Russian ‘disinformation’ campaign on US immigration woes find way into American voter platforms

An American holds a sign during a "Take Our Border Back" rally on Feb. 3, 2024, in Quemado, Texas. Online actors tied to the Kremlin have begun pushing misleading and incendiary claims about US immigration in an apparent bid to target American voters ahead of the 2024 election. (AP)
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Updated 02 March 2024
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Russian ‘disinformation’ campaign on US immigration woes find way into American voter platforms

  • Disinformation is worse on X and TikTok, given their lack of controls, says Logically, a tech company that tracks disinformation campaigns
  • Russia and other disinformation spreaders also use encrypted messaging sites or websites that masquerade as legitimate news outlets

WASHINGTON: For Vladimir Putin, victory in Ukraine may run through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
In recent weeks, Russian state media and online accounts tied to the Kremlin have spread and amplified misleading and incendiary content about US immigration and border security. The campaign seems crafted to stoke outrage and polarization before the 2024 election for the White House, and experts who study Russian disinformation say Americans can expect more to come as Putin looks to weaken support for Ukraine and cut off a vital supply of aid.
In social media posts, online videos and stories on websites, these accounts misstate the impact of immigration, highlight stories about crimes committed by immigrants, and warn of dire consequences if the US doesn’t crack down at its border with Mexico. Many are misleading, filled with cherry-picked data or debunked rumors.
The pivot toward the United States comes after two years in which Russia’s vast disinformation apparatus was busy pushing propaganda and disinformation about its invasion of Ukraine. Experts who study how authoritarian states use the Internet to spread disinformation say eroding support for Ukraine remains Russia’s top priority — and that the Kremlin is just finding new ways to do it.
“Things have shifted, even in the last few days,” said Kyle Walter, head of research at Logically, a tech company that tracks disinformation campaigns. While experts and government officials have long warned of Russia’s intentions, Walter said the content spotted so far this year “is the first indication that I’ve seen that Russia is actually going to focus on US elections.”
This month Logically identified dozens of pro-Russian accounts posting about immigration in the US, with a particular interest in promoting recent anti-immigration rallies in Texas. A recent Logically assessment concluded that after two years spent largely dedicated to the war in Ukraine, Russia’s disinformation apparatus has “started 2024 with a focus on the US”
Many posts highlight crimes allegedly committed by recent immigrants or suggest migrants are a burden on local communities. Some claims were posted by accounts with tiny audiences; others were made by state media sites with millions of followers.
This week the accounts seized on the recent death of a Georgia nursing student and the arrest of a Venezuelan man who had entered the US illegally and was allowed to stay to pursue his immigration case. The killing quickly became a rallying cry for former President Donald Trump and other Republicans who suggest that migrants commit crimes more often than do US citizens. The evidence does not support those claims.
The content, crafted in English, has quickly found its way to websites and platforms popular with American voters. Footage of a recent anti-immigration protest broadcast by Russian outlet RT, for example, was racking up thousands of views this week on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and prompting angry replies from other users.
The Russian outlet Sputnik ran a story this week about growing calls to build a US-Mexico border wall, a priority for Trump, who failed to complete the job as president. An analysis of other sites that later linked to the Sputnik piece shows more than half were in the US, according to data from the online analytics firm Semrush.com. Overall, Americans make up the English-language Sputnik’s largest audience.
