Attention news agencies of Planet Earth. This is an all points bulletin for your benefit: stop passing off video game footage as real-life-happenings. Yes, what seems like a thing that shouldn't be able to happen has actually happened several times in the past, from video game footage passed off as a terrorist attack to state news agencies passing off video game footage as a potential threat to a nation's enemies. Some nations appear to even be trying to take advantage of it all, such as when Russia tried to sucker world news groups into thinking that it had found proof that America is arming Ukrainians with video game footage of a weapons cache. And, yet, it keeps happening.
The latest case is an Egyptian news agency bizarrely using footage from a Russian-made video game, Apache: Air Assault, published by Activision and featuring english-speaking characters, to proclaim Russian dominance against ISIS in Syria.
Now, I realize there are cultural and linguistic barriers here, but it shouldn't be terribly hard to understand that the voices in that footage are speaking English. And, though video games are becoming more realistic by the day, the footage and audio here is still video-game-ish enough that it's fairly easy to identify it as such with just a few minutes' watching. And yet, anchor Ahmed Moussa had this to say before airing the footage.
"Yes, this is Russia; this is the Russian army. This is Putin," he said. "This is the Russian federation. Are they confronting terrorism? Yes, they are. The Americans were too soft on ISIL. The US has been there for a year and a half, and we have seen not one bullet from them, nor have we seen anyone getting killed by them."
I'll give Moussa points for originality. After all, it's not every day you hear lamentations from the Middle East that Americans just aren't killing enough people.
Russia's been nothing but busy since passing its 2013 LGBT propaganda law, designed to protect minors from the terrifying menace of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships" while upholding "family values" through government-encouraged discrimination and hatred. The law has had two major benefits for the Russian government; allowing Putin and friends to use homophobia to encourage distrust of heathens in the West (at the cost of increased violence against the LGBT community), while providing feeble justification for the country's heavy-handed censorship efforts.
"The case, brought by police in Russia's Kirov region 600 miles northeast of Moscow, follows a complaint by a local attorney named Yaroslav Mikhailov, Russian newspaper Gazeta reported. Mikhailov argued that that Apple is violating Russia's ban on so-called "gay propaganda" in the presence of minors by including the emojis in the iOs 8.3 package. The case, opened last month, is awaiting expert analysis of the cartoon motifs to determine whether they count as "gay propaganda," the newspaper reported.
According to an older report by Russia's Izvestia newspaper, the investigation was also prompted by a complaint from Mikhail Marchenko, a Russian senator who apparently believes the more racially diverse and LGBT-inclusive emojis somehow "disrespect" traditional families:
"Mr Marchenko claims the symbols - which depict smiley-faced same-sex couples - violate a controversial 2013 law which prohibits promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships.
The law allows Russian authorities to block access to websites deemed to promote homosexuality. Mr Marchenko said in his complaint that the emojis "promoted non-traditional sexual relationships", "denied family values" and showed "disrespect for parents and other family members."
These are, apparently, the moral-fabric-eroding cartoon representations that have some so deeply, deeply offended:
Diabolical indeed. Should Apple be found "guilty" of the offense, the company could be fined the Russian equivalent of roughly $15,000 in Tim Cook couch change, and sales of its products could be suspended in the country for three months. Again, this kind of blisteringly-idiotic behavior would be funny were it not for the fact that the Russian-government-sanctioned bigotry has resulted in a dramatic spike in violence against the LGBT community.
Did you know you can occasionally find people discussing narcotics on the Internet? Russian Internet regulator Roskomnadzor (the Kremlin's "Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom Information Technologies and Mass Communications") is pretending to have only recently figured this out, and is working tirelessly to purge this naughty behavior from the Internet. Of course, they're ingeniously doing so in a way that breaks the Internet for everybody else, often taking entire websites offline simply because of one yahoo's heady pontifications on dope.
