Posts Tagged ‘Internet Research Agency’

Facebook scandal grows — Company admits to far higher number of data breaches — ‘The truth has been lost’ — Our Facebook Archives

April 5, 2018

Facebook has said personal data on 87 million users was shared with Cambridge Analytica, millions more than it admitted earlier. The social media giant also unveiled new privacy rules, but the whiff of scandal lingers.

Silhouettes of cellphone users in front of a screen displaying the Facebook logo (Reuters/D. Ruvic)

Facebook said on Wednesday that 87 million people may have had their personal data leaked to Cambridge Analytica, a data mining firm that used the data to try to influence elections in the US and UK.

The social media giant admitted last month that 50 million users’ data had been leaked, after two newspapers, The New York Times and The Observer, broke the story based on their investigations of Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook’s chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, released the new figures on Wednesday as he unveiled a new set of privacy tools for users of the social network.

“In total, we believe the Facebook information of up to 87 million people — mostly in the US — may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica,” he said.

Read moreFacebook: ‘The truth has been lost’

The UK-based consultancy has denied wrongdoing. It said it had engaged a university professor “in good faith” to collect Facebook data in a manner similar to how other third-party app developers have harvested personal information.

Zuckerberg to face Congress

Facebook’s disclosure comes as chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said he would appear on April 11 before a House committee — his first testimony before Congress. Separately, the US Federal Trade Commission and various authorities in Europe are investigating.

The hearing will “be an important opportunity to shed light on critical consumer data privacy issues and help all Americans better understand what happens to their personal information online,” said the committee’s Republican chairman, Greg Walden, and ranking Democrat, Frank Pallone, in a statement.

“We appreciate Mr. Zuckerberg’s willingness to testify before the committee, and we look forward to him answering our questions.”

The Facebook co-founder has also been invited to appear before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee on April 10, alongside Google chief Sundar Pichai and Twitter head Jack Dorsey.

The horse has bolted

Zuckerberg said he had made a “huge mistake in failing to take a broad enough view of what Facebook’s responsibility is in the world.”

He said earlier this week it would take “a few years” to fix the problems uncovered by the revelations on data misuse.

Facebook’s problem was that it was “idealistic,” he said, focusing on the positive aspects of connecting people and that “we didn’t spend enough time investing in, or thinking through, some of the downside uses of the tools.”

Mark Zuckerberg speaking onstage during a developers conference (Reuters/S. Lam)Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he was too trusting of app developers who said they followed the rules

New privacy policy

Facebook is also unveiling a new privacy policy that aims to explain the data it gathers on users more clearly. The policy changes come a week after Facebook gave its privacy settings a makeover.

Next Monday all Facebook users will receive a notice on their Facebook feeds with a link to see what apps they use and what information they have shared with those apps. They will have a chance to delete apps they no longer want. In addition, the company is also removing the option to search for users by entering a phone number or an email address.

A few weeks ago Facebook said it will remove developers’ access to people’s data if the person has not used the app in three months.

Zuckerberg said it isn’t enough for Facebook to believe app developers when they say they follow the rules.

The Russian link

The social networking giant said this week it had revoked the accounts of 70 Facebook and 65 Instagram accounts and removed 138 Facebook pages controlled by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA).

The agency has been dubbed a “troll farm,” for making deceptive posts during the 2016 US presidential campaign.

Shares in Facebook are down more than 16 percent since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke and advertisers are also deserting the site

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US hits Russia with sanctions for election meddling

March 15, 2018


© AFP / by Andrew BEATTY | US President Donald Trump said Thursday it “looks like” Russia was behind a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Donald Trump’s administration on Thursday levied sanctions against Russia’s top spy agencies and more than a dozen individuals for trying to influence the 2016 US presidential election and two separate cyberattacks.The announcement follows a lengthy delay that had caused anger on Capitol Hill and raised questions about Trump’s willingness to confront Moscow.

The measures target five entities and 19 individuals — including the FSB, Russia’s top spy service; the military intelligence agency, or GRU; and 13 people recently indicted by Robert Mueller, the US special counsel handling a sprawling Russia probe.

Sanctions were also levied against individuals behind the separate Petya cyberattack and an “ongoing” attempt to hack the US energy grid.

The move comes despite Trump’s repeated denial that Russia tried to tilt the election in his favor, fearing it could call his victory over Hillary Clinton into question.

The president has also decried more damaging allegations that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin — the subject of Mueller’s ongoing investigation that has seen several key aides indicted or make plea deals.

“It took 14 months,” leading Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar said of the sanctions. “Finally.”

