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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Russian agents hacked US voting system manufacturer before US election – report

The NSA is convinced that the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate was responsible for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Photograph: Larry W. Smith/EPA

Russian intelligence agents hacked a US voting systems manufacturer in the weeks leading up to last year’s presidential election, according to the Intercept, citing what it said was a highly classified National Security Agency (NSA) report.

The revelation coincided with the arrest of Reality Leigh Winner, 25, a federal contractor from Augusta, Georgia, who was charged with removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.

The hacking of senior Democrats’ email accounts during the campaign has been well chronicled, but vote-counting was thought to have been unaffected, despite concerted Russian efforts to penetrate it.

Russian military intelligence carried out a cyber-attack on at least one US voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than a hundred local election officials days before the poll, the Intercept reported on Monday.

The website, which specialises in national security issues, said the NSA document had been provided to it anonymously and independently authenticated. “The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed US government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light,” it continued.

On Monday afternoon, the justice department said Winner had been arrested by the FBI at her home on Saturday and appeared in federal court in Augusta on Monday. She is a contractor with Pluribus International Corporation, assigned to a US government agency facility in Georgia, it added. She has been employed at the facility since on or about 13 February and held a top-secret clearance during that time.

Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told the Guardian that her daughter was a former linguist in the US air force who spoke Farsi, Pashto and Dari.

“I never thought this would be something she would do,” said Winner-Davis. “She’s expressed to me that she’s not a fan of Trump, but she’s not someone that goes and riots and pickets or stuff.”

The NSA report makes clear that, despite recent denials by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the NSA is convinced that the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) was responsible for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

The document reportedly states: “Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.”

The intelligence assessment acknowledges that there is still a great deal of uncertainty over how successful the Russian operatives were and does not reach a conclusion about whether it affected the outcome of the election, in which Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton hinged on three closely contested states.

But the suggestion that Russian hackers may gained at least a foothold in electronic voting systems is likely to add even more pressure to special counsel and congressional investigations. The Obama administration maintained that it took preventive measures to successfully guard against breaches of the systems in all 50 states.

The former FBI director James Comey is set to testify before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday regarding Russian meddling in the election.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

How will Trump use US Intelligence operations?

 The NSA. Obama’s approach has been to offer a modicum of transparency, much of it forced on him by the courts, in place of reform. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

The NSA. Obama’s approach has been to offer a modicum of transparency, much of it forced on him by the courts, in place of reform. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

How will President-elect Donald Trump use the US Intelligence agencies once he is President?

On one hand Trump lambasts US Intelligence agencies. On the other hand he can’t wait to get hold of the power of the US Intelligence agencies.

Russian delivery of false news through social media in order to promote Trump during US Presidential race is dismissed by Trump. Regarding the hacking of the Democrat emails, he said it was ultimately irrelevant, describing the data penetration and leak as having “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election”.

For something which had “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election” Trump certainly mentioned missing emails every chance he had and even asked Russia to find more of Hilary Clinton’s missing emails.

What’s with Trump and Russia anyway? Does Trump have Putin envy?

But I digress. On the campaign trail, Trump made an ambiguous remark about wishing he had access to surveillance powers.

“I wish I had that power,” he said while talking about the hack of Democratic National Committee emails. “Man, that would be power.”

Man, that would be power??? I wish I had that power??? This from a person running for the most powerful political position in the world? What does that say about the man? It tells me he is immature and an egotist.

I doubt any person with an IQ above gravel would vocalize such thoughts while running for Presidency of the United States. Think them? Okay. Speak them during an election? Dumber than gravel.

Back in November I posted a piece about “Privacy experts fear Donald Trump running global surveillance network.” You may read it here.

US intelligence report: Vladimir Putin ‘ordered’ operation to get Trump elected

The report found that a multifaceted Russian campaign, going beyond the high-profile data breaches, included state-owned media and social media campaigns. Photograph: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images

The report found that a multifaceted Russian campaign, going beyond the high-profile data breaches, included state-owned media and social media campaigns. Photograph: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images

This report, available as PDF below, on Vladimir Putin and Russian influence in getting Donald Trump elected President of the United States is a declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign.

