In­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal trolling.

Rus­sia and China have sought to in­flu­ence opin­ion in Aus­tralia us­ing so­cial me­dia, a par­lia­men­tary joint com­mit­tee heard this week, in oper­a­tions rang­ing from ad­vo­cat­ing po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions to ‘fake news’.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray

Fe­bru­ary 8, 2017. That, ac­cord­ing to Dr Michael Jensen’s anal­y­sis, was the date that the Krem­lin-spon­sored “troll farm” – the In­ter­net Re­search Agency (IRA) – was most ac­tive on Aus­tralian Twit­ter. Jensen, an Amer­i­can aca­demic, is a se­nior re­search fel­low at the Univer­sity of Can­berra’s In­sti­tute for Gov­er­nance and Pol­icy Anal­y­sis. He ap­peared this week, along­side col­leagues from the univer­sity’s News and Me­dia Re­search Cen­tre, be­fore the joint stand­ing com­mit­tee on elec­toral mat­ters, a com­mit­tee that since Septem­ber 2016 has been ex­am­in­ing “cy­ber ma­nip­u­la­tion of elec­tions”.

In Fe­bru­ary this year, United States spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller charged 12 Rus­sians as­so­ci­ated with IRA with con­spir­ing to in­ter­fere in the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. While news of the agency and its work was al­ready pub­lic, Mueller’s in­dict­ment re­vealed more de­tail – it em­ployed hun­dreds of work­ers, had a monthly bud­get well over a mil­lion dol­lars and had sent op­er­a­tives to the US to gather in­tel­li­gence to bet­ter serve their on­line cam­paigns.

Fe­bru­ary 8, 2017 was not the date of any elec­tion, ref­er­en­dum or ma­jor cri­sis in Aus­tralia. Rather, it was the date of a Twit­ter hash­tag game: #Make TV Shows Aus­tralian. The idea was sim­ple – hu­mor­ously al­ter the names of TV shows with Aus­tralian slang. From a large build­ing in St Peters­burg, the Rus­sian troll farm saw an op­por­tu­nity. “They demon­strated an abil­ity to use Aus­tralian slang terms in par­tic­i­pat­ing in this,” Jensen told the com­mit­tee this week, “and that’s a tac­tic that is com­monly as­so­ci­ated with tra­di­tional spy­craft prac­tices, where you would see in what ways you can cap­ture an au­di­ence based on non-po­lit­i­cal grounds and then slowly move them to adopt po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions over time. In fact, even within that game I saw ex­per­i­men­ta­tion where they would move from that game to then mak­ing state­ments about Mus­lims be­ing dan­ger­ous.”

Jensen elab­o­rates to me on the prac­tice of first en­gag­ing peo­ple on­line in a seem­ingly in­nocu­ous topic. “If you look back at early 2015, you find a large amount of dis­cus­sion amongst so-called trolls, or sock-pup­pet Twit­ter ac­counts, that fo­cused upon cul­tural mo­ments – like the series fi­nale of Mad Men,” he says. “The evo­lu­tion of these engagements might be­gin with a pithy quote, and they would do this to try and build a fol­low­ing be­fore they’d talk about po­lit­i­cal is­sues. Dur­ing the 2016 US elec­tion, tar­geted Face­book ads about pan-African iden­tity ap­peared, try­ing to get African Amer­i­cans to get a lot of pride from their African con­nec­tions. You would de­velop those iden­ti­ties be­fore you moved them to more rad­i­cally po­lit­i­cal things – it’s then they say, ‘You have no rea­son to vote for Hil­lary Clin­ton. She doesn’t care about you.’ They get peo­ple to iden­tify with you as a peer, they es­tab­lish a rap­port by hu­mour, slang et cetera, so you can move them once they see them­selves like you.”

Aus­tralia is largely pe­riph­eral to Rus­sian in­ter­ests – per­haps our great­est sig­nif­i­cance to Rus­sia is our mem­ber­ship of the Five Eyes, an in­tel­li­gence al­liance with the US, Bri­tain, Canada and New Zealand. “But the PRC has a more con­certed and wide-rang­ing ef­fort to in­flu­ence events in Aus­tralia than Rus­sia does at the mo­ment,” Jensen tells me. “China use more agents of in­flu­ence, they in­ter­act with di­as­pora pop­u­la­tions around the world and fo­cus on broad-scale poli­cies like im­mi­gra­tion. There’s noth­ing il­le­git­i­mate or wrong about that. They may seek to in­flu­ence through re­search in­sti­tutes and sup­port for other en­ti­ties like think tanks – folks in law en­force­ment are look­ing at this more now – fig­ures who can speak favourably about China. It’s a tricky area try­ing to study in­flu­ence of oper­a­tions – how do you mea­sure that? And how do you de­fine what’s le­git­i­mate and what’s not?

“Part of the trick­i­ness is bound up in nor­ma­tive ar­gu­ments about the na­ture of democ­racy. For ex­am­ple, no na­tion is a sov­er­eign bub­ble, there are le­git­i­mate ways other en­ti­ties might in­flu­ence a space of pub­lic de­bate. How­ever, it be­comes prob­lem­atic when it’s covert and peo­ple are pre­tend­ing to be peo­ple they’re not. That de­cep­tive mi­lieu of the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, a place of ‘in­for­ma­tion laun­der­ing’ whereby very dodgy claims with no ev­i­den­tiary sup­port get mixed around in the in­ter­net and gain cred­i­bil­ity by rep­e­ti­tion – that cor­rodes or un­der­mines pub­lic faith.”

