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)
Short Url
Updated 02 March 2024
Follow

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.”


EU bans 4 more Russian media outlets from broadcasting in the bloc, citing disinformation

Updated 18 May 2024
Follow

EU bans 4 more Russian media outlets from broadcasting in the bloc, citing disinformation

  • The EU has already suspended Russia Today and Sputnik among several other outlets since February 2022

BRUSSELS: The European Union on Friday banned four more Russian media outlets from broadcasting in the 27-nation bloc for what it calls the spread of propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine and disinformation as the EU heads into parliamentary elections in three weeks.
The latest batch of broadcasters consists of Voice of Europe, RIA Novosti, Izvestia and Rossiyskaya Gazeta, which the EU claims are all under control of the Kremlin. It said in a statement that the four are in particular targeting “European political parties, especially during election periods.”
Belgium already last month opened an investigation into suspected Russian interference in June’s Europe-wide elections, saying its country’s intelligence service has confirmed the existence of a network trying to undermine support for Ukraine.
The Czech government has imposed sanctions on a number of people after a pro-Russian influence operation was uncovered there. They are alleged to have approached members of the European Parliament and offered them money to promote Russian propaganda.
Since the war started in February 2022, the EU has already suspended Russia Today and Sputnik among several other outlets.

 

 


Israeli soldiers post abusive videos despite army’s pledge to act: BBC analysis

Updated 17 May 2024
Follow

Israeli soldiers post abusive videos despite army’s pledge to act: BBC analysis

  • The BBC analyzed 45 photos and videos posted online by Israeli soldiers that showed Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank being abused and humiliated

LONDON: Israeli soldiers continue to post videos of abuse against Palestinian detainees despite a military pledge to take action against the perpetrators, analysis by the BBC has found.

The broadcaster said it had analyzed 45 photos and videos posted online by Israeli soldiers that showed Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank being abused and humiliated. Some were draped in Israeli flags. 

Experts say the footage and images, which showed Palestinians being stripped, beaten and blindfolded, could breach international law and amount to a war crime.

The Israel Defense Forces said some soldiers had been disciplined or suspended for “unacceptable behavior” but did not comment on the individual cases identified by the BBC.

The most recent investigation into social media misconduct by Israeli soldiers follows a previous inquiry in which BBC Verify confirmed Israeli soldiers had filmed Gazan detainees while beating them and then posted the material on social platforms.

The Israeli military has carried out arbitrary arrests across Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. The number of Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank has since risen to more than 7,060 according to the Commission of Detainees’ Affairs and the Palestinian Prisoner Society.

Ori Givati, spokesperson for Breaking the Silence, a non-governmental organization for Israeli veterans working to expose wrongdoing in the IDF, told the BBC he was “far from shocked” to hear the misconduct was ongoing.

Blaming “current far-right political rhetoric in the country” for further encouraging the abuse, he added: “There are no repercussions. They [Israeli soldiers] get encouraged and supported by the highest ministers of the government.”

He said this played into a mindset already subscribed to by the military: “The culture in the military, when it comes to Palestinians, is that they are only targets. They are not human beings. This is how the military teaches you to behave.”

The BBC’s analysis found that the videos and photos it examined were posted by 11 soldiers of the Kfir Brigade, the largest infantry brigade in the IDF. None of them hid their identity.

The IDF did not respond when the BBC asked about the actions of the individual soldiers and whether they had been disciplined.

The BBC also attempted to contact the soldiers on social media. The organization was blocked by one, while none of the others responded.

Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association, urged an investigation into the incidents shown in the footage and called for the IDF to discipline those involved.

In response to the BBC’s investigation, the IDF said: “The IDF holds its soldiers to a professional standard … and investigates when behavior is not in line with the IDF’s values. In the event of unacceptable behavior, soldiers were disciplined and even suspended from reserve duty.

“Additionally, soldiers are instructed to avoid uploading footage of operational activities to social media networks.”

However, it did not acknowledge its pledge to act on BBC Verify’s earlier findings in Gaza, according to the broadcaster.


4 journalists killed in Gaza as death toll climbs above 100

Updated 17 May 2024
Follow

4 journalists killed in Gaza as death toll climbs above 100

  • 104 Palestinian media workers reported dead, along with 3 Lebanese and 2 Israelis

LONDON: The Gaza Media Authority on Thursday said that four journalists had been killed in an Israeli airstrike, bringing the total number of journalists killed in the conflict to more than 100.

