The Morning Paper

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The United States is already under cyberattack from enemies and rivals. Iran, North Korea, and China have been implicated in hostile hacks, but the most is known publicly about Russian assaults. In 2014, Russian hackers used stock video footage and social media to spread panic over a fake chemical fire in Louisiana. The following year, the same agency faked an outbreak of food poisoning at Thanksgiving in New York and exacerbated racial tensions at the University of Missouri. These operations appear to have been warm-ups for the Russian project to stoke division and suspicion in the U.S. electorate during the 2016 campaign.

Attacks like these will become vastly more potent when images of celebrities, elected leaders — even your friends and family — can be seamlessly added to fake scenarios. In fact, given revelations that a Russian company has been collecting millions of images of everyday Americans, you might wake up one day to find yourself co-starring in a deepfake attack.

But to focus on Trump, and whether his actions constitute impeachable offenses, is to miss the real bombshell in Mueller’s testimony — the scandal that could be unfolding right there in front of us.

That was Mueller’s warning that what happened in 2016 could happen again. Asked by Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) whether Russia might be planning another attack on the integrity of U.S. elections, Mueller replied: “They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign.” He said “many more countries” are developing the capability to do so as well.

“I hope this is not the new normal,” Mueller added, “but I fear it is.”

There is a good chance that Wednesday’s testimony marked the last time we will ever hear the former special counsel say anything on the subject in public. The message he wanted to deliver was that, in wrestling with the problematic past, we should not take our sights off a treacherous future. While that may not have made for electrifying television, Mueller delivered the goods.

Source: Washington Post

Image courtesy of Fluencia

Deza

deza

The bog standard “progressive internationalist leftist” narrative on today’s Russia can be encapsulated in four simple words: “Everything is Yeltsin’s fault.”

There is thus no need to shell out your hard-earned money on books with lots of pages and fancy words in them when the takeaway message is so easily memorized and painlessly digested.

If you suffer from panic attacks, as I do, repeating this message like a mantra will also calm you down in no time at all and put you to sleep on restless nights.

Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. Everything is Yeltsin’s fault. 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ДЕЗА

Messages like the one quoted below don’t jibe with the standard narrative aggressively enforced these days like Stalinist dogma among the west’s champagne socialist hipsters, who see Vladimir Putin as the nearly blameless victim of forces unleashed in the 1990s by the real villain of post-Soviet Russian history, Boris Yeltsin.

The problem with the standard hipster socialist narrative, however, is that it’s mostly wrong. It simply cannot account for wild variations among supposedly capitalist countries, just as it has trouble making sense of all the oddities and excesses of the Putinist system, many of which have nothing or almost nothing to do with capitalism and class relations as such.

Vladimir Putin. Let the Russian president stand in for any number of his country’s adept hackers. The country may have been relatively quiet—though not inactive—during the midterm elections, but Russia’s hackers still caused all manner of trouble throughout the world. Upset over a doping-related ban, they hacked and released emails of the International Olympic Committee in January, then attacked the Pyeongchang Olympics themselves, wreaking havoc during the opening ceremonies with so-called Olympic Destroyer malware. When a lab investigated the nerve agent used in the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, Russia tried to hack it, too. They continue to probe the US power grid for weaknesses. And on and on, all before you even get to Putin’s continued, unprecedented cyber-aggression against Ukraine. Russia has spent this year actively, opening lashing out at the world online—with Putin at the command.

A Colossus with Feet of Clay

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It looks scary, but it’s only a computer-generated image.

“The tumultuous poll in Catalonia left more than 800 injured and pretty much everybody with mixed emotions which offers a perfect opportunity for Russia. Russia has no particular interest in Catalonian independence but Russian media were actively promoting the narrative about Spanish authoritarianism and Russian hackers helped the organizers keep their websites up. Russian interest lies in shifting the narrative around Crimea, keeping the EU busy with other topics than Russian aggression, and mainly in dividing Europe as well as undermining Europe’s democracy and institutions.”

This was written by the European Values Think-Thank, which operates out of Prague and runs a useful program called Kremlin Watch.

Nevertheless, an argument like theirs should be backed up with lots of facts and quotations, not just rolled out as a bald-faced assertion we must either accept or reject.

Russian trolls can, in fact, troll and dispatch bots on any subject they like. It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, their actions will have a decisive effect on every conflict in which they intervene.

True, in the body of the newsletter, there is this follow-up on the story.

“Referendum in Catalonia: The Crimean spring has moved to the Pyrenees… Not.