Michael Jensen told the joint stand­ing com­mit­tee this week that one as­pect of Rus­sian cam­paigns in Aus­tralia re­garded the ex­iled founder of Wik­iLeaks. “Ac­cord­ing to tweets that have been re­leased by Twit­ter – and they have iden­ti­fied these as be­long­ing to an or­gan­ised in­flu­ence op­er­a­tion from the In­ter­net Re­search Agency – they have ad­vo­cated strongly on be­half of Ju­lian As­sange, ask­ing for Aus­tralia’s in­ter­ces­sion re­gard­ing his cause to help free him, a point which per­haps will be­come more salient in the near fu­ture, as re­port­ing last week has in­di­cated that he is cur­rently un­der sealed in­dict­ment in the United States.”

That As­sange had been se­cretly charged by the US gov­ern­ment was ac­ci­den­tally re­vealed last week when un­re­lated pa­pers, which con­tained ref­er­ence to the sealed in­dict­ment, were filed in a fed­eral court. It looks much like a copy-and-paste er­ror, though the blun­der did not re­veal the spe­cific charges made against the Wik­iLeaks founder or if they were re­lated to the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion. In 2016, Wik­iLeaks pub­lished a trove of emails stolen by Rus­sian hack­ers from the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee.

“Wik­iLeaks orig­i­nally po­si­tioned it­self as a trans­parency or­gan­i­sa­tion, but it’s aban­doned that al­to­gether now,” Jensen tells me. “When Wik­iLeaks did its most re­cent dumps, it was re­leas­ing raw in­for­ma­tion that was used by po­lit­i­cal agents in ma­nip­u­la­tive ways. It’s trans­formed its role sub­stan­tially.

“As­sange’s cir­cle of sup­port is much smaller. I’ve seen ev­i­dence that Rus­sia is host­ing back-up servers for Wik­iLeaks, but I can’t be sure what the na­ture of the ties are. That’s some­thing in­tel­li­gence or­gan­i­sa­tions will have a much bet­ter idea about. Pub­lic re­port­ing, and the in­dict­ments handed down by Mueller, in­di­cate that Wik­iLeaks were in con­tact with … [a] mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence unit of Rus­sia about the tim­ing of Wik­iLeaks’ dump of the Democrats’ emails.

As­sange ar­gued that their dis­tri­bu­tion would be much more ef­fec­tive than Rus­sia’s sys­tem. So, there’s op­er­a­tional con­nec­tions there. [Former US direc­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence] James Clap­per gave an in­ter­view last Au­gust where he dis­closed that there was a go-be­tween for Wik­iLeaks and the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment that led to the abil­ity for As­sange to say he had no di­rect con­tact with Rus­sia. [The go-be­tween] has since dis­ap­peared.”

Much of this week’s joint stand­ing com­mit­tee hear­ings dealt with that ero­sion of pub­lic faith in demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions, an ero­sion partly ac­cel­er­ated by fake news and echo cham­bers. On this, Jensen’s re­search find­ings were de­press­ing.

“Although mis­in­for­ma­tion and fake news have be­come par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic in the era of dig­i­tally net­worked com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the truth or fal­sity of a state­ment is of­ten in­ci­den­tal to its util­ity in in­flu­ence oper­a­tions,” Jensen told the com­mit­tee. “They use con­jec­tures, highly stylised fram­ings, eval­u­a­tive criteria which may be deemed in­ap­pro­pri­ate from a per­spec­tive of ex­per­tise, se­lec­tively leaked ma­te­ri­als and other tac­tics which in­volve state­ments which may be true in and of them­selves, or at least not demon­stra­bly false. For this rea­son and also be­cause they ap­peal to fears and anx­i­eties, fact-check­ing would likely be an in­ad­e­quate re­sponse to deal­ing with these prob­lems in the fu­ture.”

If mis­in­for­ma­tion re­in­forces an ex­ist­ing be­lief, an in­di­vid­ual won’t see it as mis­in­for­ma­tion. What’s more, me­dia fact-check­ing oper­a­tions – re­gard­less of their so­phis­ti­ca­tion or dili­gence – are only as ef­fec­tive as the pub­lic’s faith in the or­gan­i­sa­tion run­ning them. In Jensen’s home coun­try, this trib­al­ism, dis­trust and in­for­ma­tion war­fare is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the dis­ori­ent­ing scan­dal-fac­tory that is Don­ald Trump’s White House.

“At this point, I don’t know what’s shock­ing any­more,” Jensen says. “There’s a sense in which we live in a time where ev­ery day the scan­dal of the decade is hap­pen­ing. Just to­day, we find out that Trump in­deed told au­thor­i­ties that they should pros­e­cute [former Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion direc­tor James] Comey and [Hil­lary] Clin­ton. That’s nor­mally an im­peach­able of­fence – that’s some­thing dic­ta­tor­ships do. Any day now there’ll be an­other in­dict­ment from Mueller, and it will be some­thing ab­so­lutely shock­ing about the ex­tent of con­spir­acy be­tween Amer­ica and Rus­sia. And how do you con­tex­tu­alise these things? We’re well past Water­gate now. But Trump cre­ates an­other scan­dal and an­other and an­other, so you can’t fix on any­thing. It’s

• a po­tent tac­tic.”

Ju­lian As­sange speak­ing from the bal­cony of the Ecuado­rian em­bassy, Lon­don.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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