Dark Matter: May / June Update

(You can download this paper in PDF form here.)

The purpose of this paper is to update information originally presented on February 17, 2018 in the paper titled “Dark Matter: Computational Propaganda Risk in the 2018 Election Cycle,” written by this author and my colleagues at Rogue Metrics, and summarily updated in “Dark Matter: April Update.”

The purpose of the Dark Matter project is to inform interested parties of an existing, urgent risk with regard to digital communications and the use of social media by political campaigns for the purpose of engineering chaos through spreading propaganda and misinformation.

In the first Dark Matter paper, we identified computational propaganda as a systemic, environmental, critical risk to the 2018 election cycle in the United States, and cited three major risk dimensions:

  1. Ongoing Russian computational propaganda and information warfare attacks (hereafter: hybrid war) against the United States;
     
  2. The adoption of Russian tactics and strategies by domestic political organizations, primarily conservative in nature; and
     
  3. The extant state of American political discourse and cognitive bias, enforced and amplified by a broad adoption of social media platforms within American voting populations

In light of many factors, including but not limited to: reporting from ongoing investigations of Russian intelligence operations against western democracies; the acceleration of propaganda operations and misinformation campaigns from domestic sources, including the Trump administration; and the clear and present danger of human rights crises and the erosion of basic government functionality over the last 60 days, we feel compelled to add an additional risk dimension.

The manner in which propaganda and misinformation from national and state government sources is observed, analyzed, and reported in mass media channels, and how those communications methods increase the effectiveness of the propaganda campaign is a risk dimension equal in threat to those dimensions previously established.


Statement of Risk

In the sixteen weeks since the original Dark Matter paper was released, the risk environment we described has become more perilous and complex. Several risk factors have increased in intensity and sophistication.

From that original paper’s statement of risk:

In the 2018 cycle, many high-profile races nationwide will see interference directly from Russian state intelligence sources. Most campaigns will not see direct interference by foreign actors, but the activity at the top will have a destructive effect on campaigns down the ballot. Most Republican campaigns in competitive races will use tactics adopted from Russian intelligence operations, because they are effective, easy, cheap, and low-risk.


The Ongoing Russian Hybrid War Against the West
Russian intelligence operations and hacking efforts against Western democracies have increased in recent weeks, and extended reporting on prior incidents has revealed them to be more severe than originally thought.

Continued reporting on Brexit has revealed connections between Russian organizations and Leave.EU. A leaked invoice revealed that Cambridge Analytica had been hired directly by UKIP. Leave.EU was tied to Cambridge Analytica through an intermediary data firm, and a Leave.EU staffer was found to have “passed confidential legal documents to high-ranking officials at the Russian embassy.”

And since becoming prime minister, reports showed Theresa May has accepted more than $200,000 in donations for the Tories from a former head of the Russian Defense Ministry. An in-depth study of propaganda operations and bot activity in recent elections by the National Bureau of Economic Research asserted that Twitter bot activity swung the vote result in the Brexit referendum by 1.76 percent.

(A major anti-Brexit demonstration is planned for June 23, the anniversary of the referendum, and we are watching this as a potential vector for external trolling to sow chaos and, potentially, to generate civil unrest.)

In Mexico, Russian bots have jumped into the presidential campaign, and the National Action Party’s website was crashed by a DDOS attack. In Canada, a hotly contested provincial election saw a substantial bot network deployed in favor of the conservative candidate for Ontario premier, Doug Ford. He won.

Here at home, that same National Bureau of Economic Research report concluded that Twitter bot activity moved 3.23 percent of votes towards Donald Trump. In Austin, Texas, an extended, lethal campaign from a package bomber drew the attention of Russian bot networks, which attempted to shape public coverage of each attack and spread false information. Russian bots and trolls also engaged in a disinformation campaign following the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, amplifying content which was in part generated by domestic alt-right sources, including the NRA.

The Russian hybrid war against the United States and many of other western democracies is persistent, ongoing, and constantly evolving.


The Call Is Coming From Inside the House
The most prolific and evolutionary of risk categories is that of domestic tactics and methods adopted from Russian examples.

In Maine, GOP Senate nominee Eric Brakey was the victim of a troll campaign, featuring a spoofed domain and an illicitly-obtained video with potentially embarrassing video of the candidate. Fake news websites were deployed against multiple candidates in the GOP gubernatorial primary in South Carolina. A similar tactic was deployed against a candidate in a sheriff’s race in Etowah County, Alabama.

In other small markets, the May election coverage of a local news source in Athens, Georgia was hacked. A defender of White Supremacist actions at Charlottesville started a fake news website called “Jews News,” which shared divisive content and conspiracy theories. An election results website in Knox County, Tennessee was DDOS’ed, but that hack was a distraction against the other, real hacking attempt on county elections infrastructure. 