"Wikipedia refused to comply with the request and instead made a small change to the URL of the charas hashish article, technically putting it in compliance with Russian law. The old page now features a list of seven different Wikipedia entries on the various meanings of the word “charas,” while the original text about charas hashish is completely intact, but is now accessible at a new URL on the encyclopedia's website."
As of yesterday, Roscomnadzor wasn't satisfied, saying it would (re-)ban all of Wikipedia. Unless, of course, the site was willing to make one notable change:
"Roscomnadzor's press-office also said they didn't intend to block the whole website, and would be able to only block the offending content and pages, provided Wikipedia's management “cooperated” and removed the HTTPS encryption protocol that puts the whole website in danger of being blocked."
So yeah, this isn't just another government being stupid and filter happy. Russia is filtering these websites under the authority embedded in a 2012 censorship law, whose purpose was purportedly to protect the children from the Internet's naughty bits. The bill's real purpose, of course, was to create an intentional, obfuscated slippery slope, designed specifically to aid in expanding control over the Internet. So Russia's sudden interest in playing pointless drug content Whac-a-mole is actually an attempt to reduce the overall use of encryption and make snooping easier:
"This is an important case because it’s part of the general offensive against https. Roskomnadzor and the FSB [security services] don’t know what to do with it,” said Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and author of Red Web, a book about the Russian internet. Soldatov said SORM, the system Russia uses for internet surveillance, does not work with the more secure https protocol, also used by sites such as Facebook and Gmail...
Soldatov speculated that the move against Wikipedia could be part of a test of another strategy: by threatening the site with bans over single pages, the site could be forced off https to ensure that the whole site is not affected when only one page is banned. Soldatov said: “There are two options for https: the first is to have access to the data before encryption, which explains the demand to store servers in Russia. The second is to try to force services to give up on https, which is what is happening with Wikipedia.”"
So basically, the Russian government is assaulting encryption, expanding Internet surveillance power and cracking down on critics -- under the pretense of protecting the children from bonghits. Remember, though, killing journalists, encouraging violent homophobia and pumping the Internet full of propaganda twenty-four hours a day are still on the recommended hobbies list in Putin's Russia.
As we've been exploring, whistleblowers have been exposing Putin and the Kremlin's use of "troll factories" to fill the internet with propaganda. The efforts run amazingly deep, 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. One of these employees, Lyudmila Savchuk, spent two months employed by the operation and was so disgusted that she quit, launched an anti-propaganda social activist campaign, and decided to sue the Russian government.
Amazingly enough Lyudmila Savchuk is not only still alive, but she has won her case. A Russian court has awarded Savchuk symbolic damages of one ruble, her requested damage amount after suing the disinformation barn for non-payment of wages and for failing to give workers proper contracts:
"I am very happy with this victory. I achieved my aim, which was to bring the internet trolls out of the shade," said Savchuk, 34. The Kremlin has claimed that it has no links to the operations of the Agency for Internet Studies. Authorities in Russia have intensified a propaganda campaign as the crisis over Ukraine has sent tensions with the west soaring to their highest level since the cold war.
So yes, Savchuk managed to bring a small portion of one of Putin's companies involved in propaganda (Agency for Internet Studies, or Internet Research) out of the shadows briefly. But the Russian government continues to deny they've any connection to the operation, and the company itself continues to operate unfettered, as do the myriad other similar companies the Kremlin employs to pollute the global discourse mud puddle.
Case in point: as Russia waits for the report on what caused the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the Ukraine last year (investigators believe the downing missile was Russian made, and the report is expected to show it was fired from territory held by pro-Russian rebels), a rather ham-fisted attempt to blame the CIA for the crash has been circulating online ahead of the report's release:
"A Russian newspaper posted an audiotape on its website that purports to reveal two US spies plotting to bring down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine last year. One hitch: The conversations are so stilted and oddly worded that they have been widely dismissed by native English speakers as obviously fake. "If you wanted to believe the CIA is responsible for downing MH17, now you've got the 'proof,'" the self-exiled Russian online newspaper Meduza headlined its report pointing out the awkward language used by the purported spies.
