If you follow today’s news and social media news feeds, then you are probably aware of what kind of danger inaccurate news-story covering poses, and how tricky it can be when it influences public opinion. Nowadays, it is a common journalists’ mistake to jump the gun and share some unverified news with the entire world via Twitter, Facebook and what have you.
So how does it work exactly? As we know, most of today’s news are based on the information delivered by social networks. Is that ‘raw’ information which comes from social networks credible? No, not even close. Can the process of how news stories are put together be tampered with, compromised or used for propaganda purposes? Yes, definitely. Because when you think about it, it’s much easier for propagandists to operate nowadays. If you are a propagandist you no longer have to convince some news-distributing organization to spread your story. All it takes is to just excite the curiosity of that news organization, and voila… Once they embed the story into their social media news feed, that’s it. Mission of the propagandist is accomplished.
Russian propagandists are particularly focused on being creative with how to break in the modern news delivery system. And to be honest, they are already quite creative. It is especially easy to fall for Russian propaganda when its spread in the form of unverifiable but convincingly looking data such as survey polls or some local events that are difficult to disprove.
Now, you might think that all Russian hackers are skillful in just hacking into financial accounts for profit purposes. But in reality, there is a sufficient number of Russian hackers that hack in order to satisfy their country’s geopolitical ambitions.
In a recent post on Medium.com, Betaworks CEO John Borthwick detailed two cases in which hackers, reportedly originating from Russia in both instances, attempted to temper with the Western news flow. One of the two hacking operations succeeded while the other failed.
Russia: How hackers operate
One of their operations was sharing the false notion that 26% of French youth supported ISIS. It was based on a shady survey:
“Beyond the methodology, the survey was commissioned by Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya. The trail of the media breadcrumbs seem to be as follows: Rossiya Segodnya commissioned a survey to test support or opposition to the admissions of Georgia and the Ukraine into the EU, the ISIS question was secondary.”
Reporters from Vox and Newsweek swallowed the bait: they saw the numbers in a tweet and wrote news pieces citing the survey, not realizing it was bunk. Eventually, the Washington Post debunked the survey, but the problem is… it sits much lower in Google search results than the Vox story.
The second hack operation was even more sophisticated and disturbing, even though it failed. On September 11, hackers shared the story of a supposed terrorist attack on a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana. They even created a Wikipedia page especially for this fake event, while using Wikipedia editor identities that had been developed over quite some time. Furthermore, crafty Russian hackers released a video on YouTube in which Islamic State militants supposedly claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack, and a Facebook page for a non-existent news organization called ‘Louisiana News’, which covered this story. However, no respectable news outlets picked up the story.
“Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of odd things unfold on Twitter, and we must say that this hoax was one the weirdest ones we’d ever seen. The Twitter operation for this hoax began on September 10th, a day before the “supposed explosion,” when thousands of Russian twitter handles participated in a Tweetstorm getting the #DeadHorse hashtag to trend across a number of Russian cities?—?eventually even in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.”
“Media hacks,” Betaworks chief executive John Borthwick wrote, “take advantage of the decontextualized structure of real time news feeds? — ?you see a Tweet from a known news site, with a provocative headline and maybe the infographic image included? — you retweet it. People often do that without actually reading the story, much less thinking about it. As the story gains in popularity, Google will begin suggesting related search terms to its users — and presto, a piece of misinformation turns into something ‘everybody knows’”.
He adds: “Media Hacking refers to the usage and manipulation of social media and associated algorithms to define a narrative or political frame. Individuals, states, and non-state actors are increasingly using Media Hacking techniques to advance political agendas. Over the past year we’ve seen a number of such incidents occur?—?where both social media and mainstream media were manipulated to advance a particular agenda.”
Russia: The government employed propagandists
These two cases provided by Betaworks and John Borthwick indicate that the Russian government employed propagandists, who are paid per story, in an attempt to spread misinformation among the Western audiences. It’s not a secret to say that the Kremlin has established a mutually profitable partnership with Russian civilian hackers in order to satisfy its geopolitical ambitions and goals. While the Chinese government has a somewhat ‘warm’ relationship with Chinese hackers and employs them in the People’s Liberation Army, it’s a little different with the Russian government and the Kremlin trolls. The trails to hacker-attacks and cyber-attacks originating in Russia usually lead to some criminal organization, thus giving Putin and Russian officials a plausible deniability.
Therefore, to avoid such cases and not feed the trolls, journalists, both Western and Russian, need to learn how to not jump headfirst into reporting or sharing an unverified information.