US officials have warned that Russia could seek to meddle in the elections of dozens of countries in 2024, when more than 50 nations accounting for half of the world’s population are scheduled to hold national votes. While Russia has a strategic interest in the outcome of many of them — the European Parliament, for one — few offer the opportunity and the prize that America does.
For Russia’s bid to conquer Ukraine, this year’s US election stakes couldn’t be higher. President Joe Biden has pledged to fully back Ukraine. Republicans have been far less supportive. Trump has openly praised Putin and the former president has suggested he would encourage Russia to attack America’s NATO allies if they don’t pay their fair share for the military alliance.
More than half of Republicans believe the US is spending too much on Ukraine, according to a recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that found Democrats to be much more supportive of additional aid.
Soon after the war started, Russia mounted a disinformation campaign designed to cut into support for Ukraine. Claims included wild stories about secret US germ warfare labs or Nazi conspiracies or that Ukrainian refugees were committing crimes and taking jobs from people who had welcomed them.
That effort continues, but Russia also has shifted its attention to issues with no obvious tie to Moscow that are more likely to create cracks in the unity of its adversaries — for example immigration, or inflation, high-profile topics in the US and Europe.
“They’re very savvy and understand the right buttons to push,” said Bret Schafer, senior fellow and head of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit. “If your ultimate objective is to reduce support for Ukraine, your inroad might be talking about how bad things are on the southern border. Their path to win this thing is to get the US and the E.U. to stop sending weapons and aid to Ukraine.”
A message left with the Russian Embassy in Washington wasn’t immediately returned.
America’s election may also be a tempting target for other authoritarian nations such as China and Iran that, like Russia, have shown a willingness to use online propaganda and disinformation to further their objectives.
The online landscape has dramatically shifted since Russia sought to meddle in America’s 2016 presidential race won by Trump. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have banned many Russian state accounts and built new safeguards aimed at preventing anyone from exploiting their sites. In one recent example, Meta, the owner of Facebook, announced last fall that it had identified and stopped a network of thousands of fake accounts created in China in an apparent effort to fool American voters.
Other platforms, including X, have taken a different approach, rolling back or even eliminating content moderation and rules designed to stop disinformation. Then there is TikTok, whose ties to China and popularity with young people have set off alarms in several state capitals and Washington.
Artificial intelligence is another concern. The technology now makes it easier than ever to create audio or video that is lifelike enough to fool voters.
Social media is no longer the only battleground either. Increasingly, Russia and other disinformation spreaders use encrypted messaging sites or websites that masquerade as legitimate news outlets.
“A lot of their activity has moved off the major platforms to places where they can operate more freely,” said John Hultquist, chief analyst at Mandiant Intelligence, a cybersecurity firm monitoring Russian disinformation.
Walter, Logically’s research director, said he is most concerned about disinformation on X and TikTok this year, given their lack of controls and their popularity, especially with young voters. TikTok’s ties to China have raised national security concerns.
He said that while election years tend to highlight the dangers of disinformation, the most effective information operations are launched years in advance. America’s adversaries have spent a long time studying its politics, building online networks and cultivating domestic divisions.
Now comes the payoff.
“They don’t need to put a ton of effort into causing disinformation,” Walter said. “They’ve already laid the groundwork leading up to 2024.”


