Russian online trolling reaches Australia
February 8, 2017. That, according to Dr Michael Jensen’s analysis, was the date that the Kremlin-sponsored “troll farm” – the Internet Research Agency (IRA) – was most active on Australian Twitter. Jensen, an American academic, is a senior research fellow at the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis. He appeared this week, alongside colleagues from the university’s News and Media Research Centre, before the joint standing committee on electoral matters, a committee that since September 2016 has been examining “cyber manipulation of elections”.
In February this year, United States special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russians associated with IRA with conspiring to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. While news of the agency and its work was already public, Mueller’s indictment revealed more detail – it employed hundreds of workers, had a monthly budget well over a million dollars and had sent operatives to the US to gather intelligence to better serve their online campaigns.
February 8, 2017 was not the date of any election, referendum or major crisis in Australia. Rather, it was the date of a Twitter hashtag game: #MakeTVShowsAustralian. The idea was simple – humorously alter the names of TV shows with Australian slang. From a large building in St Petersburg, the Russian troll farm saw an opportunity. “They demonstrated an ability to use Australian slang terms in participating in this,” Jensen told the committee this week, “and that’s a tactic that is commonly associated with traditional spycraft practices, where you would see in what ways you can capture an audience based on non-political grounds and then slowly move them to adopt political positions over time. In fact, even within that game I saw experimentation where they would move from that game to then making statements about Muslims being dangerous.”
Jensen elaborates to me on the practice of first engaging people online in a seemingly innocuous topic. “If you look back at early 2015, you find a large amount of discussion amongst so-called trolls, or sock-puppet Twitter accounts, that focused upon cultural moments – like the series finale of Mad Men,” he says. “The evolution of these engagements might begin with a pithy quote, and they would do this to try and build a following before they’d talk about political issues. During the 2016 US election, targeted Facebook ads about pan-African identity appeared, trying to get African Americans to get a lot of pride from their African connections. You would develop those identities before you moved them to more radically political things – it’s then they say, ‘You have no reason to vote for Hillary Clinton. She doesn’t care about you.’ They get people to identify with you as a peer, they establish a rapport by humour, slang et cetera, so you can move them once they see themselves like you.”
Australia is largely peripheral to Russian interests – perhaps our greatest significance to Russia is our membership of the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. “But the PRC has a more concerted and wide-ranging effort to influence events in Australia than Russia does at the moment,” Jensen tells me. “China use more agents of influence, they interact with diaspora populations around the world and focus on broad-scale policies like immigration. There’s nothing illegitimate or wrong about that. They may seek to influence through research institutes and support for other entities like think tanks – folks in law enforcement are looking at this more now – figures who can speak favourably about China. It’s a tricky area trying to study influence of operations – how do you measure that? And how do you define what’s legitimate and what’s not?
“Part of the trickiness is bound up in normative arguments about the nature of democracy. For example, no nation is a sovereign bubble, there are legitimate ways other entities might influence a space of public debate. However, it becomes problematic when it’s covert and people are pretending to be people they’re not. That deceptive milieu of the Internet Research Agency, a place of ‘information laundering’ whereby very dodgy claims with no evidentiary support get mixed around in the internet and gain credibility by repetition – that corrodes or undermines public faith.”
Michael Jensen told the joint standing committee this week that one aspect of Russian campaigns in Australia regarded the exiled founder of WikiLeaks. “According to tweets that have been released by Twitter – and they have identified these as belonging to an organised influence operation from the Internet Research Agency – they have advocated strongly on behalf of Julian Assange, asking for Australia’s intercession regarding his cause to help free him, a point which perhaps will become more salient in the near future, as reporting last week has indicated that he is currently under sealed indictment in the United States.”
That Assange had been secretly charged by the US government was accidentally revealed last week when unrelated papers, which contained reference to the sealed indictment, were filed in a federal court. It looks much like a copy-and-paste error, though the blunder did not reveal the specific charges made against the WikiLeaks founder or if they were related to the Mueller investigation. In 2016, WikiLeaks published a trove of emails stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee.
“WikiLeaks originally positioned itself as a transparency organisation, but it’s abandoned that altogether now,” Jensen tells me. “When WikiLeaks did its most recent dumps, it was releasing raw information that was used by political agents in manipulative ways. It’s transformed its role substantially.
“Assange’s circle of support is much smaller. I’ve seen evidence that Russia is hosting back-up servers for WikiLeaks, but I can’t be sure what the nature of the ties are. That’s something intelligence organisations will have a much better idea about. Public reporting, and the indictments handed down by Mueller, indicate that WikiLeaks were in contact with … [a] military intelligence unit of Russia about the timing of WikiLeaks’ dump of the Democrats’ emails. Assange argued that their distribution would be much more effective than Russia’s system. So, there’s operational connections there. [Former US director of national intelligence] James Clapper gave an interview last August where he disclosed that there was a go-between for WikiLeaks and the Russian government that led to the ability for Assange to say he had no direct contact with Russia. [The go-between] has since disappeared.”
Much of this week’s joint standing committee hearings dealt with that erosion of public faith in democratic institutions, an erosion partly accelerated by fake news and echo chambers. On this, Jensen’s research findings were depressing.
“Although misinformation and fake news have become particularly problematic in the era of digitally networked communication, the truth or falsity of a statement is often incidental to its utility in influence operations,” Jensen told the committee. “They use conjectures, highly stylised framings, evaluative criteria which may be deemed inappropriate from a perspective of expertise, selectively leaked materials and other tactics which involve statements which may be true in and of themselves, or at least not demonstrably false. For this reason and also because they appeal to fears and anxieties, fact-checking would likely be an inadequate response to dealing with these problems in the future.”
If misinformation reinforces an existing belief, an individual won’t see it as misinformation. What’s more, media fact-checking operations – regardless of their sophistication or diligence – are only as effective as the public’s faith in the organisation running them. In Jensen’s home country, this tribalism, distrust and information warfare is further complicated by the disorienting scandal-factory that is Donald Trump’s White House.
“At this point, I don’t know what’s shocking anymore,” Jensen says. “There’s a sense in which we live in a time where every day the scandal of the decade is happening. Just today, we find out that Trump indeed told authorities that they should prosecute [former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James] Comey and [Hillary] Clinton. That’s normally an impeachable offence – that’s something dictatorships do. Any day now there’ll be another indictment from Mueller, and it will be something absolutely shocking about the extent of conspiracy between America and Russia. And how do you contextualise these things? We’re well past Watergate now. But Trump creates another scandal and another and another, so you can’t fix on anything. It’s a potent tactic.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2018 as "Troll tales and true". Subscribe here.