“Despite Dmytry [sic] Peskov’s statements that the Catalonian referendum is an internal Spanish matter, Russia would not want to miss a chance to bring its alternative point of view on the Catalonian referendum or extend a helping hacking hand to the referendum organizers either. Spanish media have been on high alert. El País blatantly stated that Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe. These accusations have been thoroughly investigated by the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab, focusing on the role of Sputnik and RT. Russian media spread stories about a violent and repressive Spanish government and warn that a civil war is imminent as the EU passively stands by. Russian creativity is legendary and the media managed to find similarities with the situation in Crimea and Kurdistan.

“According to the Russian press, independent Catalonia might recognize Crimea as part of Russia. The benefits of doing so are not very clear, Russia might in exchange push Nicaragua to recognize Catalonia? “This does not mean that Russia wants Catalonia to be independent at any cost. What it fundamentally seeks is to create division, in order to slowly undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” says Brett Schaffer, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund. And we can only agree with that.”

There are only three hyperlinks in the entire passage, no other references, and one of the links reiterates the article in El País. It is not enough to convince even a true believer in Russian troll farms like me.

Why not?

Because just the other day I read the following article, published on the excellent Russian charity and investigative reporting website Takie Dela, about the huge numbers of dilapidated residential buildings in Barnaul, capital of Altai Territory. The article details the considerable inconveniences and humiliations faced by the tenants, who are more or less stuck in their flats until the mayor’s office does something, although it is clear to the residents that the mayor’s office would rather the buildings all collapsed, killing the tenants in the wreckage.

Degradation of postwar-built housing stock is a severe problem not just in Barnaul, but all over Russia, a problem the central government (since under Putin 3.0 there is no such thing as local government anymore) has been doing a really bad job of solving.

I could make a list of a hundred other problems plaguing “mighty” Russia right now that the government has pointedly failed to address, because its priorities have been elsewhere (e.g., Crimea and Syria).

Russia is a colossus with incredibly fragile clay feet.

This means three things. First, its active measures operations, involving trolls and bots intervening in the affairs of other countries, is one way Russia can assert itself as a supah powah (but not a super power) on the cheap, without spending a lot of money.

Second, since it is doing this on the cheap, the “global vision” guiding its creepy efforts is likewise fragmented, impatient, contradictory, and severely misinformed at times. The Kremlin just wants to make trouble somehow.

Finally, it hasn’t been conclusively proven these operations have been decisive factors in altering the outcome of any election, referendum or conflict.

It’s an invidious comparison, of course, but I have been blogging for nearly ten years, and during that time over half a million viewers have read my posts. Does that mean I have been a decisive factor in Russian politics or how the west views Russia? As much as I would like to say, yes, I have been, I cannot say that. I would be happy if I have changed a few people’s minds now and then and, especially, if I have showed them aspects of the Russian grassroots they had never heard about before.

The Internet Research Agency (or whatever the Russian trolling campaign now calls itself) has a lot more resources at its disposal for winning hearts and minds, but it is not operating in a vacuum.

Instead, it is operating in an incredibly dense media environment where domestic media outlets, of different political stripes and shapes, will be more persuasive to Catalonians and Spaniards, say, than Russian goofballs smacking away at keyboards wherever the IRA has been hiding out lately and posting silly memes and one-liners in comment threads, because the Spanish and Catalonia domestic media understand the issues, speak the languages fluently, and do not speak them with accents.

Do you really imagine that all Catalonians, Spaniards, Americans, Germans, Belgians, etc., are so gullible and incapable of critical thought they cannot tell the difference between a sound reportage or analysis, written by a real local reporter or op-ed columnist, and a pile of crap whipped up by a Russian working the late shift at IRA and loopy as a kite on energy drinks?

Trolling as a way of regaining superpower status is, in fact, a “weapon of the weak,” but not in the sense James Scott meant the phrase. We should deal with the weapon as such, instead of worrying its mere presence is decisive and disruptive everywhere it rears its puny, feeble head.

To argue otherwise is to imagine that Spanish national cops could not have beaten independence-minded Catalonians over the head, although it was probably not such a smart move, or those same Catalonians were not capable of holding their perhaps illegal referendum without being hypnotized by outside Russian agitators.

Let the Russian trolls pretend they are really shaking up the world with their teenage pranks. In the meantime, competent technicians and hackers should devise a technical solution that would deal a knockout punch to the Russian IRA.

That would be more efficient and make for less panic mongering, which, alas, is not in short supply these days. TRR

Image courtesy of i.imgur.com