Declassified assessment says Russia ‘had clear preference’ for Trump, who met with US intelligence chiefs on Friday but refused to endorse their findings. You may read this declassified report and decide for yourself.

“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the agencies found in a long-awaited report that stands to hang over the head of the incoming Trump administration.

Though the declassified report lacks detail, never before has the US intelligence apparatus publicly assessed a foreign power to have interfered in an election for the benefit of an incoming president.

The three US intelligence agencies assessed with “high confidence” that Russian military intelligence was behind anonymous hacking entities Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks.com, and relayed to WikiLeaks data stolen from prominent Democrats. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has denied receiving any material from the Russians.

“Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity. Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries,” the agencies found.

The intelligence assessment found that a multifaceted Russian influence campaign, going beyond the data breaches at the Democratic National Committee, began as an effort to undermine Clinton’s “expected presidency” and included state-owned media and social media campaigns. It foreshadowed “future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes”.

“We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him,” the report said.

After meeting with US intelligence officials at Trump Tower, Trump did not endorse the conclusion of Russian interference but said he would task his administration with devising a new plan to “aggressively combat and and stop cyber attacks”.

In a statement following his meeting with intelligence chiefs, Trump discussed digital intrusions in a generic sense, referring to “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people” that engage in digital theft, remaining agnostic on the intelligence agencies’ conclusion of Russian interference.

He said it was ultimately irrelevant, describing the data penetration and leak as having “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election”.

Brian Bartholomew of Russia-based security firm Kaspersky believes the hacks were the work of a group known by several code names, among them Fancy Bear, Sofacy and APT 29.

Bartholomew told the Guardian that while Kaspersky tends to shy away from attribution and focus on deterrence and analysis, it had already become difficult to reach any other conclusion than that Russian state actors were behind the Fancy Bear hacks.

“[Julian] Assange said it could have been a 14-year-old hacker – if you look at the collective operations of this group, there’s no way a 14-year-old has this much money, time and effort to conduct all of these operations together,” he said.

Kaspersky believes Fancy Bear controlled several operations attributed to Islamic State and other international groups, among them hacks on TV5Monde, the German Bundestag and the Democratic National Committee. Those attacks look sloppy and public by design, Bartholomew said.

“What it came down to was essentially plausible deniability,” he said. “You have an espionage group that is linked to a nation-state group; if you have a group that is targeting media or election systems, that’s taking it past the line that traditional groups used to follow.”

The fronts for Fancy Bear allowed a more organized and well-funded actor to pretend to be a gang of dissidents that just happened to act in a way that furthered the interests of the group backing them. “It all forms a line with the Russian sphere of influence,” said Bartholomew.

Bartholomew said he hoped the new report would contain at least some new technical details. Instead, it contains an analysis of Russian state news outlet Russia Today dating back more than four years, and the detail that among other tactics, the Russian GRU intelligence agency is said to have hired Twitter trolls.

You may download the declassified report in PDF format here…. assessing-russian-activities-and-intentions-in-recent-us-elections

You may read the complete article on The Guardian web site here.

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Specter of election day violence looms as Trump spurs vigilante poll watcher

 Militia groups have called on members to be less overt in their poll monitoring on election day, by not carrying guns and attempting to blend in. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

Militia groups have called on members to be less overt in their poll monitoring on election day, by not carrying guns and attempting to blend in. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

Donald Trump’s claims of “large-scale” voter fraud have prompted officials across the political spectrum to warn about the dangers of vigilante poll monitors amid fears of confrontations or even violence on US election day.

As opinion polls tightened this week between Trump and Hillary Clinton ahead of Tuesday’s presidential vote, there are concerns of chaos following his claims, without serious evidence, that the election could be “rigged” and his refusal to say if he will accept the outcome.

Republican leaders in some battleground states are reporting a surge of volunteers signing up to serve as official poll watchers, and in an unprecedented move, the Trump campaign itself has since August been requesting that volunteers sign up as “election observers” to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!”. Stone, meanwhile, has said he has helped recruit people to do “exit polls” to tackle voter fraud and denies .

