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Kremlin Watch Briefing: Twitter’s mission against bots and trolls

Weekly monitor of pro-Kremlin disinformation effort in Europe. We follow best European analysts, best counter-measures and trends.

Topics of the Week

Twitter is banning the methods used by bots and trolls to spread false stories on the network. Twitter users will no longer be able to post identical messages from multiple accounts or use software to perform other simultaneous actions.

Do you have to ensure the cybersecurity of your political campaign but lack the resources? The Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has prepared a Cybersecurity Campaign Playbook just for you.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Midnight in Petrograd… A Red Guards night watch spots a shadow trying to sneak by. “Stop! Who goes there? Documents!”

The frightened person chaotically rummages through his pockets and drops a paper. The Guards chief picks it up and reads slowly, with difficulty: “U-ri-ne A-na-ly-sis… hmm… a foreigner, sounds like! A spy, looks like…Let’s shoot him on the spot!”

Then he reads further: “‘Proteins: none, Sugars: none, Fats: none…’ You are free to go, proletarian comrade! Long live the World Revolution!”

Policy & Research News

Possible Czech deal with Rosatom

A new deal to replace an old Soviet reactor at the Dukovany power plant is under consideration by the Czech Republic. The country is currently assessing different options. One possibility is to strike a bilateral deal with Russia and allow Rosatom to build the reactor in a similar fashion to Hungary’s PAKS II project. The European Commission is not fond of this option, but at the same time refuses to relax its rules on government bids. While the Czech government has not yet made a decision, President Zeman’s office has been lobbying hard for the Russian company to build the new reactor.

Russian money laundering in Latvia

The Latvian banking sector has been troubled by money-laundering activities for years, as confirmed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which included Latvia in an international money-laundering scheme known as “the Russian Laundromat”. Recent days have brought new accusations and Latvia’s anti-corruption authority arrested the Governor of the Bank of Latvia, Ilmars Rimsevics, for accepting bribes in order to facilitate money laundering for Russian entities. Shortly after, according to the Latvian Ministry of Defense, Mr. Rimsevics was targeted by intensive disinformation campaigns aimed at defaming him, which possibly (or indeed likely) originate from the Russian Federation.

Adapting to a new type of war

Dan Magaffee, Policy Director at Washington D.C.’s Center for Study of the Presidency and Congress, highlights the increasing threat of Russian and Chinese information warfare tools wielded against the West in a commentary for DefenseOne. He especially warns that military institutions cannot avoid this new type of conflict, and must rather adapt to it. His ideas are not only applicable for the United States, but for European countries as well. He writes, “Our organs of military, intelligence, and diplomacy must willingly engage in conflicts of narrative, ones in which we aggressively wield facts and the truth to counter the lies and deceptions of our adversaries.”

US Developments

It’s been a busy week…

On the indictment of the 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies:

  1. The Atlantic Council’s DFRLab reports that shortly after last week’s announcement, RT and Sputnik (as well as the Kremlin itself) launched a disinformation campaign aimed to ‘dismiss, distract from, distort and deny’ the allegations of the indictment. This content was subsequently amplified by fringe media in the US, “which spread Kremlin talking points to denounce Mueller’s investigation into the U.S. presidential election of 2016.”
  2. The indictment documents describe, among other interesting details, Russian efforts to suppress the turnout of non-white voters – a highly controversial tactic that has been favored by some Republicans for reducing the Democratic vote. Slate reports.
  3. Meanwhile, the day after the indictment was announced, former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak called accusations of the Kremlin’s electoral meddling “fantasies” and said that the US was waging a “hunting spree throughout the world on Russian computer wizards”. In a further effort to discredit American law enforcement agencies – already facing backlash from pro-Trump conservatives – Kislyak also stated: “I’m not sure that I can trust American law enforcement to be the most precise and truthful source of information about what Russians do.”
  4. New money laundering charges have been brought against Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and Rick Gates, a former campaign advisor (Gates has pled guilty). These new indictments reveal details about ‘Project Lakhta’, a Russian interference and propaganda initiative launched in 2014 to increase political divisions in the US. They also brought to light a secretly financed pro-Russian lobbying effort, organized by Manafort and Gates, that employed former senior European politicians informally known as the ‘Hapsburg Group’. According to Mueller, these individuals were tasked with “providing their independent assessments of Government of Ukraine actions, when in fact they were paid lobbyists for Ukraine.”
  1. Read a full summary of what happened in the Russia investigation this week at Vice News.

In other news:

  1. Twitter has announced a ban on the tactics exploited by bots and trolls to spread false content on the network. Users will no longer be able to post identical messages from multiple accounts, a move that aims to prevent deceptive content from going viral. Users will also not be permitted to use software to perform other simultaneous actions, such as liking or retweeting from other accounts. The new rules go into effect on March 23rd, after which Twitter will begin suspending noncompliant accounts.
  1. An academic study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California reveals that conservative voters in the US spread tweets by Russian trolls/bots over 30 times more often than liberals. Geographically, the majority of these retweets were from Tennessee and Texas. The study is devoted primarily to tracking the movement and amplification of fake content in cyberspace; read a summary here.

The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Mueller indictment? Blather!

Attending international conferences must be becoming increasingly uncomfortable for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. A few years ago, Ukraine was Russia’s only serious accuser, supported in this cause by a few allies. This year, by contrast, a primary focus of the Munich Security Conference was Russia’s meddling in the American election and Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians. The Mueller indictment describes in detail the unprecedented Russian campaign to interfere with American domestic politics and the 2016 presidential election in particular.

When asked about the indictment, Lavrov merely commented that “Until we see facts, everything else will be just blather.” His unforgettable colleague Maria Zakharova was more outspoken in her Facebook post: “13 against billions budgets of special agencies? Against intelligence and counterespionage, against the newest technologies? Absurd? – Yes,”. With the investigation becoming more serious each week, it’s no surprise that the Russians are getting increasingly nervous… and less creative. We know that Russian propagandists are incredibly inventive in producing different deceptions to serve their twisted reality, but their coverage of the Munich conference was boring and predictable. “Rather than being a peripheral matter owing to its dubious claims, the Washington hobby horse of “Russian meddling” was given free rein in Munich. Instead of parsing the latest Russophobia with intelligent skepticism, the conference added fuel to the bonfire of warmongering”. There was also the typical and expected attack of the event itself: “Munich gathering descends into Russia-bashing nonsense & warmongering”. But with the allegations growing more and more serious, the Kremlin’s comments seem rather lame by comparison. It appears that they really expected to go unpunished forever.

We know this advice won’t be heard in the Kremlin, but it’s easier not to commit crimes rather than try to cover them up.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

The Cybersecurity Campaign Playbook

In recent years, we have seen many cases of political campaigns being successfully hacked – for example, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign in 2017, and the 2008 presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain in the US . In the digital age, political campaigns are a popular target for cyber-attacks, which can have alarming consequences and significantly complicate the affected campaign’s goals. Therefore, it is crucial that campaigns wanting to avoid these dangers take proper precautions.

To this end, Defending Digital Democracy, a project of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, created the Cybersecurity Campaign Playbookwhich aims to provide basic building blocks for a cybersecurity risk mitigation strategy especially for campaigns that do not have the resources to hire professional cybersecurity staff. Simple and well-explained steps to securing campaign security are divided into two tiers: one represents the minimum level of security and the other a recommended level of security (which requires more money and staff). If you want to ensure the security of your campaign accomplish this easily, reading the Playbook is a must.

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