Russian troll factory paid US activists to help fund protests during election

RBC said it had identified 118 accounts or groups in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that were linked to the troll factory. Photograph: Sergei Konkov/TASS

Russian trolls posing as Americans made payments to genuine activists in the US to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues, according to a new investigation by a respected Russian media outlet.

On Tuesday, the newspaper RBC published a major investigation into the work of a so-called Russian “troll factory” since 2015, including during the period of the US election campaign, disclosures that are likely to put further spotlight on alleged Russian meddling in the election.

RBC said it had identified 118 accounts or groups in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that were linked to the troll factory, all of which had been blocked in August and September this year as part of the US investigation into Russian electoral meddling.

Many of the accounts had already been linked to Russian disinformation efforts in western outlets, but RBC said its sources at the troll factory had provided screenshots of the internal group administration pages of some of the groups, as proof they were run from Russia. It also spoke to former and current employees of the troll factory, all of whom spoke anonymously.

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.

The main topics covered by the groups run from Russia were race relations, Texan independence and gun rights. RBC counted 16 groups relating to the Black Lives Matter campaign and other race issues that had a total of 1.2 million subscribers. The biggest group was entitled Blacktivist and reportedly had more than 350,000 likes at its peak.

Last month, CNN also reported that US authorities believed the Blacktivist Facebook group and Twitter account were the work of Russian impostors.

The Internet Research Agency, one of the companies believed to run the trolling operations, has long been rumoured to be a project of Evgeny Prigozhin, a shadowy businessman known as “Putin’s chef”, who ran Putin’s favourite restaurant in St Petersburg and later won billions of dollars worth of state catering contracts. A number of semi-legitimate news aggregating websites appear to be run by the same people as the troll operations.

Google has said Russian operatives spent tens of thousands of dollars on targeted ads on YouTube, Google and Gmail, according to reports. Last month, Facebook released a statement saying it had found $100,000 of ad spending on about 3,000 ads that it linked to 470 “inauthentic” accounts that it had linked to Russia. The company later clarified that the ads focused on “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum”.

The company estimated that about 10 million Americans saw the ads, but interestingly also specified that only 44% of the impressions took place before last November’s election, making the Russian campaign look more like an attempt to sow general chaos rather than a narrowly focused electoral drive.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

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Facebook and Google promote politicized fake news about Las Vegas shooter

Facebook and Google promoted false news stories claiming that the shooter who killed more than 50 people in Las Vegas was a Democrat who opposed Donald Trump. The misidentification spread rapidly from dark corners of the internet to mainstream platforms just hours after hundreds were injured at a festival near the Mandalay Bay casino, the latest example of fake news polluting social media amid a breaking news story.

The flow of misinformation on Monday illustrated a particularly grim trend that has increasingly dominated viral online propaganda during US mass shootings – hyper-partisan trolls battling to blame the tragedy on opposing political ideologies.

On 4chan, the anonymous message board and a favorite platform of the “alt-right”, some noted that Danley was a registered Democrat. Soon after, Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy-laden blog that earned White House credentials under Trump, published an evidence-free story headlined, “Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army”. The piece was based on a review of Facebook “likes”.

Despite the fact that the claims were unproven and coming from non-credible sources, Facebook’s “Safety Check” page, which is supposed to help people connect with loved ones during the crisis, ended up briefly promoting a story that said the shooter had “Trump-hating” views, along with links to a number of other hoaxes and scams, according to screenshots. At the same time, Google users who searched Geary Danley’s name were at one point directed to the 4chan thread filled with false claims.

The rightwing users’ successful manipulation of social media algorithms to politicize a tragedy speaks to a relatively new pattern of online abuse. While users of Twitter and Reddit memorably misidentified the suspect behind the Boston marathon bombing in 2013, fake news during global tragedies and terrorist attacks over the last year has increasingly gone beyond careless reporting and retweeting to overt exploitation and targeted disinformation campaigns.

“It’s getting more polarized. There’s this mad scramble to paint the guy as a Democrat or a Republican, so they can cheer,” Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of fact-checking website Snopes.com, said in an interview. “A lot of this is pushed by trolls deliberately to muddy the conversation.”

False content can quickly move from social media to legitimate news sources, she added: “People are putting out crap information on purpose … It’s really easy to get shit into the news cycle by being on Twitter.”