The nation’s most prominent anti-government militia and a neo-Nazi group have also announced plans to send their members to monitor for voter fraud outside the polls.

The Democratic party has launched a series of legal challenges around the country alleging voter intimidation, and on Friday in the battleground state of Ohio a judge issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s campaign and his unofficial adviser Roger Stone. The ruling said anyone who engaged in intimidation or harassment inside or near Ohio polling places would face contempt of court charges. (Read my post about this here.)

The Guardian revealed last month that a Republican operative, Mike Roman, notorious for stirring allegations of voter intimidation in the 2008 election, would coordinate the Trump monitor program, but the campaign has declined to provide details on the size and scale of the program and it remains unclear how many people will show up.

Voting rights advocates have focused on the potential threat posed by Trump supporters like the Ohio man who told a reporter he wanted to keep a close eye on “people who can’t speak American” at the polls.

While having trained partisan observers inside polling places is a normal part of the voting process, “Trump has encouraged people to go on their own and check out what’s going on in polling places”, said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California Irvine law school and one of the country’s leading election law experts. “These are going to be untrained people hyped up on what Trump has said.

“I’m worried that there are going to be confrontations and potential violence at the polls,” he said.

An attempt to blend in

The fringe groups that have announced plans to monitor for voter fraud said their members should be dressed in plainclothes and quietly watching for illegal behavior – not engaging in confrontations.

Democrats and voting rights advocates argue that poll-watching efforts are only one part of a larger Republican effort to discourage or block racial minorities from voting – and that Republican concerns over “voter fraud” are simply a mask for a broad campaign of racial disenfranchisement. The spread of laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls, restrictions on early voting times, and poll location closures are all designed to disadvantage racial minorities who tend to vote for Democrats, advocates say.

The NAACP filed a new lawsuit against North Carolina this week alleging that black voters were being disproportionately purged from the state’s voter rolls. “This sounds like something that was put together in 1901,” a federal judge said at an emergency hearing, calling the purging process “insane”.

The judge issued an order Friday finding that the purge likely violated the National Voter Registration Act, and ordered that state elections officials “take all steps necessary to restore the voter registrations that were canceled.”

Trump’s repeated, unprecedented claims that the election has already been “rigged” against him have given new fuel to conservative claims that non-citizens are voting and that votes are being stolen on a massive scale. In a “new effort”, the National Socialist Movement, a white nationalist, neo-Nazi organization, is planning to send out hundreds of members to watch for voter fraud outside polling places in 48 states, with a focus on California, Illinois, Florida and Michigan, Butch Urban, the group’s chief of staff, said.

Members would not be wearing their uniforms or National Socialist Movement gear. “They’re going to look like everybody else that’s going in there to vote,” Urban said.

He called voter fraud “so rampant”, and said the group would have lawyers on call.

The president of one of America’s largest anti-government armed militia groups, the Oath Keepers, called on members last week to take part in undercover poll-watching under the moniker of “Operation Sabot 2016”.

In a bizarre set of instructions to the group’s reported 30,000 members – an organization of “current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders” – Stewart Rhodes, a former US army paratrooper, also encouraged members to “blend in” among voters and attempt to record evidence of widespread voter fraud.

“That may mean wearing a Bob Marley, pot leaf, tie-die [sic] peace symbol, or ‘Che’ Guevara T-Shirt, etc,” Rhodes, who declined to be interviewed, wrote in an online callout to members.

Rhodes wrote that members should not openly carry their guns – “We do NOT want open-carry (remember, again, that this is a covert operation)” – and that they should be aware of laws barring even concealed gun carrying in polling places.

*****

A rigged election? Nyah. Intimidation, blockades, delays, etc can’t possibly be considered rigging an election if you are a Republican doing it.

Read the complete article in the Guardian newspaper online here.

trumpbushgoodluck

At least comedians will have something to laugh about for the next four years if Trump gets elected.