US police arrest Jadaliyya co-editor Sinan Antoon during pro-Gaza demonstration at New York University

Updated 23 April 2024
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US police arrest Jadaliyya co-editor Sinan Antoon during pro-Gaza demonstration at New York University

  • Antoon was arrested along with other NYU faculty members while attempting to protect demonstrating students from the police
  • NYU students were calling for a ceasefire in Palestine's Gaza Strip

LONDON: US police officers on Monday arrested Sinan Antoon, the co-editor of Jadaliyya magazine, during a pro-Gaza demonstration at New York University in Manhattan.

The Arab Studies Institute publication announced in a post on X that Antoon, an associate professor at NYU, was arrested with other faculty members while trying to protect protesting students, who were reportedly calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

Antoon is an Iraqi-American poet, novelist, literary translator and academic. He was born and raised in Baghdad before moving to the US after the 1991 Gulf War. 

The Israeli onslaught on the besieged enclave has since Oct. 7 killed at least 34,000 Palestinians, displaced some 1.9 million, and injured more than 75,800 people, according to Gaza’s health authority.

Confirming Jadaliyya’s announcement, human rights attorney Noura Erakat wrote on X: “NYPD is arresting faculty on their campuses for protecting their students.

 “The academy is imbricated with the state and the military industry intent on war in blatant abrogation of its mission and any semblance of independence. What a gross betrayal.”

On Monday, officers from the New York Police Department moved in on NYU demonstrators after a deadline expired for people to clear an area of the campus, the Financial Times reported.

This came hours after New York’s Columbia University, where more than 100 people were arrested last week, announced it would switch to online classes in an attempt to defuse pro-Palestine protests.

The arrests at the NYU campus are part of a string of US police clampdowns on university students across the country protesting against the war on Gaza.

Local authorities claimed the clampdowns came amid scrutiny over “antisemitism” on US university campuses. 

US police also arrested at least 47 pro-Gaza demonstrators at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Columbia University clampdown, the first of its kind in three decades, triggered protests on other US campuses, including at Brown University, Berkeley, Princeton, Northwestern, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Emerson College in Boston.

In addition to calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, the protesting students also reportedly called for divestment of the university’s funds from companies linked to Israel.


PEN America awards canceled after writers’ boycott over Gaza

Updated 23 April 2024
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PEN America awards canceled after writers’ boycott over Gaza

  • Almost half of nominated authors withdrew works from consideration
  • PEN America accused of complicity in ‘normalizing genocide’ in Gaza

LONDON: PEN America has cancelled its 2024 annual literary awards after several authors boycotted the event over the organization’s perceived failure to take a strong stance against Israel’s war on Gaza.

The decision came in response to an open letter signed by dozens of authors and translators who withdrew their work from consideration for the awards.

Sixty-one authors and translators were nominated but 28 withdrew their work, according to a statement released on Monday, forcing the organization to cancel next week’s event.

“This is a beloved event and an enormous amount of work goes into it, so we all regret this outcome but ultimately concluded it was not possible to carry out a celebration in the way we had hoped and planned,” said CEO Suzanne Nossel.

The boycott emerged amidst growing tensions with PEN, with authors urging the organization to take a stronger stance on the Palestinian crisis and advocate for a Gaza ceasefire.

In the letter, PEN was accused of acting as a “cultural front for American exceptionalism” and complicity in “normalizing genocide” by failing to address the situation in Gaza adequately.

“In the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, we believe that PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere,” said a separate letter signed last month by several famous writers including Michelle Alexander, Naomi Klein and Zaina Arafat.

PEN America has defended its actions, citing its recent condemnation of the loss of life in Gaza, calls for a ceasefire, and the establishment of a $100,000 emergency fund for Palestinian writers.

The awards, which celebrates voices across various genres including writers of fiction, poetry, children’s literature and drama, was scheduled for April 29 at the Town Hall in New York City.


Russia orders jail term for Meta spokesman in absentia on ‘terrorism’ charges

Updated 22 April 2024
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Russia orders jail term for Meta spokesman in absentia on ‘terrorism’ charges

  • Andy Stone was sentenced to six years in what has been described as a symbolic ruling agaist Western social media platforms

MOSCOW: A Russian military court on Monday sentenced in absentia Meta spokesman Andy Stone to six years behind bars for “justifying terrorism,” as part of efforts to restrict Western social media platforms in the country.
The largely symbolic ruling came several months after Mosocw, which has blocked Meta platforms Instagram and Facebook, put the US citizen on a wanted list.
Judge Roman Kiforenko said the sentence would begin upon Stone setting foot on Russian territory or being extradited to Russia, news agencies reported.
The case followed a post by Stone in March 2022 — weeks into Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine — in which he said Facebook would not punish users calling for violence against Russian forces.
Stone said Meta had “temporarily made allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules like violent speech such as ‘death to the Russian invaders.’“
“We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians,” the post read.
Nick Clegg, the President of Meta Global Affairs, said at the time that the policy would only apply “in Ukraine itself.”
Clegg said the decision was taken in “extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances” and was designed to protect “people’s rights to speech as an expression of self-defense.”
Russia barred Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg from entering the country shortly after launching hostilities in Ukraine.
Moscow does not tolerate criticism of the offensive on social media, imposing fines or jail terms to thousands for denouncing the large-scale military campaign now in its third year.


