How terrorists and provocateurs are using social media against western democracies

On the digital front line are guilt-ridden Russian trolls, young women lured by Isis and Facebook Sherlocks in suburbia.

The other week, I was looking at a photograph of a penis-shaped vegetable, wondering about its significance for geopolitics. The picture, and thousands like it, had been posted by a pro-Kremlin Twitter account popular in Germany. But between images of bum-like pumpkins, the handle retweeted horrific photographs of children wounded or killed as a result of the war in East Ukraine, their fates blamed on Kiev and the West.

The amusing vegetables were there to pull in followers; the other images to promote a political cause. Later the Twitter feed transformed, instead retweeting Kremlin state media and far-right parties.

Who was behind the account? The Kremlin itself? Activists? Information war profiteers? I’d come across it when researching foreign (dis)information operations during the German election. The campaigns came from all sorts of places. The German-language arm of Kremlin state broadcaster Sputnik was blatantly biased towards the anti-immigrant, far-right Alternative für Deutschland party. Pro-AfD (and most likely German) automated Twitter accounts would avidly retweet Sputnik stories, pushing them into social media spaces where Kremlin content sat cozily side by side with locally concocted conspiracy theories about how the vote would be rigged against the AfD. There were also US and European alt-right activists who congregated on the message board 4chan, and more obscure sites such as Discord, to create “meme factories”, partnering with German far-right movements to hijack Twitter hashtags. This helped the AfD dominate social media and, ultimately, win seats in parliament for the first time.

The manga-themed, racist memes were then reposted by a network of bots which turned out to be run from Nizhny Novgorod. The hacker behind it said he had done the work for free, as he shared “mutual benefits” with the AfD. He quoted a usual price of €2,000 for 15,000 posts and retweets. The botnet also specialised in smearing Russian opposition figures and promoting escort services in Dubai. Meanwhile, we found that the Epoch Times – a publication originally created to support the Chinese Falun Gong sect repressed by the government in Beijing – had become one of the more profitable “alternative” media outlets in Germany, with a mix of Kremlin-sourced, German anti-immigrant and pro-Falun Gong stories. Indeed, by the end of our research it was clear that one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of “foreign” information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space. Instead, one has transnational, ever-shifting networks of toxic speech and disinformation, including both state and non-state actors. These can operate for financial, ideological or simply personal reasons, allying and mutually reinforcing one another to pursue quite different agendas. Once upon a time, techno-utopians dreamed of a global information village. We have one. But it’s nasty.

This new worldwide web of disorder is the subject of David Patrikarakos’s timely and talented War in 140 Characters. The author has a suitably global background: as a British-Greek-Jewish-Iranian-Iraqi – and a Poynter fellow …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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