The debasing of American politics

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HOW do people learn to accept what they once found unacceptable? In 1927 Frederic Thrasher published a “natural history” of 1,313 gangs in Chicago. Each of them lived by a set of unwritten rules that had come to make sense to gang members but were still repellent to everyone else. So it is with Donald Trump and many of his supporters. By normalising attitudes that, before he came along, were publicly taboo, Mr Trump has taken a knuckle-duster to American political culture.

The recording of him boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy”, long before he was a candidate, was unpleasant enough. More worrying still has been the insistence by many Trump supporters that his behaviour was normal. So too his threat, issued in the second presidential debate, to have Hillary Clinton thrown into jail if he wins. In a more fragile democracy that sort of talk would foreshadow post-election violence. Mercifully, America is not about to riot on November 9th. But the reasons have less to do with the state’s power to enforce the letter of the law than with the unwritten rules that American democracy thrives on. It is these that Mr Trump is trampling over—and which Americans need to defend.

Once you start throwing mud in politics, it is very hard to stop. Yet, every so often, you get a glimpse of something better. When Todd Akin lost a winnable Senate seat in 2012, after haplessly trying to draw a distinction between “legitimate rape” and the not so legitimate sort, Republican candidates and political consultants took notice.

Such a realisation needs to strike home on a grand scale. Healthy politics is not gang warfare. It involves compromise, because to yield in some areas is to move forward in others. It is about antagonists settling on a plan, because to do nothing is the worst plan of all. It requires the insight that your opponent can be honourable and principled, however strongly you disagree. The 2016 election campaign has poured scorn on such ideas. All Americans are worse off as a result.

Read the complete article on The Economist web site.

Swing time in US

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THERE was a time when American presidential candidates won real landslides. In 1964, 1972 and 1984 voters re-elected incumbents by margins of around 20 percentage points; all three of those victors (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) won over 90% of electoral college votes. More modest wins have also brought resounding mandates for new presidents, thanks to the winner-take-all arithmetic of the electoral college. Reagan won 91% of electoral votes in 1980 while “only” beating Jimmy Carter by ten percentage points. His successor, George H.W. Bush, secured 79% of the college in 1988 with just a 7.7-point victory over Michael Dukakis.

Such lopsided electoral-college margins now appear to be a thing of the past. Although Barack Obama beat John McCain in 2008 by 7.3 points, roughly the same margin as the elder Mr Bush achieved, he only secured 68% of electoral votes. The main reason is that the electoral college is less sensitive to changes in the popular vote than it once was. From 1948 to 1996, a gain of one extra percentage point in the popular vote corresponded to a pickup of four percentage points in the electoral college. Since 2000, that ratio has fallen to three.

For example, in the 1976 election, which Mr Carter won by two percentage points, 20 states were decided by a margin of five points or less. In contrast, George W. Bush won the 2004 vote by a similar amount, but the candidates were separated by fewer than five points in only 11 states. Similarly, half as many states were within a five-point margin for Mr Obama’s first victory than for George H.W. Bush’s.

According to Stacey Hunter Hecht and David Schultz, two political scientists who outlined the history of American “swing states” in a book published last year, one explanation for this trend is political and demographic “sorting” along geographic lines. In recent years liberals have tended to move to already liberal-leaning states. The same has gone for their conservative cousins. As a result, even presidential candidates who lose the national vote decisively can amass lopsided margins on their “home turf”. Mitt Romney, for example, won Wyoming by 41 points in 2012, even though Mr Obama beat him by four overall. These migration patterns have also increased the likelihood that states will vote for the same party from one election to the next, regardless of which side wins the presidency. That has made it harder for so-called bellwether states, with a long record of siding with the victor—as Maine did from 1832 to 1932, and Missouri from 1904 to 2004—to sustain this pattern.

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In 2008 Mr Obama won Indiana, a state that had not voted for a Democrat since 1964. This year polling indicates that two states previously seen as firmly in the Republican camp, Arizona and Georgia, now look competitive. South Carolina, an even more conservative stronghold, is not far behind. Donald Trump is prone to boasting of his ability to accomplish improbable feats. But turning the Deep South and Sun Belt blue is probably not what he has in mind.

More on the US election from The Economist here.