Terry Anderson, US journalist held hostage nearly 7 years in Lebanon, dead at 76

Updated 22 April 2024
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Terry Anderson, US journalist held hostage nearly 7 years in Lebanon, dead at 76

  • Former AP correspondent was abuducted by pro-Iran Shiite Muslim group as part of “continuing operations against Americans”

LONDON: Terry Anderson, a US journalist who was held captive by Islamist militants for almost seven years in Lebanon and came to symbolize the plight of Western hostages during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, died on Sunday at age 76, his daughter said in a statement.
The former chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press, who was the longest held hostage of the scores of Westerners abducted in Lebanon, died at his home in Greenwood Lake, New York, said his daughter Sulome Anderson, who was born three months after he was seized. No cause of death was given.
Kept in barely-lit cells by mostly Shiite Muslim groups in what was known as The Hostage Crisis, and chained by his hands and feet and blindfolded much of the time, the former Marine later recalled that he “almost went insane” and that only his Roman Catholic faith prevented him from taking his life before he was freed in December 1991.
“Though my father’s life was marked by extreme suffering during his time as a hostage in captivity, he found a quiet, comfortable peace in recent years. I know he would choose to be remembered not by his very worst experience, but through his humanitarian work with the Vietnam Children’s Fund, the Committee to Protect Journalists, homeless veterans and many other incredible causes,” Sulome Anderson said.
The family will take some time to organize a memorial, she said.
Anderson’s ordeal began in Beirut on the morning of March 16, 1985, after he played a round of tennis. A green Mercedes sedan with curtains over the rear window pulled up, three gunmen jumped out and dragged Anderson, still dressed in shorts, into the car.
The pro-Iran Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, saying it was part of “continuing operations against Americans.” The abductors demanded freedom for Shiite Muslims jailed in Kuwait for bomb attacks against the US and French embassies there.
It was the start of a nightmare for Anderson that would last six years and nine months during which he was stuck in cells under the rubble-strewn streets of Beirut and elsewhere, often badly fed and sleeping on a thin, dirty mattress on a concrete floor.
During captivity, both his father and brother would die of cancer and he would not see his daughter Sulome until she was six years old.
“What kept me going?” he asked aloud shortly after release. “My companions. I was lucky to have people with me most of the time. My faith, stubbornness. You do what you have to. You wake up every day, summon up the energy from somewhere. You think you haven’t got it and you get through the day and you do it. Day after day after day.”
Other hostages described Anderson as tough and active in captivity, learning French and Arabic and exercising regularly.
However, they also told of him banging his head against a wall until he bled in frustration at beatings, isolation, false hopes and the feeling of being neglected by the outside world.
“There is a limit of how long we can last and some of us are approaching the limit very badly,” Anderson said in a videotape released by his captors in December 1987.
Marcel Fontaine, a French diplomat who was released in May 1988 after three years of captivity, recalled the time cell mate Anderson thought freedom was near because he was allowed to see the sun and eat a hamburger.
In April 1987 Anderson was given a suit of clothes that his captors had made for him. “He wore it every day,” Fontaine said.
A week later, however, Anderson’s captors took the suit back, leaving him in despair and certain he was forgotten, Fontaine said.
Scores of journalist groups, governments and individuals over the years called for Anderson’s release and his Oct. 27 birthday became an unofficial US memorial day for hostages.
Anderson said he considered killing himself several times but rejected it. He relied heavily on his faith, which he said he had renewed six months before being kidnapped.
“I must have read the Bible 50 times from start to finish,” he said. “It was an enormous help to me.”
His sister, Peggy Say, who died in 2015, was his fiercest advocate during captivity.
She worked tirelessly for her brother’s freedom. She visited Arab and European capitals, lobbied the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and every US official and politician available.
Under pressure from the media and the US hostages’ families, the Reagan administration negotiated a secret and illegal deal in the mid-1980s to facilitate arms sales to Iran in return for the release of American hostages. But the deal, known as the Iran–Contra affair, failed to gain freedom for any of the hostages.
Born Oct. 27, 1947, in Lorain, Ohio, Anderson grew up in Batavia, New York. He graduated from Iowa State University and spent six years in the Marine Corps, mostly as a journalist.
He worked for the AP in Detroit, Louisville, New York, Tokyo, Johannesburg and then Beirut, where he first went to cover the Israeli invasion in 1982.
In that war-torn city, he fell in love with Lebanese woman Madeleine Bassil, who was his fiance and pregnant with their daughter Sulome when he was snatched.
He is survived by his daughters Sulome and Gabrielle, his sister Judy and brother Jack, and by Bassil, whom Sulome Anderson called “his ex-wife and best friend.”
Anderson and fellow hostages developed a system of communication by tapping on walls between their cells. Always the journalist, Anderson passed on news of the outside world he had picked up during captivity to Church of England envoy Terry Waite, being held hostage in an adjacent room in September 1990 after years of solitary confinement.
“Then the world news: the Berlin Wall’s falling, communism’s demise in eastern Europe, free elections in the Soviet Union, work toward multiracial government in South Africa. All the incredible things that have happened since he was taken nearly three years ago. He thought I was crazy,” Anderson wrote in his 1993 book “Den of Lions.”
After his release, Anderson taught journalism at Columbia University in New York, Ohio University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Florida until he retired in 2015.
Among businesses he invested in were a horse ranch in Ohio, and a restaurant. He unsuccessfully ran for the Ohio state Senate as a Democrat in 2004 and sued Iran in federal court for his abduction, winning a multimillion-dollar settlement in 2002.


