Censorship, Disinformation, and the Burial of Truth

This is the eighth post in a series of posts on a book by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking titled “Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media. Initially, the notion that the internet would provide the basis for truth and independence was supported. The Arab Spring was promoted on the internet. The authors write, “Social media had illuminated the shadows crimes through which dictators had long clung to power, and offered up a powerful new means of grassroots mobilization.

Unfortunately, this did not last. Not only did the activists fail to sustain their movement, but they noticed that the government began to catch up. Tech-illiterate bureaucrats were replaced by a new generation of enforcers who understood the internet almost as well as the protestors. They invaded online sanctuaries and used the very same channels to spread propaganda. And these tactics worked. The much-celebrated revolutions fizzled. In Libya and Syria, digital activists turned their talents to waging internecine civil wars. In Egypt, the baby named Facebook would grow up in a country that quickly turned back to authoritarian government.

The internet remains under the control of only a few thousand internet service providers (ISPs). These firms run the backbone, or “pipes,” of the internet. Only a few ISPs supply almost all of he world’s mobile data. Because two-thirds of all ISPs reside in the United States, the average number across the rest of the world is relatively small. The authors note that, “Many of these ISPs hardly qualify as “businesses” at all. Rather, they are state-sanctioned monopolies or crony sanctuaries directed by the whim of local officials. Although the internet cannot be destroyed, regimes can control when the internet goes on or off and what goes on it.

Governments can control internet access and target particular areas of the country. India, the world’s largest democracy had the mobile connections in an area where violent protests had started out for a week. Bahrain instituted an internet curfew that affected only a handful of villages where antigovernment protests were brewing. When Bahrainis began to speak out against the shutdown, authorities narrowed their focus further, cutting access all the way down to specific internet users and IP addresses.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has poured billions of dollars into its National Internet Project. It is intended as a web replacement, leaving only a few closely monitored connections between Iran and the outside world. Italian officials describe it as creating a “clean” internet for its citizens, insulated from the “unclean” web that the rest of us use.

Outside the absolute-authoritarian state of North Korea (whose entire internet is a closed network of about 30 websites), the goal isn’t so much to stop the signal as it is to weaken it. Although extensive research and special equipment can circumvent government controls, the empower parts of the internet are no longer for the masses.

Although the book discusses China, that discussion will not be included here as there are separate posts on the book “Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall” by Margaret E. Roberts.

The Russian government hires people to create chaos on the internet. They are tempted by easy work and good money for work such as writing more than 200 blog posts and comments a day, assuming fake identities, hijacking conversations, and spreading lies. This is an ongoing war of global censorship by means of disinformation.

Russia’s large media networks are in the hands of oligarchs, whose finances are deeply intertwined with those of the state. The Kremlin makes its positions known through press releases and private conversations, the contents of which are then dutifully reported to the Russian people, no matter how much spin it takes to make them credible.

Valery Gerasimov has been mentioned in previous healthy memory blog posts. He channeled Clausewitz in speech reprinted in the Russian military newspaper that “the role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown. In many cases, they have exceeded the power of the force of weapons in their effectiveness.” This is known as the Gerasimov Doctrine that has been enshrined in the nation’s military strategy.

Individuals working at the Internet Research Agency assume a series of fake identities known as “sockpuppets.” The authors write, The job was writing hundreds of social media posts per day, with the goal of hijacking conversations and spreading lies, all to the benefit of the Russian government. For this work people are paid the equivalent of $1500 per month. (Those who worked on the “Facebook desk” targeting foreign audience received double the pay of those targeting domestic audiences).

The following is taken directly from the text:

“The hard work of a sockpuppet takes three forms, best illustrated by how they operated during the 2016 U.S. election. One is to pose as the organizer of a trusted group. @Ten_GOP called itself the “unofficial Twitter account of Tennessee Republicans” and was followed by over 136,000 people (ten times as many as the official Tennessee Republican Party Account). It’s 3,107 messages were retweeted 1,213,506 times. Each retweet then spread to millions more users especially when it was retweeted by prominent Trump campaign figures like Donald Trump Jr., Kellyanne Conway, and Michael Flynn. On Election Day 2016, it was the seventh most retweeted account across all of Twitter. Indeed, Flynn followed at least five such documented accounts, sharing Russian propaganda with his 1000,000 followers at least twenty-five times.

The second sockpuppet tactic is to pose as a trusted news source. With a cover photo image of the U.S. Constitution, @partynews presented itself as hub for conservative fans of the Tea Party to track the latest headlines. For months , the Russian front pushed out anti-immigrant and pro-Trump messages and was followed and echoed out by some 22,000 people, including Trump’s controversial advisor Sebastian Gorka.

Finally, sockpuppets pass as seemingly trustworthy individuals: a grandmother, a blue-collar worker from the midwest,a decorated veteran, providing their own heartfelt take on current events (and who to vote for). Another former employee of the Internet
Research Agency, Alan Baskayev, admitted that it could be exhausting to manage so many identities. “First you had to be a redneck from Kentucky, then you had to be some white guy from Minnesota who worked all his life, paid taxes and now lives in poverty; and in 15 minutes you have to write something in the slang of [African] Americans from New York.”

There have been many other posts about Russian interference in Trump’s election. Trump lost the popular vote, and it is clear that he would not have won the Electoral College had it not been for Russia. Clearly, Putin owns Trump.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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