that it was so low a budget and it probably didn’t move the needle much.

What should worry Americans is that they elected a president that was pushed by the Russians. They now have a man in charge that has the Putin stamp of approval.

Especially since he was elected on a wave of Jingoism that should raise a lot of red flags with his supporters. They seem to care the least though.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I wonder what kind of budget was used to do exactly the same to other countries leading up to their elections. UK, Germany and others who have relations with the US are the ones that I would expect the most to be spent on.

It also sounds like next time, all Russia has to do is use people already in the US for the entire thing and nothing would ever be discerned about their involvement.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re:

A very small amount in theory, but given to the right people in the right places, it gets plenty of value. Many of these groups operate for nothing or next to nothing, so even $1000 would be a huge windfall for them to work with.

Politicians spend hundreds of millions, but it’s mostly the firehose of shit flung against random walls. Most of it doesn’t stick, and much of it sticks in the wrong places.

2.3 million of targeted motivation of groups is really a big way to start echos in the chamber.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Many of these groups operate for nothing or next to nothing”

How would you know? Proof or GTFO.

If Russia can pay for a thousand trolls, then USA is paying for a million trolls. You fool.

Remind me. Who is invading Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya and all the rest of the countries??? That needs a HUGE propaganda machine, to convince so many idiots like you.

Anonymous Coward says:

OMG! You're back to "pumping the internet full of toxic disinformation 24 hours a day"!!!

HA, HA, HA, HA! Holy cow, you’re a parody of a cardboard cutout as done by a first grader in puce color crayon!

Had to quit reading and close the window before I busted something, but this is one time I’ve for sure got the gist of your insanity from headline and that phrase.

Anonymous Coward says:

If a troll gets you mad, and you respond with anger *in public*, you lose.

Now maybe this means you’re getting more than incensed, maybe you want to “wreck” the system that delivers the troll comments, too. Maybe ruin the social media platform’s profit or reputation. Maybe destroy the government that lets the business run “unchecked”.

Maybe? Maybe not? Better to think about what trolling does for the perpetrator and why it keeps working so well. But that trolling exists and is so *awful* in the first place is all anyone can think about.

There is not enough people available to sort through all the Internet’s daily traffic. For example: If there’s 2 billion Facebook users on average, how many people would you need to moderate all the user-submitted content, all the time, and still maintain a service that works in a timely manner?

Filtering *everything* to combat trolling is a fool’s errand, so people had best start learning how to avoid it or ignore it. (Genuine criminal activity aside, it’s not worth getting so upset about.)

Bruce C. says:

Old technique, new technology

Back in the cold-war days the USSR used to do the same thing supporting or encouraging anti-war groups and other dissidents in the US. In many cases, the groups never became aware of the Russian connection.

I’m starting to feel like we live in the Fallout universe after all: a Russian in every facebook group?

HegemonicDistortion says:

Re: Old technique, new technology

Or so was always inferred to discredit anti-war activists, which brings us back to present problem: ridiculous claims of practically magical Russian propaganda effectiveness to try to de-legitimate criticisms of our corporatist establishment.

Russians didn’t even budge Americans’ deep divisions. The rifts have been growing especially the 90s, and they’ve especially become sharp due to the rocketing inequality that both major parties have facilitated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Old technique, new technology

And besides all that. I thought we all had freedom of speech and to push the agendas we want.

If americans do it is freedom of speech. If russians do it is “propaganda”.

Remember all those movies where USA wins the vietnam war? lol, nothing farther from the truth. Real propaganda bullshit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

In fairness, I think some of Russia’s efforts to foment discord in the US is actually beneficial for the US.

For example, RT conducts and publishes interviews with prominent US dissidents that otherwise would not be available. The show “The World Tomorrow” with Assange was better than 99.9999% of the junk being produced in the US.

Not defending the troll armies or the grotesque abuses of power of the Russian regime. Just saying..

wes says:

a very old game

yawn

…so the Russian Government engages in foreign “propaganda and disinformation efforts” that may NOT be “amateurish, unimportant {or} ineffective” … just like it has done for almost a century. The Horror !

And even more horror — the Russians are likely using the ‘internet’ for this stuff now (!)… how can the human race possibly survive ?

Of course, the angelic US Government never ever engages in such evil and has never interfered with foreign internal politics nor overthrown any disliked foreign governments.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 a very old game

I posted a link on it, read long time ago. I know what it means.