“Now we must protect our elections going forward,” she added.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the decision showed the administration was “confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in US elections, destructive cyberattacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure.”

“These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia,” he added.

– Moscow’s ‘response’ –

Moscow said it was preparing its response.

“We view this calmly. We have begun to prepare response measures,” deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax news agency.

He claimed the US move was designed to coincide with Russia’s presidential election on Sunday.

Many of the main entities and individuals hit — including the spy agencies and ‘troll factory’ boss Yevgeny Prigozhin — already face assets freezes and travel bans, either put in place under Barack Obama’s administration or for actions linked to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

But the decision heaps pressure on Moscow as it faces separate punitive measures for an alleged attempt to kill a Russian-born British informant with a nerve agent west of London.

Britain, France, Germany and the United States condemned the attack on the Russian ex-spy and his daughter, saying there was “no plausible alternative explanation” to Moscow’s involvement.

Trump said Thursday “it looks like” Russia was behind that attack.

“I’ve spoken with the (British) prime minister and we are in discussions,” he added. “A very sad situation. It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never, ever happen, and we’re taking it very seriously.”

Moscow has denied being involved, claiming the British government was trying to “deflect attention” from difficult negotiations with the European Union over Brexit.

by Andrew BEATTY

U.S. hits Russians with sanctions for election meddling, cyber attacks

March 15, 2018

Image may contain: 2 people, eyeglasses

Photo: U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday took its most notable action against Russia since Donald Trump became president, slapping sanctions on a group of Russian individuals and entities, including Moscow’s intelligence services, for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and malicious cyber attacks.

Under pressure to act, the administration still deferred making a move targeting Russian government officials and oligarchs, those closest to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thursday’s announcement marked the first time that the U.S. government stated publicly that Russia had attempted to break into the American energy grid, which U.S. security officials have longed warned may be vulnerable to debilitating cyber attacks from hostile adversaries.

Trump has faced fierce criticism in the United States for doing too little to punish Russia for the election meddling and other actions, and a special counsel is looking into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians, an allegation the president denies.

Combined with the United States joining Britain in blaming Moscow for poisoning a former Russian spy in southern England, the actions represented another plunge in U.S.-Russian relations despite Trump’s stated desire for improved ties.

“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in announcing the new sanctions.

Trump has frequently questioned a January 2017 finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign using hacking and propaganda in an effort eventually aimed at tilting the race in Trump’s favor. Russia denies interfering in the election.

But Mnuchin was unequivocal in saying that Thursday’s Treasury action “counters Russia’s continuing destabilizing activities, ranging from interference in the 2016 election to conducting destructive cyber-attacks.”

A senior administration official told Reuters that Trump, who campaigned on warmer ties with Putin, has grown exasperated with Russian activity.

The Treasury Department aimed the sanctions at 19 Russian individuals and five groups. Sixteen of the Russian individuals and entities sanctioned were indicted on Feb. 16 as part of Mueller’s criminal investigation. While Trump has frequently called the Russia probe a “witch hunt,” the new sanctions appear to affirm Mueller’s investigative strategy.

Trump told reporters during a White House event with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar that “it certainly looks like the Russians were behind” the use of a nerve agent to attack Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent in England. Trump called it “something that should never, ever happen, and we’re taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.”


Russian government hackers since at least March 2016 “have also targeted U.S. government entities and multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors,” a Treasury Department statement said.

A senior administration told reporters on a conference call that Russian actors infiltrated parts of the U.S. energy sector.

“We were able to identify where they were located within those business systems and remove them from those business systems,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Mnuchin said there would be additional sanctions against Russian government officials and oligarchs “for their destabilizing activities.” Mnuchin did not give a time frame for those sanctions, which he said would sever the individuals’ access to the U.S. financial system.

The new sanctions also include Russian intelligence services, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and six individuals working on behalf of the GRU.

Thursday’s action blocks all property of those targeted that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits American citizens from engaging in transactions with them.

The Treasury Department said the sanctions were also meant to counter destructive cyber attacks including the NotPetya attack that cost billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia and the United States. The United States and Britain last month attributed that attack to the Russian military.

Mueller’s indictment stated that Russians adopted false online personas to push divisive messages, traveled to the United States to collect intelligence and staged political rallies while posing as Americans.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress, which nearly unanimously passed a new sanctions bill against Russia last summer, had criticized Trump for not punishing Moscow. The Trump administration in January did not announce sanctions against Russia, for now, under the new law.

Republican Ed Royce, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the new sanctions as an important step. “But more must be done,” Royce said in a statement, promising that his committee would “keep pushing to counter Russian aggression.”

