Topics of the Week

The European Commission calls for online platforms to provide more information to researchers in its monthly report.

Mueller report released: No verified collusion, unclear on obstruction of the investigation.

New report: online platforms should be more transparent and establish robust appeal procedures.

Good Old Soviet Joke

In the time of Stalin’s mass purges, a knock at the door woke a family in the middle of the night. All family members, shaking in terror, jumped up.

“Take all you can carry with you, and get out at once,” a voice sounded. “But, for God’s sake, don’t panic! It’s me, your neighbour. It is nothing serious, just our house is on fire.”

Policy & Research News

European Commission updates progress made by online platforms

The European Commission has released its first monthly report on the progress made in fighting disinformation during the lead up to the European Parliamentary elections this May. The latest state of play does show progress, said Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová, Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King, and Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel in a joint statement, but leaves room for improvement.

The Commission calls for greater access to information for researchers and says that the information must be gathered in a more systematic matter so as to make patterns and trends more evidentGoogle has launched an Ad Library database to increase transparency around ads but has fallen behind with regards to YouTube. Facebook’s Ad Library is to be up and running in late March but has failed to show how it takes action against members who break the community standards. Twitter has led the way mandating that ads go through a certification process but has been slow to mitigate the effects of automated accounts.

The full reports on each company can be found here.

The next report is due to be released in late April.

Emmanuel Macron calls for agency to protect free, democratic elections

As it becomes clear that the 2016 US presidential elections were no exception, the Conversation has published an article arguing for the rationale of Emmanuel Macron’s latest calls to establish the European Agency for the Protection of Democracies (EAPD). Macron, it seems, is the latest, though perhaps the strongest, politician to promote a European level response to the problem of cybersecurity. His remarks were published in an open letter to European citizens through the Elysee.

As platforms operate across borders Macron is calling for an agency of experts and leaders to help Member States combat cyber threats and disinformation. He proposes a ban on foreign funding of European political parties and rules to punish incitements to hate and violence on the Internet. The hope is that a European level response will increase the force of evidence hearings like the one Mark Zuckerberg skirted nearly a year ago. EAPD could serve to give more legitimacy to European-wide concerns and act as a place for information sharing.

Macron also focused on the need for greater protection of the European continent: (1) by recommitting to the Schengen zone, and, (2) deepening commitments to NATO and other non-EU European allies.

CYBER podcast: We need to rethink how we consume information

This week’s Vice Motherboard’s CYBER podcast spoke with Roel Schouwenberg, the director of intelligence and research at Celsus Advisory Group, a consulting firm based in the US that helps clients deal with disinformation operations. Here are some of his thoughts.

First of all, it is important to distinguish that influence and information operations are not the same. What the public has been largely focusing on are influence operations – things like polarizing opinions on social media through manipulating algorithms. These are tactical issues – we need to think more strategically about the problem, in a 5 – 10-year timeline, and see the big picture.

During the Cold War, the Russians learned that if you restrict the information available to your population they will trust whatever source is outside that information (such as Radio Liberty/ Free Europe). That outside information is perceived as fact. If everything is available, however – how do you determine what a fact is? Currently, there are a million echo chambers having a unique answer to each unique demographic. Much of the information we receive is aimed at agitating or angering us, which then makes us more susceptible to the messaging that’s being distributed.

So how can it be conquered? One thing that is stressed repeatedly is that one shouldn’t try to “legislate the problem away”. Putting anti-disinformation legislation might seem like a tactical victory, but it will be a strategic defeat because it would also constrain free speech. That would benefit the adversary in the long run much more than it would benefit the US. Besides, attempts to legislate similar problems such as spam or malware have not worked. Foreign intelligence agencies will not be deterred by American laws, and the only people who it will affect are those in the US.

