“Domestic politics” are increasingly steered by international propaganda. (More)

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen as much concentrated activity on that topic”

More and more Senate and House Republicans are challenging the legitimacy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. And ironically, they have an army of support … from Russian bots:

The dense network of pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts tracked by the group Alliance for Securing Democracy has spent the last year spreading chaos and discord about topics as diverse as NFL players refusing to stand during the national anthem and Al Franken’s alleged sexual misconduct. It was only a matter of time, then, before the troll army set its sights on special counsel Robert Mueller.

On the website Hamilton68, the Alliance tracks some 600 Twitter accounts it says are associated with a Russia-linked influence network. According to newly released figures, in the month of December, by far the most popular articles shared by the trolls aimed to undermine Mueller and the Department of Justice’s investigation into Russian interference.

In fact, 16 percent of the articles shared by those accounts between December 9 and December 31 were related in some way to the so-called deep state, the bulk of which aimed to discredit Mueller.
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Founded by former FBI agent Clint Watts and J.M. Berger, a researcher focused on extremist propaganda, Hamilton68 has been up and running since August. But December’s onslaught represents the biggest uptick in attacks on Mueller yet. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen as much concentrated activity on that topic,” says Bret Schafer, a research analyst with the Alliance. “It’s been trending steadily upwards since we started this.”

These bots don’t generate stories. Rather, they share and thereby amplify stories put out by other sources:

As for what, exactly, the Twitter accounts are sharing, Schafer says it’s very rarely explicitly fake news. More often, it’s articles from “hyper, hyper-partisan alt right sites,” including GatewayPundit and TruePundit. The top stories these accounts shared in December contained headlines like, “From A Legal Perspective, Mueller’s Investigation is Dead. Here’s Why” and “Another Mueller investigator comes under scrutiny: Attorney on Russia probe is revealed to have previously represented the Clinton Foundation.”

In other cases, they seem intent on spreading rumors that prove irresistible to the alt-right internet. A popular recent example: On Wednesday, January 3, the second-most shared article by the pro-Kremlin network was “Executive From Comey’s Former Hedge Fund And Family Killed In Costa Rica Plane Crash.” Now, Schafer says, it’s beginning to gain traction in the dark corners of Reddit.

“It’s taking a minor thread of a story and making that the story, usually with a headline that isn’t backed up by what’s in the text,” Schafer says.

Studied in bulk, these are transparently manufactured attempts to create a groundswell of outrage that reaches the broader public, the press, and eventually, even the President. But when the average Twitter user encounters one of these accounts, it’s not so easy to see the manipulations.

In other words: (1) wingnut loon half-bakes a conspiracy theory; and, (2) Russian bots share and thus amplify it; until … well, we’ll get to that….

“The president is just live-tweeting Fox”

The wingnut loon’s half-baked theory will get real traction if someone on Fox and Friends mentions it, as Media Matters for America’s Matthew Gertz explains:

On Tuesday night, I, along with many Americans, was shocked when President Donald Trump tweeted that his “Nuclear Button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s.

Having spent the past three months monitoring Trump’s Twitter feed professionally, I also had a good sense of why this spectacle was unfolding. After watching a recording of the previous few minutes of Fox News, my hunch was confirmed: The president was live-tweeting the network’s coverage.
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Everyone has a theory about Trump’s hyperaggressive early morning tweetstorms. Some think they are a deliberate ploy the president uses to distract the press from his administration’s potential weaknesses, or to frame the public debate to his liking. Others warn his rapid shifts from one topic to another indicate mental instability.

But my many hours following the president’s tweets for Media Matters for America, the progressive media watchdog organization, have convinced me the truth is often much simpler: The president is just live-tweeting Fox, particularly the network’s Trump-loving morning show, Fox & Friends.

Gertz documents a laundry list of examples, from NFL players’ anthem protests to the God-King claiming credit for airline industry safety to the goofed-up birthday greeting for Lee Greenwood. In instance after instance, the God-King’s Twitter tirades follow the sequence of that morning’s Fox and Friends stories. As for mismatched timelines, Gertz explains:

The timing, by the way, doesn’t always perfectly line up. That’s because, from my observations, Trump also uses his DVR vigorously, often starting at the beginning of a program even if it started hours before he sits down to watch it, then fast-forwarding through commercials and segments that don’t interest him.

That fits Jonathan Swan’s reporting at Axios:

President Trump is starting his official day much later than he did in the early days of his presidency, often around 11am, and holding far fewer meetings, according to copies of his private schedule shown to Axios. This is largely to meet Trump’s demands for more “Executive Time,” which almost always means TV and Twitter time alone in the residence, officials tell us.

The schedules shown to me are different than the sanitized ones released to the media and public.

The schedule says Trump has “Executive Time” in the Oval Office every day from 8am to 11am, but the reality is he spends that time in his residence, watching TV, making phone calls and tweeting. Trump comes down for his first meeting of the day, which is often an intelligence briefing, at 11am.
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Trump’s days in the Oval Office are relatively short – from around 11am to 6pm, then he’s back to the residence. During that time he usually has a meeting or two, but spends a good deal of time making phone calls and watching cable news in the dining room adjoining the Oval. Then he’s back to the residence for more phone calls and more TV.

