Russia’s “fake news” attacks on democracy

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(CNN) – The Senate Intelligence Committee heard chilling testimony on Thursday about the extent of Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election. CNN has been digging into the sophisticated Russian campaign to issue “fake news” reports.

Experts have a benign phrase for fake news and other forms of Russian meddling. They call it “active measures.” It means using information, rather than force, to beat your opponent from the inside out. Thursday CNN got chilling new information on the methods used by Russian hackers and trolls as they try to create chaos and fear in America.

It started with several tweets, alleging a terrorist attack on the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, last summer. Russian state media outlets ‘R.T.’ and ‘Sputnik’ posted variations of the story. Soon even Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort apparently thought it was true, repeating it on CNN. “There’s plenty of news to cover this week that I haven’t seen covered. You had the NATO base in Turkey being under attack by terrorists.”

No attack had in fact occurred at the base. Researchers say it’s an example of fake reports, spread online, on-purpose, with the help of pro-Russian users, in what’s believed to be a disinformation campaign supported by Vladimir Putin. All designed to influence elections and sow dissent and confusion in the west.

Clint Watts, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute said, “They have a coordinated information campaign and a deliberate strategy. So they pick their objectives in the information space.”

In another case, a leaked e-mail from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in which she asked a question about a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, was spun into a fake story alleging she was sick. Triggering allegations and chatter that the Democratic Candidate had the disease.

Researchers said the story was shared and re-posted by pro-Russian sites and read 8-million times. Evidence, experts say, of how Russia was trying to throw last year’s election.

Watts said, “Once they build an audience with their accounts, it’s very easy to do that, just through amplification. Anytime you have the ability to promote a story hundreds or thousands of times, that puts it into trending feeds. Once it’s in a trending feed, it takes on a life of its own.”

Experts who researched Russia’s fake news campaigns testified Thursday before the senate intelligence committee, explaining how Putin’s government uses an army of “trolls,” online critics who push their agendas to confuse and frighten audiences in the west.

An idea that played out dramatically on the ShowTime series “Homeland”: a “troll factory,” where hundreds of employees toil away, posting fake tweets under fake names. Their marching orders: post phony stories and tweets, and spread them as widely as possible.

Experts say the real-life troll factories used by Russians may not look as slick as the TV version, but they are real. They said paid trolls who spread fake reports can amplify their impact using “bot nets,” thousands of other people’s computers, infected with viruses, and harnessed to do their bidding.

Analysts say Putin’s goal is to create distrust among Americans and their allies in their political systems.

Professor Keith Darden of the American University said, “They didn’t just want to discredit the elections. They wanted to discredit Hillary Clinton. Sowing division in the E.U., these are all things that are good for Russia.”

When asked about accusations of Russian interference in America’s election, Vladimir Putin said, quote, “read my lips: No.” However, experts who testified before congress said, we can expect Putin’s government to continue supporting ‘fake news’ campaigns. They said for Putin, it’s easy, effective, and best of all for him it often can’t be traced directly back.

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