Bear Trapping: As Troll Farms Evolve, So Must We
A brutal but effective field test of a new troll network identification technique was conducted on March 6 on Twitter. Within hours a new network of Russian-based troll accounts was identified, interacting regularly across the US and UK.
These fake personas - agent provacateurs - have evolved since the accounts deployed by the Internet Research Agency were made famous after 2016. They have now become increasingly hard to immediately identify, yet they can account for over 1/3 of Twitter interactions in some scenarios.
"These are fake personas, operated by real people behind computer screens in Russia, spreading disinformation and duping people across the West one keyboard stroke at a time."
On the afternoon of March 6 a covert experiment was being conducted on Twitter. I know this, because it was my idea. And I'm genuinely sorry about it but there was simply no other way.
It didn't come up as a whim, or some broadside, madcap idea. The origins of the experiment go back to the end of 2017, when several thousand troll accounts in the US had been exposed as part of the US Senate inquiry into Russia and the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
While many accounts were shut down, it was obvious even then that many thousands more existed - and these are not just "bots", automated users who simply retweet to increase the visibility of individual messages and hashtags. These are fake personas, operated by real people behind computer screens in Russia, spreading disinformation and duping people across the West one keyboard stroke at a time.
While some of these accounts were shut down, others evolved. Becoming increasingly difficult to detect. For every cyrillic apostrophe we've pointed out, and every example of poor grammar we've mocked, we have actually been helping the troll farms refine their operations.
And none of the accounts identified as part of the experiment showed any warning signs on one of the most reliable analysis tools on the web, Botometer.
In fact, ahead of the Russian elections expected to see Vladimir Putin take another six year term in office, the budget of the Internet Research Agency was increased. The operation remains completely unphased by the 13 indictments of Russian nationals, including the head of the IRA, raised by Robert Mueller as part of Trump/Russia collusion investigation.
So, the troll farms - one key hub of operation in Russia's hybrid war effort - are becoming more advanced, and rapidly so, in a conflict the West is losing hands-down.
This is only part of the backdrop,
though. Because disinformation doesn't only effect the West.
For years it has been internally targeted at the innocent Russian population, tens of millions of whom live in poverty and hundreds of thousands of whom have contracted HIV and AIDS as a result.
"Causing the spread of infectious disease through disinformation is no different to dispersing a chemical agent with aerosol. Russia has stepped into the use of bioweapons and found a way to keep its hands relatively clean."
Ahead of World Aids 2017, on December 1, the Independent reported that: "Russia stands on brink of unprecedented HIV crisis as thousands of victims deny it even exists."
According to the journalist, Oliver Carroll: "Russia recorded the third highest number of new HIV cases anywhere in the world. But trust in doctors remains low, and a joined-up public health policy lacking. Within the cracks, a cult of pseudoscience has taken root. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Russians now deny the basic facts about HIV. In the last three years alone, there have been at least 70 deaths attributable to HIV denialism, many of them young children."
Of course, this came two years after an urgent plea from the WHO for Russia and its EU neighbours to vaccinate against Measles, after 22,000 cases were reported in an outbreak. By November 2017, it had been identified that the troll-farms had been spreading disinformation across Europe, encouraging people to shun the Measles jab - something known to have impacted public debate and personal choices in both the UK and Italy among other countries.
Causing the spread of infectious disease through disinformation is no different to dispersing a chemical agent with aerosol. Russia has stepped into the use of bioweapons and found a way to keep its hands relatively clean.
The situation with HIV and AIDS, according to some reports is on a scale which can ony be described as breathtaking, in the most horrific sense.
ARS Technica, part of the media group which owns Wired, reported on December 1 2017 that the infection rate had reached almost a million. Apparently as a direct result of fake news.
"Online groups, forums, and chat rooms have repeatedly sprouted up to spew denialism of HIV and AIDS recently—often with thousands of members—according to a new report by the AFP. One group dubbed the virus “the greatest myth of the 20th century,” while calling HIV drugs “poison” and doctors “killers” working to enrich pharmaceutical companies. They coached believers on how to deny treatment. Others claimed the "myth" of AIDS is intended to establish “total control” over the world population," they wrote.
"Meanwhile, Russia has seen steep and consistent increases in rate of new HIV cases in the past decade, even as the rest of the world has seen declines. Since 2006, the rate of new cases in Russia has increased by at least 149 percent and has been steadily increasing by 10 to 15 percent each year. There are now more than 900,000 Russians living with HIV, with 10 new cases reported each hour. About 80 people die from AIDS-related issues each day," the report added.
This report was supplemented with more detail from The Daily Beast on December 5, who reported 200,000 Russian deaths over the last thirty years.
Approaching the issue in one region, the journalists wrote: "The Irkutsk region suffers from a large number of HIV ‘dissidents,’ or people who refuse to receive the therapy, because they believe the myths distributed by a few local doctors—they say that HIV does not exist."
"The leader of the AIDS-dissident campaign is Vladimir Avdeyev, an Irkutsk pathologist who frequently gives interviews to the local press and television journalists denying that one can actually be infected with HIV," the article added.
"If hacking the psyche of a foreign electorate with disinformation is an act of war, then causing hundreds of thousands of deaths at home through the same method can only be genocide. Russia has been hacking life itself."
If hacking the psyche of a foreign electorate with disinformation and cyber attacks is an act of war, then causing hundreds of thousands of deaths at home through the same method can only be genocide. Russia has been hacking life itself.
Had I not spent the majority of last year monitoring and uncovering Russian disinformation, from Sweden, to Brexit, to Trump and beyond, I might have even missed these stories in the tumult of the daily news armageddon. But something came up the same day the Independent published.
One of the disinformation actors I've been monitoring, Peter Sweden, almost inexplicably sent out a tweet about Swedish HIV/AIDS infection rates on December 1, pinning an increase on migrants - a recurring blame narrative of Kremlin origin which has seen the country set up a new agency to protect the 2018 election from Russian attack.
This led me to the articles and the realisation that Russia was doing something it has always done - attempted to shift attention away from itself. More disinformation. A big "what about?"
I didn't really know what to do with all of this information - it was an overload and took some time to process - so I placed the data in my monitoring file, awaiting some further time and context. Even then, though, the idea of using disinformation and disease to create crude bioweapons was haunting.
"Part of my job, away from Byline, is to generate worst case scenarios. Identify a risk before it becomes a reality. And, on the morning of March 6, the scenario in question was the deliberate spread of disease as a bioweapon. So the old file was opened up and a worst case scenario scratched out."
Part of my job, away from Byline, is to generate worst case scenarios. Identify a risk before it becomes a reality. And, on the morning of March 6, the scenario in question was the deliberate spread of disease as a bioweapon. So the old file was opened up and a worst case scenario scratched out.
The weapon itself was clear, a devastating, incurable illness, with a population infection vector that was huge and in denial of its own existence. Part of the mechanism was disinformation - both national and international - and that was also established. What was missing was a delivery mechanism, and it fell into my field of vision via Twitter, through the medium of football.
The 2018 world cup due to be held in Russia, to be precise.