The recording itself certainly sounds as if two sad actors are simply reading from a poorly-translated English script:
Of course any Russian internet propagandist worth their salt will probably conclude that this ham-fisted attempt to frame the CIA was cleverly devised by the CIA itself as a sort of reverse head fake (and since the CIA has done numerous stranger things, many might even believe it). Either way, the point stands: while Savchuk may have bravely succeeded in winning one small battle against Putin's propaganda army, it's only the tiniest of dents in what's now a well-established Russian internet disinformation apparatus.
from the slippery-slope-into-the-pond-of-stupidity dept
Russian regulators in charge of the company's absurdly aggressive Internet filters have threatened to ban Reddit if the website doesn't remove a single, unspecified thread from the website. In an announcement posted to Russian social networking website VKontakte, Russian regulator Roskomnadzor (the Kremlin's "Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom Information Technologies and Mass Communications") proclaims that they've tried to reach Reddit administrators about the thread, but found them unresponsive to complaints during the "relaxed" summer months.
This sort of behavior isn't new for Russia, which passed a new law back in 2012 to "protect children" from the menace of a healthy, uncensored Internet. The law has since been used to block Live Journal, censor Wikipedia entries on "smoking cannabis," quash criticism of the Putin Administration, censor journalists, and most recently block all access to the Wayback Machine.
In this latest scuff up, Roskomnadzor proclaims that because a single thread discussing the "cultivation of narcotic plants" caught the eye of the Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, the entire site will simply have to be blocked (Google translate):
"Notifications to the requirement to remove the information sent to multiple addresses resource, but no response is still not forthcoming, although earlier treatment from us in the administration treated full. We assume that during the August holidays someone is too relaxed, but this should not be a reason to venture readership. Those who have contacts with the administration - ask them to check their mail for letters from Roskomnadzor otherwise due the technical features of a number of operators may block the entire site."
The post is also accompanied by this graphic in the apparent hopes of making censorship quirky and fun!
Just so it's clear, the Russian government can staff warehouses full of professional disinformation and propaganda employees who'll fill the Internet with bullshit twenty four hours a day, but talking about marijuana is just taking things too damn far!
Video games are starting to get realistic. Like, crazy realistic. Between what graphics look like on the latest hardware to the unbelievable committment to authenticity many of the latest games have, it's starting to get hard to tell game footage apart from video footage. So hard, in fact, that it appears the pro-Russian groups had an "oopsie!" moment while trying to accuse America of arming Ukrainian rebels with Stinger missiles.
A video from Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists...shows the rebels storming an underground compound and dusting off a wooden case with a "US army" inscription, where a the MANPADS Stinger 92 surface-to-air missile is stored.
Here's a screenshot from the video, showing the Stinger missile in question.
Notice anything strange? Unless you're familiar with American military equipment, you might have missed the lettering at the bottom of the device that reads "TRACKING RAINER." You probably also aren't aware that the actual American Stinger missiles have that same lettering, except that it's supposed to read "TRACKING TRAINER" instead.
Between that and several other translation errors in the video, the general consensus is that the whole thing was cooked up by pro-Russians trying to make it look like America is sending weapons to the Ukraine (which we still might be) by creating mockups of the weapons and passing them off as the real thing. The next obvious question is what caused the pro-Russian groups to make the translation mistake on the Stinger missile in their video and what they used as a basis to model their mockup after? The answer is, of course, video games.
The most significant mistake is found in the inscription on the Stinger weapon itself, which reads "tracking rainer" instead of "tracking trainer". Video games blogger Anton Logvinov noted on his website that the same typo occurs in the EA first-person shooter game Battlefield 3, leading him to believe that the Stinger 'discovered' in Lugansk is likely fake.
Russian propaganda: so good it very nearly fooled a video game blogger! We will, as always, welcome our friends from the Putin internet propaganda brigade in our comments section.