On the flipside, some conservatives on Twitter have theorized that leftwing social media users have attempted to falsely paint Paddock as a rightwing individual. Some have speculated that liberals are posing as white nationalists and Trump supporters and following a Twitter account that has the same name as the suspect, in hopes of proving he is a conservative.

In reality, the suspect had no known “affiliations” that could explain the massacre, according to one of his brothers, who spoke out on Monday.

Beyond the politically charged fake news, a wide range of hoaxes and irresponsible reporting clouded social media on Monday. A number of viral tweets posted fake accounts of missing victims, according to BuzzFeed.

Some celebrities were also quick to spread unverified claims before police had offered any official confirmation of the basic facts of the shooting. Sia, a pop singer and songwriter with 3.2 million followers on Twitter, posted that 20 people were dead before police had released details on the number of casualties, adding, “take cover there are multiple shooters on the loose”.

Police have said there were no other suspects.

Source: This Guardian newspaper article.

 

The future of fake news: don’t believe everything you read, see or hear

A new breed of video and audio manipulation tools allow for the creation of realistic looking news footage, fake news, like the now infamous fake Obama speech.

In an age of Photoshop, filters and social media, many of us are used to seeing manipulated pictures – subjects become slimmer and smoother or, in the case of Snapchat, transformed into puppies.

The University of Washington’s Synthesizing Obama project took audio from one of Obama’s speeches and used it to animate his face in an entirely different video.

However, there’s a new breed of video and audio manipulation tools, made possible by advances in artificial intelligence and computer graphics, that will allow for the creation of realistic looking footage of public figures appearing to say, well, anything. Trump declaring his proclivity for water sports. Hillary Clinton describing the stolen children she keeps locked in her wine cellar. Tom Cruise finally admitting what we suspected all along … that he’s a Brony.

This is the future of fake news. We’ve long been told not to believe everything we read, but soon we’ll have to question everything we see and hear as well.

For now, there are several research teams working on capturing and synthesizing different visual and and audio elements of human behavior.

Software developed at Stanford University is able to manipulate video footage of public figures to allow a second person to put words in their mouth – in real time. Face2Face captures the second person’s facial expressions as they talk into a webcam and then morphs those movements directly onto the face of the person in the original video. The research team demonstrated their technology by puppeteering videos of George W Bush, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Face2Face lets you puppeteer celebrities and politicians, literally putting words in their mouths.

On its own, Face2Face is a fun plaything for creating memes and entertaining late night talk show hosts. However, with the addition of a synthesized voice, it becomes more convincing – not only does the digital puppet look like the politician, but it can also sound like the politician.

Canadian startup Lyrebird has developed similar capabilities, which it says can be used to turn text into on-the-spot audiobooks “read” by famous voices or for characters in video games.

Although their intentions may be well-meaning, voice-morphing technology could be combined with face-morphing technology to create convincing fake statements by public figures.

You only have to look at the University of Washington’s Synthesizing Obama project, where they took the audio from one of Obama’s speeches and used it to animate his face in an entirely different video with incredible accuracy (thanks to training a recurrent neural network with hours of footage), to get a sense of how insidious these adulterations can be.

Beyond fake news there are many other implications, said Nitesh Saxena, associate professor and research director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s department of computer science. “You could leave fake voice messages posing as someone’s mum. Or defame someone and post the audio samples online.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site.

 

The New Yorker’s David Remnick on the dangers of normalizing Donald Trump – video

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, discusses the dangers of normalizing a Donald Trump presidency during a live chat hosted by the Columbia Journalism Review, in partnership with the Guardian and Reuters. The event, titled ‘Covering Trump: what happens when journalism, politics and fake news collide’, was held at the Columbia Journalism School in New York.

Source: The Guardian newspaper post.

Fox News’s ‘Swedish defence advisor’ unknown to country’s military officials

 Nils Bildt appears on Fox News on Thursday 23 February billed as ‘national security advisor’. Photograph: Fox News


Nils Bildt appears on Fox News on Thursday 23 February billed as ‘national security advisor’. Photograph: Fox News

Swedish military and foreign-affairs officials have said they know nothing about a man who appeared on Fox News in the US billed as a “Swedish defence and national security advisor”.

