3 Ways Russian-Linked Entities Stoked Controversy on Facebook, Twitter

New charges against a Russian national for allegedly trying to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and upcoming midterms reveal the creative techniques that Kremlin-linked groups have used to sow discontent among Americans.

The Department of Justice said Friday that it filed criminal charges against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova for her alleged role with the Russian propaganda operation “Project Lakhta.” This operation, according to the complaint, oversaw multiple Russian-linked entities like the Internet Research Agency that lawmakers say spread fake news and ginned up controversy on Twitter and Facebook.

Russia has denied any disinformation campaign.

Here’s some interesting takeaways from the lawsuit:

Capitalizing on polarized topics of national interest

The complaint alleges that the Russian groups grasped onto polarized issues like gun control, race relations, and immigration to further divide the U.S. populace. They spread both liberal and conservative viewpoints to various groups on social media, tailoring the message to each one, including choosing which publication to share on them.

One unnamed Russian cited in the complaint allegedly said, ” If you write posts in a liberal group,…you must not use Breitbart titles. On the contrary, if you write posts in a conservative group, do not use Washington Post or Buzzfeed’s titles.”

The Russian groups appeared to practice their own form of racism, with one member reportedly saying “Colored LGTB are less sophisticated than white; therefore, complicated phrases and messages do not work.”

The groups apparently discovered that “infographics work well among LGTB and their liberal allies,” while conservatives appeared to be indifferent to graphics.

Spinning the news

Members of the Russian entities were well versed in summarizing popular news stories and spinning them in a way that would antagonize Americans. The entities created a Facebook group dubbed “Secure Borders” that would aggregate news stories and then sensationalize them to draw emotional responses.

Here’s an example of one way the Russian groups discussed among themselves about how to spin a news story about the late John McCain’s criticism of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

“Brand McCain as an old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly. Emphasize that John McCain’s pathological hatred towards Donald Trump and towards all his initiatives crosses all reasonable borders and limits. State that dishonorable scoundrels, such as McCain, immediately aim to destroy all the conservative voters’ hopes as soon as Trump tries to fulfill his election promises and tries to protect the American interests.”

Creating fake user accounts on Facebook and Twitter

The Russian groups couldn’t have spread propaganda as effectively if they used their real identities. Instead, they created fake profiles on the social media to do things like promote protests and rallies and to post divisive and hateful content.

For instance, the fictitious New York City resident “Bertha Malone” created 400 Facebook posts that allegedly contained “inflammatory political and social content focused primarily on immigration and Islam.”

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The “Malone” personal also communicated with an unnamed real Facebook user to assist in posting content and managing a Facebook group called “Stop A.I.”

On March 9, 2018, a fake Twitter user named @JohnCopper16 attempted to influence Twitter users by commenting on President Trump’s recent summit with North Korean President Kim Jong Un:

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It's Imperative You Stop This One Bad Habit We All Do All The Time Because It's Ruining Us All

Here’s a recent moment I’m not proud of: I’m driving down a two-lane highway, listening to an audiobook, while checking a text and Google Maps using the split-screen feature on my Android phone. I look up to see a construction worker in the road signaling that I slow down and I’m suddenly ashamed of my irresponsible multi-tasking and distracted driving.

Oh, and by the way, I didn’t retain any of the last few minutes of my audiobook and the text definitely could have waited. 

I started to think back to a number of irritating moments and social interactions from the past few days and wondered how many could be attributed to similar bad habits. The receptionist at the dentist who tried to schedule me on the wrong day multiple times while clearly distracted; the harsh critique from a reader who had obviously not read more than a paragraph of my story; the numerous distracted drivers (even more so than me) who don’t quite stay in their lanes at all times. 

The fact that there is an epidemic of distractions, vanishingly small attention spans and an almost involuntary impulse towards multitasking is not a new revelation, but it occurs to me that the problem may be even more insidious, pervasive and dangerous than we’re acknowledging. 

But what’s become more apparent to me recently is that widespread multitasking – often out of what we perceive as a need to keep with the utter barrage of media and communication coming at us with unprecedented speed and frequency – may rise to the level of a public health issue.

I’m worried that the very workings of society itself, the social contract we have made to each other, is in danger of unraveling at the hands of our own incompetence, which is driven in part by a culture of distraction and a false sense that focus must be the sacrificial lamb offered up in order to keep up. 

We are so distracted that our distractions are distracting those around us and making us all dumber for it. 

It’s all common sense really. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss things and get stuff wrong as a result. 

It’s ironic, I think, because part of the reason that we multitask is that we want to be our best selves. We convince ourselves that part of achieving this betterment is keeping up with everything happening in the world, the news, our social circles, or whatever.

But the truth is that none of us are keeping up with it all. And besides, true understanding and improvement comes from deep focus rather than shallow dithering. 

We’re not going to stop staring at screens any time soon, but hopefully we can start focusing on just one at a time and only when we’re not doing anything else. 

Recently I started leaving my earbuds at home for long runs. No music, no audiobooks, just the sound of the breeze and my repeated footfalls on the trail below me. I know what some of you are thinking, but no, I wasn’t bored. What’s more, I was actually able to focus better the rest of the day and felt less stress and anxiety.

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Facebook shareholders back proposal to remove Zuckerberg as chairman

(Reuters) – Several public funds that hold shares in Facebook Inc on Wednesday backed a proposal to remove Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg as chairman, saying the social media giant mishandled several high-profile scandals.

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens to French President Emmanuel Macron after a family picture with guests of the “Tech for Good Summit” at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Pool

State treasurers from Illinois, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, co-filed the proposal. They joined hedge fund Trillium Asset Management, which bought it to the table in June.

The proposal, set to be voted on at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in May 2019, is asking Facebook’s board to make the role of board chair an independent position.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives for a meeting with French President at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

“Facebook plays an outsized role in our society and our economy. They have a social and financial responsibility to be transparent – that’s why we’re demanding independence and accountability in the company’s boardroom,” Stringer said.

The proposal said lack of independent board chair and oversight has contributed to Facebook “mishandling” a number of severe controversies, including Russian meddling in U.S. elections and the Cambridge Analytica data leak.

Zuckerberg has about 60 percent voting power, according to a filing in April.

The New York City Pension Funds owned about 4.5 million Facebook shares as of July 31.

The Pennsylvania Treasury holds 38,737 shares of the company, according to a spokeswoman. Trillium holds 53,000 shares.

Shares held by the Treasurers of Illinois and Rhode Island were not immediately available.

Reporting by Arjun Panchadar and Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Bernard Orr

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