You don’t have to specifically say someone is communist to try and red-bait or discredit him. Just as you are doing now, nothing about the ideas of this article, just trying to discredit me.

Now do you agree america spits even more propaganda than russia will ever be able to? Yes or no.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 a very old game

I posted a link on it, read long time ago. I know what it means.

You might want to read it again, then.

You don’t have to specifically say someone is communist to try and red-bait or discredit him.

Red-baiting is a specific form of an ad hominem attack, where you insinuate that someone is a member of an "enemy" group, in order to discredit them. It’s attacking the person, not the argument. Yet, the post you accuse of red-baiting is specifically criticizing the argument. Therefore you either do not actually understand what red-baiting is, or you’re purposefully engaging in bad-faith debate in order to disrupt any meaningful conversation. That can’t possibly be the case, though, right?

Just as you are doing now, nothing about the ideas of this article, just trying to discredit me.

No, you’re doing that all by yourself.

Anonymous Coward says:

Let's keep in mind...

…that much of this was facilitated by the inexperienced, incompetent, ignorant newbies running Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. They were warned — repeatedly and in no uncertain terms — by those of us with vastly longer experience that they’d built readily-exploitable platforms. In their naivete and arrogance, they refused to listen. The outcome was predictable.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

If the protests are otherwise not influenced, and not based on other misinformation from the same source in the first place – hey, go ahead and spend your money here. But it may behoove protest organizers to look closer at who is contributing to them or funding them directly. Generally doesn’t look good later when it turns up.

All the other stuff, lol, we don’t need help with that. It’s as stupid, wasteful, and unethical as the US or any other actor doing similar. And when you are competing with the States government at who can be the worst in this area, we know you are all part of the same bullshit in power structure. Congratulations on winning the competition so far this decade.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

No, respect is not a right. If someone puts forth a stupid idea/ideology and/or acts like a buffoon neither I nor anyone else are under any obligation to respect them or what they have presented. You can respect their right to believe something without in any sense respecting them for believing it, or respecting what they believe.

If someone wants to be respected, then it is up to them to earn it though their words and/or actions, and I take it as a given that anyone who demands respect does not deserve it.

(As an aside, it might help your argument that respect is a right if you weren’t constantly showing none of it to anyone who you disagree with. It’s rather like watching someone preaching pacifism while punching someone in the face, it kinda undermines their/your argument.)

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I think some base amount of respect should probably be offered by default. Or, if not respect, at least politeness.

I try to be polite and respectful to people until they give me a reason not to be.

I can’t see the person you’re responding to, but I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s one of our regular trolls. Who’ve given me lots and lots of reasons not to respect them, treat them with politeness, or look at their posts at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Lets put it in simple terms, because “politeness” is as vague and ambiguous (suitable for oligarchs in power to crush anyone they want) as

3 things a person can do:

a) think – of course you can think whatever you want (though the Thought Police might think different).

b) talk/write – you are free to express any opinion by your voice or text, but then nuances come when “promoting” CP, hate speech, terrorism, etc. Now being “polite” is just another layer on top which further complicates things.

c) act – you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt the physicality and property of others.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

OK lets talk physicality. Do you have the right for everyone to respect your physicality? Yes or No.

“then it is up to them to earn it though their words”
Not true, it is the exact opposite, you have respect from all by default, you lose it if you do stupid things. In many cultures, individuals are considered to be worthy of respect until they prove otherwise.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Respect

The only respect for ideas and opinions is to let them flow ie not censor them. You can say as much as you can, so do I.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Take the example of a person named Tom that for whatever reason is brain-dead. Tom won’t have any means to “earn” your respect. Yet you have to respect him because it is his right. So it’s yours too. He don’t need to do anything for your to be be obliged to respect him. Just by the simple fact of being a person Tom is entitled to all your respect. Same goes for everyone else to you.

Take the example of a very weak kid, John. John was born really weak, he was always small, he was always shaky, his mom’s pregnancy only lasted 7 months. He is very thin, very small, etc. Of course he won’t be able to “earn” your respect in anything sports related or any strenuous physical activity. Yet, you are obliged to respect him and of course if you can lift more logs for the fire than he does then so be it, do it. Don’t expect him to bring as many logs as you! He is working just as “hard” as you, but of course can’t bring as much logs as you. (You are bigger and stronger).

Same is the case for ALL people, as we are all different.

