RUS­SIA TRIES NEW TAC­TICS IN US POLLS

Financial Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - JOSEPH MENN

Rus­sian agents be­lieved to be con­nected to the gov­ern­ment have been ac­tive in spread­ing di­vi­sive con­tent and pro­mot­ing ex­treme themes ahead of Tues­day’s US mid-term elec­tions, but they are work­ing hard to cover their tracks, say gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Peo­ple study­ing the spread of dis­in­for­ma­tion on so­cial me­dia say the new, sub­tler tac­tics have al­lowed most of the so­called in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns to sur­vive purges.

Rus­sian agents be­lieved to be con­nected to the gov­ern­ment have been ac­tive in spread­ing di­vi­sive con­tent and pro­mot­ing ex­treme themes ahead of Tues­day’s US mid-term elec­tions, but they are work­ing hard to cover their tracks, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors, aca­demics and se­cu­rity firm

Re­searchers study­ing the spread of dis­in­for­ma­tion on Face­book, Twit­ter, Red­dit and other plat­forms say the new, sub­tler tac­tics have al­lowed most of the so-called in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tions cam­paigns to sur­vive purges by the big so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies and avoid gov­ern­ment scru­tiny.

“The Rus­sians are def­i­nitely not sit­ting this one out,” said Gra­ham Brookie, direc­tor of the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Dig­i­tal Foren­sic Re­search Lab. “They have adapted over time to in­creased (US) fo­cus on in­flu­ence op­er­a­tions.”

US in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment agen­cies say Rus­sia used dis­in­for­ma­tion and other tac­tics to sup­port Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s 2016 cam­paign.

The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment has re­jected al­le­ga­tions of elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence. On Tues­day, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s spokesman de­clined to com­ment on al­le­ga­tions of fur­ther med­dling in the run-up to the mid-term elec­tions.

“We can­not re­act to some ab­stract cy­ber­se­cu­rity an­a­lysts be­cause we do not know who they are and whether they un­der­stand any­thing about cy­ber­se­cu­rity,” Dmitry Peskov told re­porters.

He said Moscow ex­pected no sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment to its strained ties with Wash­ing­ton af­ter the vote.

One clear sign of a con­tin­ued Rus­sian com­mit­ment to dis­rupt­ing Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal life came out in charges un­sealed last month against a Rus­sian woman who serves as an ac­coun­tant at a St. Peters­burg com­pany known as the In­ter­net Re­search Agency.

Af­ter spend­ing $12 mil­lion on a pro­ject to in­flu­ence the US elec­tion through so­cial me­dia in 2016, the com­pany bud­geted $12.2 mil­lion for last year and then pro­posed spend­ing $10 mil­lion in just the first half of 2018, court fil­ings showed.

The in­dict­ment said the In­ter­net Re­search Agency used fake so­cial me­dia ac­counts to post on both sides of po­lit­i­cally charged is­sues in­clud­ing race, gun con­trol and im­mi­gra­tion. The in­struc­tions were de­tailed, down to how to mock par­tic­u­lar politi­cians dur­ing a spe­cific news cy­cle.

If the goals of spread­ing di­vi­sive con­tent have re­mained the same, the meth­ods have evolved in mul­ti­ple ways, re­searchers say. For one, there has been less re­liance on pure fic­tion. Peo­ple have been sen­si­tized to look for com­pletely false sto­ries, and Face­book has been us­ing out­side fact-check­ers to at least slow their spread on its pages.

“We’ve done a lot re­search on fake news and peo­ple are get­ting bet­ter at fig­ur­ing out what it is, so it’s be­come less ef­fec­tive as a tac­tic,” said Priscilla Mo­ri­uchi, a for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency of­fi­cial who is now a threat an­a­lyst at the cy­ber­se­cu­rity firm Recorded Fu­ture threat man­ager.

In­stead, Rus­sian ac­counts have been am­pli­fy­ing sto­ries and in­ter­net “memes” that ini­tially came from the US far left or far right. Such post­ings seem more au­then­tic, are harder to iden­tify as for­eign, and are eas­ier to pro­duce than made-up sto­ries.

Re­nee DiResta, direc­tor of re­search at se­cu­rity com­pany New Knowl­edge, said her com­pany had com­piled a list of sus­pected Rus­sian ac­counts on Face­book and Twit­ter that were sim­i­lar to those sus­pended af­ter the 2016 cam­paign.

Some of them seized on the Brett Ka­vanaugh nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court to rally con­ser­va­tives, while oth­ers used memes from the left­ist Oc­cupy Democrats. Some op­er­a­tors of the ac­counts in the col­lec­tion es­tab­lished them­selves as far-right pun­dits and had ac­counts on Gab, the so­cial net­work fa­vored by the far right.

The in­dict­ment said the In­ter­net Re­search Agency used fake so­cial me­dia ac­counts to post on both sides of po­lit­i­cally charged is­sues

Randy Wick fills in his midterm elec­tion bal­lot at an early vot­ing poll at a mall in Bloom­ing­dale, Ill., on Thurs­day, Oct. 25, 2018

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