Pen­tagon: Rus­sian trolls busy af­ter Syria

Post-strike cam­paign of dis­in­for­ma­tion claimed

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Jes­sica Guynn

SAN FRAN­CISCO — The Pen­tagon claimed a 2,000% in­crease in Rus­sian troll ac­tiv­ity on so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing the U.S.-led mis­sile strikes against Syria Fri­day night.

Spokes­woman Dana White said in Satur­day’s Pen­tagon brief­ing that the ac­tiv­ity es­ca­lated dur­ing the 24 hours fol­low­ing the strike. “The Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign has al­ready be­gun,” White said.

White did not de­tail how the De­fense Depart­ment cal­cu­lated that fig­ure, but said the Pen­tagon would sup­ply “the facts, mov­ing for­ward.”

Ques­tions about the al­leged in­crease and how it was mea­sured swirled on so­cial me­dia. The Pen­tagon did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment Sun­day.

U.S. forces launched tar­geted mis­sile strikes Fri­day at mil­i­tary out­posts in Syria where the gov­ern­ment was be­lieved to have stored chem­i­cal weapons that killed dozens of civil­ians. Syria has de­nied the use of chem­i­cal weapons on its peo­ple.

Laura Rosen­berger, di­rec­tor of the Al­liance for Se­cur­ing Democ­racy, says her or­ga­ni­za­tion’s Hamil­ton 68 dash­board has tracked “a con­certed cam­paign to present al­ter­na­tive nar­ra­tives to sow doubt about the ev­i­dence that As­sad was re­spon­si­ble for the chem­i­cal at­tack.”

Rosen­berger, a se­nior fel­low at the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund of the United States, com­mended the Pen­tagon for its ac­tions as a “key step in rais­ing our de­fenses.”

“But it re­mains un­clear what the U.S. is do­ing to com­bat Rus­sia’s dis­in­for­ma­tion ef­forts, which con­tinue un­abated in an ef­fort to shape Amer­i­can’s (and Euro­pean’s) de­bates on a wide range of is­sues,” she said in an email.

Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Mark Ja­cob­son said the Pen­tagon should pro­vide more in­for­ma­tion on the ac­tiv­ity it’s ob­serv­ing.

“I have no idea where they are pulling that num­ber up from or how many ac­counts that is based on or who they were trolling,” said Ja­cob­son, an ex­pert on Rus­sian in­flu­ence op­er­a­tions. “It may be com­pletely cor­rect — not like Jim Mat­tis’ Pen­tagon to ever put out some­thing that is not cor­rect — but it would be more help­ful for them to ex­plain in a bit more de­tail.”

A Rus­sian troll army de­ployed by the Krem­lin-linked In­ter­net Re­search Agency has been ac­cused of hi­jack­ing so­cial me­dia con­ver­sa­tions to sow po­lit­i­cal divi­sion on so­cial me­dia, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

The Pen­tagon has iden­ti­fied such ef­forts as a mod­ern form of state-spon­sored war­fare. Last year, a De­fense In­tel­li­gence re­port on Rus­sian mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties in­cluded a sec­tion on the “weaponiza­tion” of in­for­ma­tion.

“Amer­i­cans need to un­der­stand that the wars of the fu­ture will look more like this: Rus­sia is in­vest­ing sig­nif­i­cant re­sources to cre­ate pro­pa­ganda and dis­in­for­ma­tion,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a state­ment Satur­day. “... Our en­e­mies will work to cre­ate con­fu­sion and dis­trust among Amer­i­cans here at home.”

Seven of top 10 URLs be­ing shared by ac­counts tracked by Hamil­ton 68 were toe­ing the Krem­lin line on Syria strikes as of Satur­day morn­ing, ac­cord­ing to Rosen­berger. As of Sun­day morn­ing, Rus­sian-linked ac­counts were push­ing a mix of “dis­in­for­ma­tion nar­ra­tives” about the chem­i­cal at­tack and the poi­son­ing of a Rus­sian for­mer spy in Eng­land, she said.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Mat­tis warned on Fri­day night about false in­for­ma­tion com­ing from Rus­sia, a key ally of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s regime.

“We can all see that a Rus­sia dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign is in full force this morn­ing,” U.S. Am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions Nikki Ha­ley said Satur­day at a U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil meet­ing.

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