Russian trolls paid activists to sow discord: how to reduce vulnerability

A Russian “troll factory” paid tens of thousands of dollars to unwitting American activists to sow discord in the US, The Times reports:

This is the first suggestion of direct payments from Russia to American citizens with the aim of fomenting divisions in the US. About 100 US activists were ­approached online and did not know they were accepting support from a Russian organisation.

The troll factory, based in St Petersburg and officially a company called Internet Research, has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman known as “Putin’s cook” because of his Kremlin catering contracts. The push is seen as part of wider Russian propaganda efforts…..The factory’s existence has been known since 2015. This week a former “internet operator” there told Moscow’s Dozhd television channel he and others had been instructed to write comments on US media articles that were designed to inflame tension around sensitive issues and “provoke disorder”.

The revelations shed new light on Russia’s political interference and disinformation campaigns:

One former troll, who was interviewed by the independent Russian news outlet Dozhd and went by “Maxim,” or Max, spoke of his experience working for the Internet Research Agency, a well-researched Russian company in St. Petersburg whose function is to spread pro-Russian propaganda and sow political discord in nations perceived as hostile to Russia.

“Our task was to set Americans against their own government,” he said, “to provoke unrest and discontent.”

Fake social media accounts are sowing division in Western democracies, notes analyst Michael J. Coren. The US State Department says Russia spends at least $500 million per year on media infrastructure to wage disinformation and counter-narratives campaigns about the European Union and the United States, he writes for Quartz.

In January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified report stating definitively that hacking is part of a Russian attempt to “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order” by sowing chaos and eroding faith in the democratic process, notes Susan Hennessey, Managing Editor of Lawfare and a Fellow in National Security Law at the Brookings Institution. Two recent books illuminate the immensely complex issues at play and help explain why the United States has failed to adequately protect itself from cyberthreats, she writes for Foreign Affairs:

In The Cybersecurity DilemmaBen Buchanan, a cybersecurity specialist at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, outlines the structural challenges unique to interactions among states in cyberspace. In Cyberspace in Peace and War, the economist and security expert Martin Libicki authoritatively details states’ operational and strategic considerations in the cyber-realm. These two books add nuance to debates about digital conflicts while resisting the temptation to treat them as analogous to nuclear or conventional ones.

The experience of the Baltic states demonstrates how under Vladimir Putin, Russia asserts itself as a revisionist power determined to expand its sphere of influence using a wide array of tools, notes Colin Dueck, a Jeane Kirkpatrick visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. These tools include economic pressure, shrewd diplomacy, oil and gas manipulation, bribery, disinformation, covert action, cyber-attacks, military coercion, and sometimes outright invasion.

To avoid a repeat of the 2016 fiasco, the United States must chart a new course shaped by a higher tolerance for strategic risk. For starters, Washington must articulate clearer lines, Lawfare’s Hennessey contends:

The Obama administration’s cyberstrategy presented ambiguity as a deterrent tactic, claiming that a lack of specificity would discourage states from simply tailoring their malicious activities to avoid crossing lines. But experience has demonstrated that aggressive adversaries considered that zone of ambiguity to be a zone of impunity. Although setting clearer lines does risk encouraging some additional below-the-threshold activity, containing behavior in that space is a better outcome than allowing more serious violations to go unchecked.

“Likewise, the United States should be more consistent and proactive in publicly attributing attacks [and]…cease to be inhibited by the fear of sparking escalatory cycles,” she insists. “Stronger responses to hacking, such as counterattacks and aggressive sanctions, do carry significant risks, but Washington can no longer rely on a do-nothing or do-little approach.”


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Slain journalist Caruana Galizia exposed ‘mafia state’ Malta’s part in global kleptocracy

A Maltese police officer has been attacked by the son of a murdered journalist after writing on Facebook that ‘everyone gets what they deserve’ after she was killed, according to reports.

The London libel lawyers who targeted murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia were today condemned as ‘crooks’ by her son, Matthew. Her killing has prompted calls for an international investigation.

The United States condemned the slaying as a “cowardly attack” and says the FBI is responding to Malta’s request for assistance.


In her last blogpost, published the day she died, Caruana Galizia signed off with a sentence that seems particularly chilling now. “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate,” The Guardian reports:

Someone, it seems, was worried enough to want her silenced. In that last post, which appeared just before a bomb blew up the car she was driving, Caruana Galizia had taken aim, and not for the first time, at Maltese politicians. But they were far from the only people in the firing line.

She believed, in essence, that malign and criminal interests had captured Malta and turned it into an island mafia state; she reported on a political system rife with corruption, businesses seemingly used to launder money or pay bribes, and a criminal justice system that seemed incapable, or unwilling, to take on the controlling minds behind it all.

The journalist, who had worked to expose Malta’s links to offshore tax havens through the leaked Panama Papers (see below), had written a twice-weekly column for The Malta Independent since 1996 and wrote a blog, Running Commentary, according to The Independent.

Her work consistently exposed the part Malta plays in a global kleptocracy. One contributor to her blog wrote “Malta is at a fork in the road: third-world kleptocracy or western democratic values?”

“Once again, the international community must mourn a journalist who appears to have been killed for their work to expose corruption,” said U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He urged Malta’s government of Malta to conduct a full and impartial investigation into the killing.

“Journalists, by their very work, help make it possible for us to live in open, free societies where leaders are held accountable,” he said. “The lack of transparency in corporate registration and financial documentation is a key link in the global network of crime.”

Last year Running Commentary revealed that Muscat’s chief of staff and one of his ministers had Panama-registered companies and trusts in New Zealand, The Economist adds:

Ms Caruana Galizia claimed, and they denied, that the offshore vehicles received kickbacks from Russians who had bought Maltese passports. In April she wrote that Mr Muscat’s wife was the beneficial owner of a company that allegedly received $1m from the daughter of the president of Azerbaijan, with which Malta has commercial ties. The government called it a lie. Recently, Ms Caruana Galizia turned her fire on the right, accusing Adrian Delia, of links to a London-based prostitution racket, which he denies.

In deference to her death, Delia dropped libel lawsuits he had pending against Caruana Galizia, AP adds.

The European edition of POLITICO placed Caruana Galizia on a list of 28 people “shaping, shaking and stirring Europe” and described her as a “one-woman WikiLeaks” committed to exposing corruption and nepotism.

“But if Caruana Galizia’s death is a reminder of the risks such reporters take, her life is a reminder of the value of their work,” says analyst Jonathan Freedland. “She performed an extraordinary service, ferreting out evidence that Malta had become an island mafia state, its elite riddled with corruption, money-laundering, kickbacks and gang violence.”

But democracy in Malta was compromised before the murder of Ms. Caruana Galizia, who had ceaselessly reported massive government corruption in this favored European tax haven, The New York Times adds:

The Times of Malta reported that she alerted the police two weeks ago that she was receiving threats. That warning does not seem to have been taken seriously. She had also suffered legal harassment for her reporting; in February, a court in Malta ordered her bank accounts frozen after she was sued for libel by two government officials she reported were seen at a brothel.

Where the Panama Papers money comes from

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