State election websites remain at risk for hacking, even though at the state level, the elections infrastructure is often much more capably funded than county-level systems. A Republican activist in California exposed a serious data vulnerability exposing the GOP voter file, and state elections experts responded with resignation: every campaign is like this with data – “totally reckless.”

A newly-minted Virginia GOP Senate nominee posted a photoshopped image of incumbent Democrat Tim Kaine’s son, claiming that Kaine’s son is domestic terrorist, which he is not. This follows just a few days after Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King retweeted fear-mongering anti-immigrant content from noted neo-Nazi and British national Mark Collett. And in yet another Republican primary, a candidate for West Virginia Senate circulated a photoshopped picture of his opponent shaking hands with Hillary Clinton.

Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley and Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey revealed that their identities had been stolen in an operation that generated millions of fake comments in fraudulent support of repealing net neutrality on the FCC’s open comment web application.

And as Brad Parscale was promoted from digital consultant on Trump 2016 to campaign manager for Trump 2020, the campaign retained the services of former employees from Cambridge Analytica.

These stories are legion. This sampling is illustrative and not exhaustive.


New Risk Dimension: State Propaganda and You
The original and foundational assertion of the Dark Matter project is that the environmental risk – the combination of Russian propaganda operations, the ethics-free adoption of Russian methods by domestic, predominantly conservative campaigns and organizations, and the polarization of the American electorate driven by cognitive bias – presents an extreme threat to the stability of the 2018 election. Any single identified risk dimension would pose a serious challenge, but the coexistence of all three creates an extremely destructive, multiplicative feedback loop for which most Democratic campaigns and allied political organizations are thoroughly unprepared, whether within the United States or anywhere in the world.

To be more specific, most campaign and political organizations are incapable of defending themselves against direct attacks or the indirect effects of this environmental risk due to a lack of sufficient preparation. Additionally, even high-profile campaigns which command a great deal of attention and wield communications and narrative influence over American politics are incapable of going on the offensive and proactively combating these risk elements due to a lack of strategic planning and infrastructure. This activity is not properly prioritized against other efforts.

In both cases, the lack of preparation, strategic planning, and infrastructure are due to a stubborn inability to recognize how bad things actually are. This is a failure of imagination which is easy to understand but no longer acceptable as a mode of operation. The rules of physics no longer apply, and we are unmoored.

It is not news that Donald Trump lies, but the persistence, frequency, intensity, and sophistication of misinformation coming from the Trump administration has accelerated rapidly in the last three  months, all as they use the levers of government to execute plans long in the making. The net effect of that misinformation has also increased.

The first real escalation – and a prime example of how the state propaganda risk dimension sits on top of our previously outlined risk environment like a turbo charger, is the Nunes memo. What started as a pet project of Nunes and a D block story on Fox News at best, blew up over just a few days due to a clear case of polity simulation – Russian bots aggressively amplified the conspiracy theory until it landed on the Sunday political news shows and became a significant topic of discussion, which then drove the very real result of the House Intelligence committee releasing a classified document. The intent of this was to cast doubt on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and that was accomplished with a wild conspiracy theory involving a memo which ultimately debunked the whole thing upon release.

The last 90 days have largely been unrelenting chaos, with Trump producing a nearly unlimited amount of false information connected to the North Korea summit, the Mueller investigation, Spygate, and the Inspector General report on the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

As things have accelerated, campaign operations for Trump 2020 have spun up, with the president appearing at numerous rallies and running 4,400 different ads on Facebook in May.

However, since April, a humanitarian crisis was initiated by the Trump administration as they implemented their new “zero-tolerance” policy of separating children from parent seeking entry to the United States at the southern border. Planned since February 2017, Trump administration officials have not told a consistent story about the policy, and in some cases have denied it altogether.

But as outrage about the policy grew in recent weeks, the message consolidated in the president’s persistent and dangerous language in describing illegal immigrants as an infestation, or an invading force. Border Patrol and ICE have enacted a deliberate practice of making it nearly impossible to claim asylum at recognized ports of entry, and have harshly criminalized the civil misdemeanor of illegal entry. The administration has enacted this policy - and created necessary components for its implementation in creating concentration camps for children – while engaging in an intense propaganda and misinformation campaign.

Trump and his advisers have readily admitted to creating this policy for the express purpose of deterring illegal immigration and asylum seekers. They have also done it to create a condition in which the detained children can be used as a negotiating tool for legislatively securing funding for a border wall and DACA concessions. They have also egregiously, repeatedly, and energetically claimed that Democrats were responsible for the new practice, that it stemmed from a law rather than an administration policy, that Democrats want open borders, and that Democrats want MS-13 to come in to the United States. All of those claims are lies.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen repeated both of those claims in a press conference at the White House this week, along with several other lies. This followed an initial response from her that garnered a great deal of attention, in which she claimed the policy didn’t exist and that families weren’t being separated.