The victims were identified as Hail Al-Najjar, a video editor at the Al-Aqsa Media Network; Mahmoud Jahjouh, a photojournalist at the Palestine Post website; Moath Mustafa Al-Ghefari, a photojournalist at the Kanaan Land website and Palestinian Media Foundation; and Amina Mahmoud Hameed, a program presenter and editor at several media outlets, according to the Anadolu Agency.

The Gaza Media Office said the four were killed in an Israeli airstrike, but did not provide additional details on the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

A total of 104 Palestinian journalists have been killed since the conflict began on Oct. 7. Two Israeli and three Lebanese media workers also have been killed.

The latest loss adds to the already heavy toll on media workers, with the Committee to Protect Journalists saying the Gaza conflict is the deadliest for journalists and media workers since it began keeping records.

Israel is continuing its offensive on Gaza despite a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire.

On Thursday, South Africa, which has brought a case accusing Israel of genocide to the International Court of Justice, urged the court to order Israel to halt its assault on Rafah.

According to Gaza medical authorities, more than 35,200 Palestinians have been killed, mostly women and children, and over 79,200 have been injured since early October when Israel launched its offensive following an attack by Hamas.


Russia outlaws SOTA opposition news outlet

Updated 17 May 2024
Follow

Russia outlaws SOTA opposition news outlet

  • Authorities said outlet tries to destabilize the socio-political situation in Russia
  • Move could criminalize SOTA content and puts its reporters at risk of arrest

LONDON: Russia declared opposition media outlet SOTA “undesirable” on Thursday, a move that could criminalize the sharing of its content and put its reporters at risk of arrest.
Authorities in Russia have declared dozens of news outlets, think tanks and non-profit organizations “undesirable” since 2015, a label rights groups say is designed to deter dissent.
In a statement, Russia’s Prosecutor General accused SOTA of “frank attempts to destabilize the socio-political situation in Russia” and “create tension and irritation in society.”
“Such activities, obviously encouraged by so-called Western inspirers, have the goal of undermining the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society,” it said.
It also accused SOTA of co-operating with TV Rain and The Insider, two other independent Russian-language outlets based outside of the country that are linked to the opposition.
SOTA Project, which covers opposition protests and has been fiercely critical of the Kremlin, denied it had anything to do with TV Rain and The Insider and rejected the claims.
But it advised its followers in Russia to “remove reposts and links” to its materials to avoid the risk of prosecution. SOTA’s Telegram channel has around 137,000 subscribers.
“Law enforcement and courts consider publishing online to be a continuing offense. This means that you can be prosecuted for reposts from 2023, 2022, 2021,” it said.
SOTA Project was born out of a split with a separate news outlet called SOTAvision, which still covers the opposition but distanced itself from the prosecutors’ ruling on Thursday.
Since launching its offensive in Ukraine, Moscow has waged an unprecedented crackdown on dissent that rights groups have likened to Soviet-era mass repression.
Among other organizations labelled as “undesirable” in Russia are the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Transparency International and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


OpenAI strikes deal to bring Reddit content to ChatGPT

Updated 17 May 2024
Follow

OpenAI strikes deal to bring Reddit content to ChatGPT

  • Deal underscores Reddit’s attempt to diversify beyond its advertising business
  • Content will be used to train AI models

LONDON: Reddit has partnered with OpenAI to bring its content to popular chatbot ChatGPT, the companies said on Thursday, sending the social media platform’s shares up 12 percent in extended trade.
The deal underscores Reddit’s attempt to diversify beyond its advertising business, and follows its recent partnership with Alphabet to make its content available for training Google’s AI models.
ChatGPT and other OpenAI products will use Reddit’s application programming interface, the means by which Reddit distributes its content, following the new partnership.
OpenAI will also become a Reddit advertising partner, the company said.
Ahead of Reddit’s March IPO, Reuters reported that Reddit struck its deal with Alphabet, worth about $60 million per year.
Investors view selling its data to train AI models as a key source of revenue beyond Reddit’s advertising business.
The social media company earlier this month reported strong revenue growth and improving profitability in the first earnings since its market debut, indicating that its Google deal and its push to grow its ads business were paying off.
Reddit’s shares rose 10.5 percent to $62.31 after the bell. As of Wednesday’s close, the stock is up nearly 12 percent since its market debut in March.