If what you said was true about “earning” then only the strongest would get respect from the rest. And only the smartest too, therefore automatically disrespecting you and your comments because they are not as “smart”.

See, “earning” respect just creates a pyramid society. Where the strongest, smartest, OR THE RUTHLESS, have respect from the rest. The rest are just left to fight among themselves to climb that “respect ladder”.

And see, the problem is not that you are smarter than others, you simply have your own views. you could be the best smartest hacker on earth. Yet this does not make you better or even useful to a person that lives from the land for example. This person’s view of the world may be more based on how to grow stuff, how to treat land and less about how to hack into government’s servers.

Who is more valuable? All of them.

Don’t “earn” respect. You have the right to it, by birth.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Now back to topic.

USA demands RESPECT from Russia: “Outrageous! Russians spy on us and hack our elections and bombard us with propaganda!!!”

Well, USA has been doing that to all of the world for a long time. That is called hypocrisy. And even in your own terms America has lost respect (even though it tried to “earn”it by force).

Johny Mnemonic says:

Isn't it funny, how Russians literally fuck you with pennies over hundred dollar bills?

Like how they can, with meagre quarter million dollars, literally shake up your 1.8 BILLION dollars elections? My calculator says every dollar they spend is 7000x more effective than every dollar you U.S. folks fork out for your elections? Either way, you are incredibly wasteful with your election funds or you are simply 7000x more stupid than Russians.

Anonymous Coward says:

And how much of that was done through conventional ad buys?

Even if the report is true, the bulk of the division oriented propaganda I’ve seen has been coming through mass media channels that have been around since before the Internet.

The left claimed it was the right, the right claims it is the left, both claim it is the Russians and whatever race you aren’t. Next they will blaming American anger on little green men.

No. People are pissed because they don’t have affordable health care, their houses and retirement savings were stolen, inflation is higher than reported by the fed, and the only thing that Congress does about it is try to get Americans to fight with one another.

When people are demanding you take sides, the side to fight against is the people making the demands. And that isn’t the Russians. TD is sock puppetting a political wedge that has been used since the McCarthy hearings.

Even if what TD is reporting is true, it is still not consequential because people should be angry.

So I call bullshit. It doesn’t matter what the Russians did, even if they actually did it. The only place to look is capitol hill. Because even if the antagonism is the result of propaganda, the sources of the anger are real, and have been for decades.

People are angry. Good. What are you going to do with it? Incite a war, or change the law? Because those are the options. Stop being part of the fucking problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: And how much of that was done through conventional ad buys?

You nailed it perfectly. When is the average american idiot going to understand that people from other nations or races are not their problem? Their problem is their own elite that keeps amassing more and more money and wealth, at the expense of everybody else and the public infrastructure/services.

Anonymous Coward says:

“People are angry. Good. What are you going to do with it? Incite a war, or change the law? Because those are the options. Stop being part of the fucking problem.”

We learned this lesson back in the 80’s when psychologists thought you could get your anger out by punching a pillow or cutting up a picture of something/someone you didn’t like.

They found out reinforcing anger only leads to more anger. You say it is good people are angry but that is the problem. Anger creates more anger and solutions brought through anger are rarely thought out which leads to more anger later on.

No, it is not a good thing to be angry or insight anger. We are already a country of violence so the solution is not more anger.

Taking a look at our own problems and solving them without anger is the only way forward.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What solutions? There have been any solutions. Inequality keeps increasing and war keeps going on. What solutions?

He is not saying is the right thing to be angry, he is saying why people is in fact angry and they should be. The anger is already there, no need to prove it to you, then what we gonna do with it?

If you don’t like people being angry. Or you don’t think is good idea people deciding while angry then go say that to your politicians that KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE ALL THE TIME. What is more angry than that?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yes, it is a good thing people is angry. It shows people are fed and not taking it anymore.

In people were happy all the time and passive and oh so good then it would be a terrible sign that they have been brainwashed fully.

Lets not remember there is CONSTANT WAR AND HUNGER IN THE WORLD, mainly created and maintained by USA wars, but sure, you choose to be happy and are fine with the situation huh?

If you are one of those idiots that happily goes shopping and feels good getting the new iPhone, while millions are dying and being displaced by your country’s wars, then you are an idiot and part of the problem.