British man investigated for hate crime after viral racist rant against Muslim women

Updated 21 April 2024
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British man investigated for hate crime after viral racist rant against Muslim women

  • ‘I don’t understand why people stand by and let it happen,’ says witness

LONDON: A hate crime investigation is underway following a viral video of an attack against Muslim women in East London, police confirmed on Sunday.

The incident occurred on Saturday in Romford when a white male, wearing glasses, targeted the group, some of whom were wearing hijabs and pushing shopping trolleys.

The footage, shared by Redbridge Community Action Group, shows the man following the women down South Street, a busy shopping area, while shouting and gesturing aggressively as they attempt to leave the scene.

The man is heard using profanities and labeling the women “Muslim traitors.”

In an outburst caught on camera, he accused one of the women of supporting missile attacks against Israel, adding: “We don’t want you here.” He went on to use an expletive.

The Metropolitan Police has confirmed it is treating the confrontation as a hate crime.

Scotland Yard posted on X: “We are aware and urgently investigating this clearly unacceptable incident. We will be speaking to the victim later.”

Vaseem Ahmed, 55, who was participating in a rally supporting a free Palestine, and located near Barclays Bank on the high street, witnessed the incident.

As police arrived, Ahmed noted that the activists dispersed, with the confrontation occurring as the women headed home.

He told The Independent: “I’d say to him (the white male) ‘If you’re going to be brave, do the same thing in front of some Muslim men (and) then see what the outcome is.’

“Don’t target innocent people; it’s the worst kind of bullying. And grow up. Some of the stuff he was saying was really vile.

“He was so angry and so worked up he couldn’t get his words out properly. It wasn’t the most eloquent rant.”

He added: “I know those women from other demonstrations. I was shocked in the way it happened, but then not shocked at the same time. Islamophobic attacks have skyrocketed since Oct. 7.

“A lot of government ministers and even Rishi Sunak refuse to call out Islamophobia when it happens, and people get emboldened.

“We are visibly Muslim, especially women, (and) they become easy targets. That’s the saddest thing.

“I didn’t see anyone intervene. They might have been concerned for their safety, but all you have to do is shout a few times; you don’t have to put yourself in danger. I don’t understand why people stand by and let it happen.”