As everybody knows, Vladimir Putin simply adores free speech. That's made perfectly clear every time a political challenger winds up mysteriously murdered on a Moscow street, or any time his massive, manufactured troll army shouts down those critical of Russian policies on the Internet. It's made repeatedly clear in percussive fashion each and every time an outspoken journalist winds up mysteriously murdered for simply asking questions, and it's abundantly clear from the 10,000 or so websites the Russian government aggressively filters.
Like so many of his international mega-nation contemporaries, free speech is kind of Putin's thing.
So without the slightest whiff of hypocrisy it should be unsurprising for many people to learn that Putin and friends think Facebook's a little heavy handed on the free speech front. Putin aide Igor Shchegolev is urging Russians to abandon Facebook after the social media website deleted a number of posts containing the word "khokhol" -- which in certain context can be used insultingly to suggest Ukranians are backward peasants. This is, says an administration that thinks assassination an acceptable conversation and debate tactic, wholly unacceptable:
"Senior officials are urging their countrymen to abandon Facebook in favor of domestic social media, saying that the latter offer greater freedom of speech, after Mark Zuckerberg’s firm deleted a string of posts containing a slang Russian term for Ukrainians...The news agency ITAR-TASS reported Igor Shchegolev, an aide to President Vladimir Putin as saying that switching to rivals like Vkontakte would help users avoid having their content blocked."
Russia's relationship with Facebook was already strained after the website temporarily suspended the accounts of Kremlin media watchdog Maxim Ksenzov, and pro-Putin writer Eduard Bagirov. Of course that's not to say Facebook isn't equally awful when it comes to free speech. While Facebook says it deletes the word because it can be used as an ethnic slang, "Khokhol" can also be used to describe a specific haircut and isn't always used as an insult. According to the Russian Times, Russians have been having a very good time highlighting the stupidity of Facebook's inconsistent policies:
"Intrigued by the phenomenon, Russian journalists and bloggers began to experiment with testing Facebook's limits, deliberately using the word khokhly in their posts. Last week Facebook issued a one-week block of journalist Maxim Kononenko's page for posting a poem by Alexander Pushkin, a man widely considered to be Russia's greatest poet, containing the word khokhly."
Meanwhile, Russian Facebook equivalent Vkontakte was quick to welcome annoyed users into the fold:
Готовы принять всех заблокированных на Фейсбуке пользователей — добро пожаловать! Снова :)
"We're ready to accept all the blocked Facebook users. Welcome! Again :)"
Perhaps Putin's government and Facebook can somehow make up and join forces to create a global super-storm of censorship and incompetence? Imagine the possibilities of somehow combining Facebook's love of overly-curated and blandly-unoffensive walled gardens, with Putin's utterly brutal love of censorship and murder. Surely there's an amazing new business model buried somewhere therein.
The global war on selfies continues on. The first salvo was launched here in America, with many institutions banning selfie sticks for any number of reasons (mostly safety). But our inoculation has failed and the scourge of the selfie has spread to Mother Russia, infecting the youth there at what is apparently insane levels, considering some of the suggestions in this Russian pamphlet detailing how not to die for a sweet selfie.
Now, I don't speak Russian, so I'm relying on the pictures and some translation work done by Gawker here, but the lesson I'm learning from this message from the Russian government is that the Russian people are awesome. Are there, for instance, Russians popping wheelies on their boats while taking selfies? Are they regularly reaching out to pet Siberian tigers with a camera phone in their other hand? Are they train dodging while selfie-ing?!? If so, the Russian youth are exactly my kind of awesome.
The Russian government, of course, disagrees.
That warning comes after a string of recent selfie-related accidents. In May, a 21-year-old woman accidentally shot herself in the head in Moscow while taking a selfie holding a pistol. She suffered injuries but survived. In January, two young men died in the Urals while taking a selfie holding a hand grenade with the pin pulled out. The mobile phone with the selfie survived as a record. In May, a teenager in the Ryazan region died while attempting to photograph himself as he climbed on a railway bridge and accidentally came into contact with live electrical wires.