So to recap: (1) wingnut loon half-bakes a conspiracy theory; and, (2) Russian bots amplify it; until, (3) Fox News mentions it; at which point; (4) the God-King tweets about it; thus, (5) it becomes A Real Story.

Citing that online noise as “public support,” Senate and House Republicans then demand investigations of Robert Mueller, Christopher Steele, the Clinton Foundation, Hillary’s emails (again), ‘corruption’ in the FBI, and … well, anything to cloud and confuse any public examination of, or policy response to …

“A rift between truth and lies, fact and fake news, humans and bots – and the bots are winning”

foreign propaganda manipulating domestic politics, as Haroon Ullah explains for the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Last year, Russia and its allies engineered a rift between truth and lies, fact and fake news, humans and bots – and the bots are winning. They’re winning because social-media firms profit from all traffic – whatever the source – and governments are simply too slow to counter this threat.

Add to this the evidence of Russian-backed attacks on key institutions of Western democracy: the European Union and Brexit, the Democratic National Committee and the Podesta e-mails. And top this off with a debilitating attack on the National Security Agency itself by an allegedly Russia-linked group called the Shadow Brokers. We are at “e-war”: We’ve traded bullets for bots, soldiers for coders and the Berlin Wall for a firewall.

Ullah is a U.S. State Department officer responsible for “digital innovation, public diplomacy and public/private partnerships on the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff.” He was a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s school of international relations, taught at Georgetown University, worked for three U.S. Secretaries of State, and is the Chief Strategy Officer for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. In short, this is his lifelong study, and he knows his stuff:

This battlefield – social media and the dark web – is the least understood piece of a new conflict. In essence, both the Russians and the Islamic State have weaponized information. The online ecosystem and their disaggregated strategy have kept them one step ahead of adversaries.

Recent research into both the Russians’ and the Islamic State’s models of propaganda, as well as interviews with defectors, unveil that: 1) people tend to believe something when it is repeated, 2) Russia and Islamic State fanboys gain the advantage when they get to make the first impression and 3) subsequent rebuttals may actually work to reinforce the original misinformation, rather than dissipate it.

Thus, he says, mere fact-checking from the mainstream media won’t work:

The most effective way to respond to misinformation is not, as parts of the mainstream media have done, to counter every false meme story (such as the Charlottesville pitchfork memes or the broken Statue of Liberty meme that Islamic State sympathizers sent on the night of the Manhattan attack). Rather, the key is to direct a “stream” of pro-active, accurate messaging at the targeted audience.

Digital tools such as bots have tremendous advantages over humans. Research shows the Islamic State propaganda machine has configured an army of AI bots running on thousands or millions of user accounts at low cost. And pro-Putin forces use bots to “hype” calamity events, operating 24/7 and responding to events almost immediately. This content is then linked or distributed through key influencers. These bots are programmed to react to certain events and create content at machine speed, shaping the narrative almost immediately.

To reclaim our politics, Ullah argues, we’ll need a Manhattan Project-style commitment to create and amplify fact-based news:

The “weaponization of information” battle pushes governments to ditch our unwieldy bureaucracy and use the very same tools the terrorists and enemies of the State are using – social media, slick viral campaigns and colourful emotive narratives. This would be our 21st century version of the historic “Manhattan Project” to effectively mobilize technological talent. At the heart of this new-age conflict is a content war. We must bring in reinforcements from MIT, Cal-Tech, Stanford and elsewhere. Content matters; just look at the “1, 9, 90” model that sees 1 per cent of social-media users as content creators; 9 per cent as curators sharing content; while 90 per cent are simply consumers. We need to mobilize that 90 per cent, to get them off the sidelines to produce authentic content. Using the best digital tools (off-the-shelf or newly developed), we can ensure that the right stories reach the right audiences.

I won’t begin to speculate on how techies can create tools help ordinary users identify bots, and tools that help ordinary users create and/or amplify legitimate news stories. I’m smart enough to know that is way beyond my expertise.

“It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment”

But at a core level, it means recognizing that the First Amendment has to stand for something more than the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famously-misquoted dissent in Abrams v. United States:

But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.

Justice Holmes’ passage has been immortalized in the phrase “marketplace of ideas,” and First Amendment purists fall over each other to wave it as “proof” of “the best test of truth.”

But when “the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” is driven not by the scientific, ethical, or factual content of the thought – but by the money and/or bot army that amplifies it until the idea is accepted as truth by virtue of sheer repetition – that becomes a recipe for societal and political failure.

Holmes recognized that possibility, and thus he expressly concluded that this “marketplace of ideas” was “an experiment, as all of life is an experiment.” And that experiment has brought us … “truth” as adjudged by the whiniest tantrum-thrower with the loudest megaphone:

We the People deserve better than that.

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Photo Credit: WallpaperUp

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Good day and good nuts