Swedes, and some Americans, have been wondering about representations of the Scandinavian nation in the US since President Donald Trump invoked “what’s happening last night in Sweden” while alluding to past terror attacks in Europe during a rally on 18 February. There was no major incident in Sweden the previous night.

Trump does seem to get much of his security intelligence and other information from television and ‘other sources’ and not White House intelligence community, according to Trump’s many tweets.

Following Trump’s comments, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly convened an on-air discussion on Thursday over Swedish immigration and crime between a Swedish newspaper reporter and a man identified on screen and verbally as a “Swedish defence and national security advisor”, Nils Bildt.

Bildt linked immigration to crime and social problems in Sweden, lamented what he described as Swedish liberal close-mindedness about the downsides of welcoming newcomers and said: “We are unable in Sweden to socially integrate these people.”

But the Swedish defense ministry and foreign office told the newspaper Dagens Nyheter they knew nothing of Bildt. Calls to Swedish officials on Saturday were not immediately returned.

Bildt is a founding member of a corporate geopolitical strategy and security consulting business with offices in Washington, Brussels and Tokyo, according its website. His biography speaks to expertise on defence and national security issues, saying his experience includes serving as a naval officer, working for a Japanese official and writing books on issues ranging from investment and political climates to security issues with working in hostile environments.

But security experts in Sweden said he was not a familiar figure in their ranks in that country.

“He is in not in any way a known quantity in Sweden and has never been part of the Swedish debate,” Swedish Defence University leadership professor Robert Egnell said by email to The Associated Press on Saturday. He and Bildt — also known then as Nils Tolling — were in a master’s degree program in war studies together at King’s College London in 2002-2003, and Bildt moved to Japan soon after, he said.

The network said O’Reilly was expected to address the subject further on Monday’s show.

Trump started this fake news when Trump appeared at a Florida rally last week.

“You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden!” he said.

Well, the fact is nobody should have believed it. You can bet any time Trump uses the words ‘believe me’ Trump is probably lying as this article explains.

Swedes – and many other nationalities – were bewildered by the outburst: nothing major had taken place in Sweden that night. Staff at Sweden’s US embassy were so flummoxed that they sent a note to the White House asking for an explanation. They later got one from the president himself, on Twitter, in which he referred to a report on Fox News from the night before.

The film claimed that there had been a surge in gun violence and rape following a record number of asylum applications in 2015. Police interviewed for the report appeared to confirm that there had been a huge rise.

But those officers later said their words had been taken out of context and that they were not talking about refugees and migration. The Swedish cameraman who filmed them said the same. The film-maker, Ami Horowitz, defended the segment.

The data tells us that there was no surge in gun violence or rape in 2015, when Sweden accepted more than 160,000 refugees. The rate of gun deaths in Sweden in 2015 stood at 0.32 per 100,000 population, compared with 4.04 in the US – 12 times that of Sweden.

Sources for article here and here.

 

10 Most Censored Countries

Eritrea and North Korea are the first and second most censored countries worldwide, according to a list compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists of the 10 countries where the press is most restricted. The list is based on research into the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.

The tactics used by Eritrea and North Korea are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries. To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.

Seven of the 10 most censored countries-Eritrea, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, and Myanmar-are also among the top 10 worst jailers of journalists worldwide, according to CPJ’s annual prison census.

1. Eritrea

Leadership: President Isaias Afewerki, in power since 1993.

How censorship works: Only state media is allowed to disseminate news; the last accredited international correspondent was expelled in 2007. Even those working for the heavily censored state press live in constant fear of arrest for any report perceived as critical to the ruling party, or on suspicion that they leaked information outside the country.

2. North Korea

Leadership: Kim Jong Un, who took over after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.

How censorship works: Article 53 of the country’s constitution calls for freedom of the press, but even with an Associated Press bureau-staffed by North Koreans and located in the Pyongyang headquarters of the state-run Korean Central News Agency-and a small foreign press corps from politically sympathetic countries, access to independent news sources is extremely limited. Nearly all the content of North Korea’s 12 main newspapers, 20 periodicals, and broadcasters comes from the official Korean Central News Agency, which focuses on the political leadership’s statements and activities.

Read about all 10 countries here.