“Unfortunately we have noted recently that the number of accidents caused by lovers of self-photography is constantly increasing,” said Yelena Alexeyeva, an aide to the interior minister. “Since the beginning of the year we are talking about some hundred cases of injuries for sure.”
And apparently the cure for the Russian selfie scourge is bland government pamphlets that include such memorably punchy lines as, "A selfie in the street? You may catch more than clicks", and, "Selfie on the roof -- it'll be a high fall." If these are the best tools we have in the war on the selfie, it's probably just better that we all admit defeat and embrace the sweet death that will come upon us soon. The only question now is how to get a sweet selfie of myself dying from getting a sweet selfie?
Over the last few years, Russia has really been ramping up its efforts to censor the internet to hide content it doesn't like. As is often the case when the government gets the power to censor, that censorship starts spreading farther and farther.
The Russian government has blocked the Internet Archive, the San-Francisco-based website that provides the popular Wayback Machine, which allows users to view archived webpages. The decision to ban the Internet Archive appears to be the work of Russia's Attorney General, meaning that police determined that the website contains extremist content.
Rublacklist.net says police targeted the Internet Archive because of a saved webpage called “Solitary Jihad in Russia,” a short text that claims to offer information about the “theory and practice of partisan resistance.” At one point, the text states that Islamic sharia law “must be instituted all across the world.”
According to the website Rublacklist.net (a censorship-monitoring project operated by the Russian Pirate Party), the page in question* on the Internet Archive was added to Russia's official registry of banned websites on June 23, 2015. Because the Internet Archive uses https, some Russian ISPs will have to block the entire website in order to comply with the blacklisting, since encrypted traffic won't allow them to differentiate between different pages of the same site. According to TJournal, users of mobile Internet provider Yota were unable to access the page, the Wayback Machine, or the Internet Archive on June 25.
As you hopefully already know, the Wayback Machine is a tremendously useful tool for looking up archived versions of websites. It is a kind of library of our internet history. Of course, as the article at Global Voices notes, part of the reason the entire site is getting blocked is due to the use of HTTPS. While some might argue that this is a reason why sites shouldn't go to default HTTPS, I'd argued the opposite: it shows the value in HTTPS in that it makes censorship much more difficult such that when it occurs, the results are so ridiculous that it hopefully leads to greater pushback on the ridiculous attempts to censor.
from the these-are-not-the-droids-you're-looking-for dept
While propaganda is everywhere, we've been exploring lately how Putin's Russia has been taking Internet disinformation to an entirely new level. Numerous whistleblowers and media reports have spent the last year or so unearthing Russian Internet propaganda factories, where armies of sockpuppets get 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 twenty-four hours a day.
Unlike some similar campaigns by the U.S. Russia originally didn't try very hard to hide these operations' existence, but that's already changing. As numerous writers have discovered (myself included), even pointing out that these operations exist will grab you a heaping helping of anonymous troll scorn. If you still haven't perused it, this recent New York Times Magazine breakdown of Russia's troll armies is essential reading.
The company's specifically being sued for underpayment and a number of labor violations, since it unsurprisingly wasn't keen on providing employees with traditionally-necessary paperwork. Amusingly, a representative for "The Agency" hoped to settle with Savchuk, but she's apparently having none of it:
"The agency is now seeking to avoid public scrutiny by offering to compensate her. Yekaterina Nazarova, defending, told the Petrogradsky district court judge the agency was ready to settle with Savchuk, who had asked for a symbolic sum of 10,000 roubles (£118). Nazarova offered to wire the sum to Savchuk’s account, then quickly left the court without speaking to the press.
Savchuk said: “I am very pleased, they pretended they don’t exist at all and now they have come out of the shadows for the first time – we saw their representative. But I will feel that I won only after the troll factory closes completely."
The problem is that the operation Savchuk's trying to shut down operates under a spiderweb of various companies with an endless variety of names across numerous different industries (including construction) -- all of which are protected by the Russian government. As such, it's going to be a Sisyphean and dangerous game of legal whac-a-mole; one you'd hope Savchuk survives.