US Developments

Mueller Concludes Trump Russia Probe

Mueller has concluded the probe into whether or not Trump’s presidential campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election.  Mueller gave the long-awaited final report to US Attorney General William Barr. Barr reviewed the report and produced a summary that was released to the American Congress and the American public. Barr’s summary was released to the public and congress Sunday and revealed that Mueller’s report established that there was no verified collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The summary indicated that one of the two ways Russia tried to influence the election was through the Internet Research Agency’s (IRA) trolls and fake social media accounts. Mueller did not find that any “U.S. campaign official or associate conspired or knowingly coordinated with the IRA’s influence efforts”. The other way the Kremlin attempted to influence the election was by hacking material from Democratic organizations, which WikiLeaks released a few weeks before the election. This information included stolen emails from the private account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. Despite findings of multiple offers from Russians and Russian affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign, Barr’s summary did not indicate the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it coordinated or conspired with them.

The report, however, was less clear on whether or not Trump obstructed the investigation. Barr’s summary stated that Mueller did not conclude President Trump committed a crime, but it also did not exonerate him. Barr said Mueller, for reasons he did not explain in detail, decided to not draw a conclusion as to whether or not Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice. Mueller’s report examines Trump’s actions and sets out evidence on both sides of the question. Zak Miller, a White House reporter for the Associated Press, said, in a tweet, that  Mueller’s wording suggested that “at least one action of President Trump that journalists investigated as a potential obstruction of justice, has yet to be revealed in the public report. The Democrats in Congress desire Mueller’s full report to be released to the public, not just Barr’s summary. Barr is a registered Republican, and the Democrats fear that this led to a bias in what he chose to include in his summary. It is noteworthy that the bulk of the counterintelligence section of Mueller’s report has not been released yet. However, more information for the Mueller report is expected to become available in the coming weeks.

U.S. Rushes to Develop a Weapon to counter Russian Hypersonic Missiles

The U.S. has begun the rush to build missiles fast enough to stop Russia’s latest hypersonic weapons a threat the Pentagon has no defence against. A hypersonic weapon is one that travels five times the speed of sound, and Russia has announced the development of several nuclear-capable weapons systems said to be capable of exceeding this. Michael Griffin Pentagon undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering said the answer to taking out such weapons is to go after the laser launch points. To do this the Pentagon has started to invest in hypersonic capabilities on land, air, and sea.

The U.S. Army is seeking more than $1 billion to build the land launched long-range hypersonic weapon over the next few years. The weapons range will be 1,400, which would have been banned by the old INF treaty. Putin has warned that on the event that the U.S. uses short and medium-range missiles, Russia will target missile defence systems in Europe and their decision-making centres in the U.S with the hypersonic weapons which could strike within five minutes. Russia, however, has also announced a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of shorter and medium-range missiles unless the U.S. installs them first.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Tackling Domestic Disinformation:

What the Social Media Companies Need to Do

Our this week’s recommendation is a report by Paul M. Barrett of NYU Stern, which focuses on domestically generated disinformation in the US, analysing the nature of the problem, the steps that social media platforms have taken, and what remains to be done. During the recent US midterm elections, 25 % of content shared on Facebook and Twitter contained deliberately deceiving or incorrect information; the majority of it came from domestic US sources rather than from foreign state actors. Barrett argues that because domestic disinformation pollutes the market of ideas, social media platforms ought to take a harder stance on it. Conspiracy theories hate speech, and deliberately false information hinder democracy by flooding social media with malign content.

Following a description of the forms that domestic disinformation takes, the report examines the steps that have been taken by social media platforms to address the issue. These include the adjustment of algorithms, the development of artificial intelligence tools to identify potentially fake material, the hiring of additional content monitors, and even removing disinformation in certain cases. Finally, Barrett outlines key recommendations to the platforms, such as removing false content while publicly clarifying the principles used for these decisions and establishing robust appeal procedures, in addition to providing more data for academic research, increasing cooperation within the industry, and sponsoring fact-checking.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Think-Tank, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against liberal-democratic system.