True freedom of the press does not exist in these 10 countries. One thing they all have in common is government control of information, usually through a single source, something which Trump wants the public to eventually accept.

trumpsociopath

But the media bashing right now is a bit of a red herring. Trump is up to something. Let’s not forget Trump is a narcissistic sociopath. I did a quick google on ‘Trump sociopath’ and found thousands upon thousands of articles, so I’m not alone in believing Trump is a sociopath. Read for yourself here, and here, and here, and Conservative commentator Glenn Beck during an broadcast interview here for starters.

While it is easy and fun to point out what a doofus Trump is, let us never forget he is a sociopath. While he is entertaining us with his rants about the media, fake news, he is also distracting us from what is likely a more sinister event or events.

It is incumbent upon journalists to keep digging everywhere for truth about Trump, his Trump Organization, his ties to Russia, any threats to White House staff or any government employee, any actions which go against the Constitution or law, and not be distracted by the media antics of a buffoon.

America is a great country. It needs the real truth, and not Trump’s version of truth.

Fact-checking President Trump’s CPAC speech

Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Here’s a roundup of some of the 13 of Trump’s more dubious claims he made at CPAC 2017:

“I saw one story recently where they said, ‘Nine people have confirmed.’ There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people. Nine people. . . . They make up sources.”

Trump is referring to a Washington Post article that disclosed that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials. The Post report prompted a firestorm that led to Flynn’s firing by Trump, because it turned out that Flynn had misled Vice President Pence and other administration officials about whether he had discussed sanctions.

The article cited information provided by “nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls.” (Calls by the Russian ambassador are monitored by intelligence agencies.) No White House official has disputed the accuracy of the article — and indeed, it resulted in Flynn’s departure from the administration.

“The dishonest media did not explain that I called the fake news the enemy of the people. The fake news. They dropped off the word ‘fake.’ And all of a sudden the story became the media is the enemy.”

Trump is making a distinction without a difference. This is the tweet in question:

Trump listed five mainstream media organizations — the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN — as the “FAKE NEWS media” and declared that they are the enemy of the American people. By listing major media organizations as the enemy, Trump was clearly making a statement about the broader news media. (Another article: White House blocks CNN, New York Times from press briefing hours after Trump slams media.) Can you say ‘media control by government’ as it is in China and Russia?

“In the Middle East, we’ve spent, as of four weeks ago, $6 trillion. Think of it.”

Trump is lumping together the wars in Iraq (in the Middle East) and Afghanistan (in South Asia), which together cost about $1.6 trillion from 2001 to 2014. He is also adding in estimates of future spending, such as interest on the debt and veterans care for the next three decades.

“Obamacare covers very few people — and remember, deduct from the number all of the people that had great health care that they loved that was taken away from them. It was taken away from them.”

Trump essentially repeats a false GOP talking point that previously earned Four Pinocchios. The Obama administration calculated that about 20 million people have gained health coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act, a figure that seems reasonable. Meanwhile, the number of plans that were canceled is far lower, though there appears to be no research that has determined exactly how many people had their policies canceled because the health insurance did not comply with the ACA.

An estimated 2.6 million people received notices of cancellations, but there was such an outcry over reports of cancellations that the Obama administration rushed to issue waivers that would allow people to keep their plans. Forty states accepted the waiver policy — which in most cases remains in effect until December 2017. So a vast majority of the people who might have received notices actually were able to keep their plans, even up until today.

It’s important to remember that the individual insurance market has a lot of ebb and flow, with people moving in and out of it as they change jobs, so the odds are many people who might have been affected by plan terminations would have already switched plans. One study found that in the 2008-to-2011 period, only 42 percent of policyholders in the non-group market retained that coverage after 12 months, with many moving to an employer-provided plan when obtaining a new job.

“ICE came and endorsed me. They never endorsed a presidential candidate before. They might not even be allowed to.”

This is one of Trump’s favorite claims. Federal agencies can’t endorse political candidates. The unions representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and Border Patrol agents did endorse Trump. Both groups said Trump was their first-ever endorsement. But they did not do so unanimously. The National Border Patrol Council endorsement was based on the vote of 11 union leaders, which sparked controversy among union members. Agents in El Paso, in a 14-to-13 vote, narrowly failed to have the local union disavow the endorsement.

Read all 13 of Trump’s dubious claims he made in his CPAC speech. Read it while you can, because if Donald Trump continues his silencing of the free press you may soon only have news as published through the extreme right.

Remember, Donald Trump only likes good news about himself.