As the culmination of several months of escalating misinformation efforts direct from the White House, the child separation policy is the final and deciding indicator that the United States government is no longer a reliable or trustworthy source of information. The administration’s persistently dishonest behavior generally coordinates with momentary political expediency, and Trump and his subordinates and surrogates are prepared to lie about anything, at any time, so long as it furthers whatever political goal is most urgent.

This behavior seems to have emboldened other government officials to tell more lies: here in Texas, Ken Paxton went on TV during the Austin package bombings and spread false information, and noted alt-right memelord Sid Miller joined Sec. Nielsen in lying about the “zero-tolerance” policy,

Thousands of children are effectively being tortured at our border, and dozens more join their number each day. There is no obvious end in sight to this terror, and the institutions which we imagine are there to save us from such a condition are currently enabling and empowering it. The Trump administration has created this condition on purpose, and the outrage it prompts is one of the goals of the whole plan. In an autocratic environment, outrage and protest harden behavior and consolidate opinion.

Trump has no compunction about lying about anything at any time, often for an unclear reason, and anyone who still works for him is willing to the same, either on his behalf or of their own accord. “Immigrant as infestation” is what passes for a national broad-stroke policy concept in this government, and most aligned domestic political organizations will embrace that concept and apply it locally. And creating high-outrage conflicts is, again, part of the plan for the midterms.

With this as an ever-present environmental condition, every propaganda campaign by Russian intelligence operatives becomes superpowered as it joins the fray and shapes the small details. The amount of content generated by Trump and his conservative media amplifiers (Fox News, Drudge, Breitbart, InfoWars) feeds directly into domestic troll operations.

The media is an unwitting but critical multiplier of the total risk profile in that they still have not arrived at a way to report on Donald Trump’s misinformation without lending validity to the false claims. Some of this is due to tactical, mechanical things, like how headlines are written. For instance, if an outlet publishes a headline that says “Trump tweets he is completely exonerated by the IG report” and that title circulates on social media, that outlet has now effectively circulated as a claim of something that is completely false without any indicator that it is, in fact, a completely false claim. This matters – it piles up on the 20% in the middle of the electorate, and it provides a ton of unintentional assistance to propaganda campaigns, both foreign and domestic, which aim to sow doubt.

And so – the primary component of our new propaganda risk dimension is the serious uptick and instant integration of propaganda and misinformation originating from the Trump administration, and the fact that this misinformation may actually have an effect on policy. The attendant issue for the propaganda risk dimension is how media outlets and opposition candidates and political organizations tend to share or report on propaganda and misinformation which originates from the Trump administration.

Candidates in every election cycle have a responsibility and an obligation to objectively describe reality, whether in terms of policy, the function of government, or how elections are administered. Due to the overwhelming volume of misinformation, it is not only possible but likely that in this election cycle, candidates not yet elected may be required to communicate to the American public about what is happening and what the government is doing in lieu of actual communication from the government.

 

Conclusions

Russia continues to perpetrate an information war against the United States, an effort which constantly grows and evolves. Campaigns and political organizations on Trump’s team feed off the Russian effort while providing it with substantial material and opportunity. Trump is actively leading a propaganda and misinformation campaign direct from the White House.

And American voters are just as vulnerable to cognitive bias as they always have been, if not more so in the midst of the mounting horror of children being placed in American concentration camps. The new, critical plan for combating propaganda is for campaigns and media outlets to alter current reporting practices and arrive at something you normally see in truth commissions: the vital requirement to proactively identify lies rather than repeating them with a follow-up deconstruction. Headlines and subject lines and post titles need context and commentary, always.

The directive for fighting otherwise remains largely the same, if significantly more urgent. The ideal path is two-fold: to defensively mitigate much of the digital risk facing campaigns through OpSec / InfoSec best practices; and to properly prioritize, budget for, and execute a digital communications plan, so you can have reliable access to an audience inclined to believe you when you really need one. Especially in the wake of the national GOP creating a market for hacked campaign materials, being able to play defense and offense are of equal importance.

What we wrote at the end of our first paper is still true:

“Doing only what you’ve done in the past will be disastrous. Without vigilance, you, your candidates, and your campaigns will be eaten alive, not by cunning opponents but by a new, ambivalent universe. Your most vicious and indifferent enemy is the world as it exists now. You must remake yourselves in observance and reflection of that reality.

None of the bad actors in our universe have any incentive to slow down or moderate their efforts. The Trump administration will not soften on anything, as they have nothing to gain from it. The administration’s policies and their implementation will only get more extreme, as a matter of intentional and deliberate political calculus.   

I implore you to take this seriously. We are truly in it now.

Josh Berthume
Rogue Metrics
Denton, TX
June 20 2018