MikeC (profile) says:

We did it to ourselves

We have finally enabled anyone anywhere to access the very basis for our society – at will w/no repercussions. For all the good the internet has done this world, it’s has provided a conduit to the evil as well as the good. Sounds almost biblical doesn’t it? But what used to be limited to the few hundred square miles around a person can be pushed out to entire world with a few keystrokes and we have proved over and over we are worthy of this power. Like giving a child a loaded gun and not expecting a disaster … I don’t see how we fix this but sure I don’t want to hand the warden the keys to the internet, but I don’t see how we can fix this in any way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: We did it to ourselves

You are as moron as it comes.

If you did not want to “enable” access to “your” “society” then why you keep exporting your movies, your culture, your way of life, your “democracy”, your values?

You did not enable shit. People from all over the world have been exchanging ideas and values all the time. There are things called BORDERS you idiot, where people regularly cross for any kind of reasons. My mother may be Canadian and my father American. My mother Chinese and my father Japanese, and so forth you idiot.

Society? You mean a place where police kill innocent people all the time? Where kids kill other kids just for fun? Where millions have died because of violence/gun related? The place that exports war? That is society to you? You are dumb kid.

Further, espionage has been a thing since the beginning of civilizations! Sadly of course. You ignorant. Russians did not invent it, nor Americans. And it is because of all these artificial borders, created nationalisms, greed, etc.

Lastly, you are a hypocrite. There is no bigger propaganda machine than USA’s mainstream media, which is exported and pushed worldwide you fool. If Russia has a thousand trolls then USA has a million trolls and highly paid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: We did it to ourselves

Sounds biblical…looool. Sayu that to the 1.3 billion Chinese, 1.2 billion Indian, 1+ billion Arabs and so forth from other creeds that are NOT christian you dumbass.

Surprise surprise! You start bombing many countries now you have people form all those countries migrating to yours! Surprise surprise!

If you don’t like immigrants, the current situation of “terrorism”, etc go blame it to your own government and companies which keep pushing the war agenda for their own profit (not yours, far from it).

“Now is pushed all over the world.” Are you a stupid one. There was a thing called TV before the internet, and curiously, dominated by your american bs propaganda.

Now it seems, that when the playing field is leveled by the internet (other countries can push their own agendas too worldwide) now you don’t like it.

Make no mistake about it fool. There is no other country that has been invading and interfering in other countries’ business like the USA does and has done for too long. Now the things are reversing and you don’t like it, of course.

MikeC (profile) says:

Russian WhistleBlower?? More Fake News

So we are to believe the Russians are so effective in they “internet trolling operation” they could not do something like having their own Fake WhistleBlower to tout how effective they are in influencing things. Why do they need to work at influencing us when we are willing to do if for them? Sure sounds like something a smart operative would think of.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You should be thankful (I am not Russian). Because you don’t want to live in a world where there is just ONE power, aka USA.

A unipolar world is a wrong world, a world where huge and horrible decisions like war are done unilaterally. RINGS ANY BELLS? Afghanistan? Iraq? etc?

Even with all those resources stolen from all those wars, YOU DON”T SEE MUCH PROFIT GOING TO YOU, most of it goes to your elite, inequality keeps increasing and you are still left with with an uncertain future where most can aspire to is to work hard their entire lives for crumbles in comparison.

Monopoly is bad, any kind. Especially when it comes to power and military/war.

You want a multipolar world, where no single force can take decisions on their own. Where it is very hard to go to war (not the opposite as it is today).

You want a world with many superpowers, where they take sides and actually vote on things.

Remember, when the elites understand each other, you are just left with a simulation (and an ultimate further abuse of your rights and freedoms).

When elites fight, we can get a glimpse at what is really going on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What good has done to the USA being the most powerful country?

– Their people is in constant “fear” of a terrorist attack.
– People kill innocent people all the time.
– Hell, even they kill themselves, a lot, all the time.
– Cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, are through the roof.
– At best most are destined to a life of debt, tons of work and buying cheap plastics from China anyway (like most of the world, just change the brand and the price tag 😉
– It is a fact that is NOT the best country to live in the world anyway, not by any index like Gini, HDI, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

  • Police kill their innocent population all the time too.
    – And most of all, all that power to invade other countries and take their resources and impose their business practices and values has mainly served their ELITE anyway, most people just receive crumbles. That is why inequality is greater in American than ever. Nobody is getting the profits and benefits from all those invasions but just a few.

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