US loses to Rus­sia dis­in­for­ma­tion drive

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The US gov­ern­ment spent more than a decade pre­par­ing re­sponses to ma­li­cious hack­ing by a for­eign power but had no clear strat­egy when Rus­sia launched a dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign over the in­ter­net dur­ing the US elec­tion cam­paign, cur­rent and for­mer White House cy­ber se­cu­rity ad­vis­ers said. Far more ef­fort has gone into plot­ting of­fen­sive hack­ing and pre­par­ing de­fenses against the less prob­a­ble but more dra­matic dam­age from elec­tronic as­saults on the power grid, fi­nan­cial sys­tem or di­rect ma­nip­u­la­tion of vot­ing ma­chines.

Over the last sev­eral years, US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies tracked Rus­sia’s use of co­or­di­nated hack­ing and dis­in­for­ma­tion in Ukraine and else­where, the ad­vis­ers and in­tel­li­gence ex­perts said, but there was lit­tle sus­tained, high-level gov­ern­ment con­ver­sa­tion about the risk of the pro­pa­ganda com­ing to the United States. Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion it did - to an ex­tent that may have al­tered the out­come, the se­cu­rity sources said. But US of­fi­cials felt lim­ited in in­ves­ti­gat­ing Russian-sup­ported pro­pa­ganda ef­forts be­cause of free speech guar­an­tees in the Con­sti­tu­tion.

A for­mer White House of­fi­cial cau­tioned that any US gov­ern­ment at­tempt to counter the flow of for­eign state­backed dis­in­for­ma­tion through de­ter­rence would face ma­jor po­lit­i­cal, le­gal and moral ob­sta­cles. “You would have to have mas­sive surveil­lance and cur­tailed free­dom and that is a cost we have not been will­ing to ac­cept,” said the for­mer of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity. “They (Rus­sia) can con­trol distri­bu­tion of in­for­ma­tion in ways we don’t.” Clin­ton Watts, a se­cu­rity con­sul­tant, for­mer FBI agent and a fel­low at the non­profit For­eign Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute, said the US gov­ern­ment no longer has an or­ga­ni­za­tion, such as the US In­for­ma­tion Agency, that pro­vided counter-nar­ra­tives dur­ing the Cold War. He said that most ma­jor Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns in the United States and Europe have started at Russian-gov­ern­ment funded me­dia out­lets, such as RT tele­vi­sion or Sput­nik News, be­fore be­ing am­pli­fied on Twit­ter by oth­ers.

Watts said it was ur­gent for the US gov­ern­ment to build the ca­pa­bil­ity to track what is hap­pen­ing on­line and dis­pute false sto­ries. “Those two things need to be done im­me­di­ately,” Watts said. “You have to have a pub­lic state­ment or it leads to con­spir­acy the­o­ries.” A de­fense spend­ing pill passed this month calls for the State De­part­ment to es­tab­lish a “Global En­gage­ment Cen­ter” to take on some of that work, but sim­i­lar ef­forts to counter less so­phis­ti­cated Is­lamic State nar­ra­tives have fallen short. The US gov­ern­ment for­mally ac­cused Rus­sia of a cam­paign of cy­ber at­tacks against US po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions in Oc­to­ber, a month be­fore the Nov 8 elec­tion.

US ‘Stuck’

James Lewis, a cy­ber se­cu­rity ex­pert at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic & In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies who has worked for the de­part­ments of State and Com­merce and the US mil­i­tary, said Washington needed to move be­yond an­ti­quated no­tions of pro­ject­ing in­flu­ence if it hoped to catch up with Rus­sia. “They have RT and all we know how to do is send a car­rier bat­tle group,” Lewis said. “We’re go­ing to be stuck un­til we find a way deal with that.”

Watts, who said he has tracked tens of thou­sands of pro-Rus­sia Twit­ter han­dles since 2014, be­lieves many of the most ef­fec­tive sto­ries stoke fear of war or other calami­ties or pro­mote a nar­ra­tive of cor­rupt Western politi­cians, me­dia and other elites. He and oth­ers said Sput­nik shows the in­ten­sity of the Russian ef­fort. Launched two years ago as a suc­ces­sor to the of­fi­cial Russian wire ser­vice and ra­dio net­work, Sput­nik does not merely par­rot the Krem­lin po­lit­i­cal line, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts. It has gone out of its way to hire out­siders with so­cial me­dia ex­per­tise, in­clud­ing left and right-lean­ing Amer­i­cans who are crit­i­cal of US poli­cies.

Sput­nik News did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. Dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign, one of the most prom­i­nent full­time Sput­nik writ­ers and com­men­ta­tors, Cas­san­dra Fair­banks, shifted from an ar­dent anti-po­lice pro­tes­tor and sup­porter of so­cial­ist US Se­na­tor Bernie San­ders to a vo­cal backer of Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump. Fair­banks said in an in­ter­view with Reuters that Sput­nik had not told her to ad­vo­cate for Trump, now pres­i­den­t­elect. She said she was swayed by Trump’s op­po­si­tion to over­seas wars and in­ter­na­tional trade agree­ments. “I did my best to push for him,” Fair­banks said, “but that was of my free will.”

A wo­man in her thir­ties with more than 80,000 Twit­ter fol­low­ers, Fair­banks was an ac­tivist with the hack­ing move­ment known as Anony­mous be­fore she joined Sput­nik. The day be­fore the elec­tion, Fair­banks said on a YouTube chan­nel that it was “pretty likely” that the au­thors of emails hacked from the ac­count of Demo­cratic can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign man­ager John Podesta were us­ing code words for pe­dophilia when they spoke about pizza.

The as­ser­tion fed the false­hood that Clin­ton sup­port­ers were op­er­at­ing a child sex ring out of a Washington-based pizza par­lor. The chan­nel, with 1.8 mil­lion sub­scribers, was run by Alex Jones, a ra­dio host who has said the 9/11 at­tacks were an “in­side job”. Joe Fionda, a vet­eran of the Oc­cupy protests who worked briefly for Sput­nik in 2015, said the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ar­ti­cles and so­cial me­dia ef­forts over­all were aimed at prais­ing Russian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s al­lies such as Syria and dwelling on neg­a­tive news in the United States, in­clud­ing po­lice mis­con­duct.

Some US of­fi­cials and po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts have said Putin could be­lieve busi­ness­man Trump would be friend­lier to Rus­sia than Clin­ton, es­pe­cially when it came to eco­nomic sanc­tions. Fionda said spread­ing hacked emails was a pri­or­ity at Sput­nik. He said his job in­cluded try­ing to cre­ate vi­ral memes on a Face­book page called Muti­nous Me­dia, which did not list a Sput­nik con­nec­tion. For­mer work­ers of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, one of the groups in­fil­trated by Russian-backed hack­ers, said the US gov­ern­ment should con­sider pro­vid­ing fund­ing for the tech­no­log­i­cal de­fense of ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.