The Treasury Department said it would keep pressure on Russia for its ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine and occupy the Crimea region, as well as corruption and human rights abuses.

Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Warren Strobel and James Oliphant; Editing by Will Dunham

Trump Administration Imposes Sweeping New Sanctions Against Russia over Election Meddling, Cyber-Enabled Activities

March 15, 2018

The administration is starting to actually get more aggressive in response to the 2016 meddling.

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The Treasury Department on Thursday announced that it would roll out sweeping new sanctions against Russia and Kremlin-aligned entities over Moscow’s election-meddling, including an infamous online troll farm targeted separately by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in announcing the new sanctions. “These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia.”

It was a notable change in course for a Trump administration that was feeling the heat from Capitol Hill to fully implement congressionally mandated sanctions. And it suggests that, perhaps, the president’s team is beginning to view its largely deferential posture towards Moscow as politically untenable.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is designating five entities and 19 individuals for punishment under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a bipartisan measure that Congress passed overwhelmingly last year but the administration had lagged in fully implementing it. Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill had pressed administration officials to impose the mandatory sanctions before the January 29, 2018 deadline, and Mnuchin told lawmakers in recent weeks that new CAATSA sanctions would be rolled out soon.

The new CAATSA designations include Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) intelligence agencies. GRU-aligned individuals and top officials are also named in the new sanctions.

In a new executive order titled, “Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities,” the administration also names the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based troll farm that Special Counsel Mueller included in his indictment last month for having engaged in election-meddling. The executive order designates Yevgeny Prigozhin, the organization’s top financier, and Concord Management and Consulting LLC, which “provided material assistance to the IRA.”

A senior administration official said the Internet Research Agency “tampered with or altered information in order to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election,” adding of the new rollout: “This is just one of a series of ongoing actions we’re taking to target Russian aggression.”

See also:

Trump Administration Sanctions Russians for Election Meddling and Cyberattacks

U.S. ‘woefully unprepared’ for cyber threats, Sen. Mark Warner says

March 11, 2018

  @selenalarsonMarch 10, 2018: 8:27 PM ET

Whether it’s an attack on the banking infrastructure or disinformation campaigns on social media, the United States is “woefully unprepared” to combat cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns, Senator Mark Warner said on Saturday.

Speaking at the SXSW festival, Warner said it’s time to consider the liability of tech platforms and software makers.

Senator Richard M. Burr, right, and Senator Mark Warner, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee. CreditAndrew Harnik/Associated Press

Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, outlined a four-part “cyberdoctrine,” actions the government could take to address cybersecurity threats.

He suggested the establishment of basic rules for cyber aggressions, like those in place for nuclear weapons. Warner also called for using the government’s purchasing power to force tech product makers to adopt security standards, and said the United States should reallocate some defense resources into the cyber domain.

“One of the things I want to do is bring together parliamentarians of all the Western nations that have been attacked,” he said. “The West ought to start seeing if we can get some commonality,” around cybersecurity efforts.

Related: Facebook to use postcards in anti-election meddling effort

Cybersecurity is not a partisan issue, Warner said, adding that Republicans and Democrats understand the threats posed by cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns.

Tech companies aren’t doing enough to combat abuse of their platforms for disinformation, Warner said. But he didn’t go so far as to support government regulation.

“If we can do this in a collaborative fashion, I think it would be a better route, but I think Americans’ patience is starting to run thin,” Warner said.

The Russia threat

The Senate Intelligence Committee continues to investigate how Russian hackers interfered in the 2016 election, including the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms to spread fake information and manipulate public opinion.

But Warner said disinformation efforts began long before the presidential election.

“As far back as 2011, I think Russia realized they weren’t going to out-purchase the US in terms of tanks and airplanes, so they had to figure out a way to wage asymmetrical conflict,” he said.

US intelligence agencies have blamed Russia for extensive disinformation campaigns on social media.

Facebook (FB) has estimated that false ads were seen by about 11 million people, while content from accounts linked to a Russian troll group reached an estimated 150 million people on Facebook and Instagram.

Related: How the Russians did it

Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll group, for offenses related to their alleged interference in the American political system and the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook has made some efforts to self-regulate and implement new rules on how people can buy political advertising. The company recently said it will verify ad buyers’ identities with physical postcards.

Social networks are facing increased scrutiny from both the government and the public over their power to control and distribute information. Facebook and Twitter have become more transparent about their efforts to fight abuse and let users see if they viewed Russian propaganda, but many, like Warner, are not convinced it is enough.

At Saturday’s event, a Twitter employee asked how the intelligence community can cooperate with tech companies as they work to improve their platforms. Warner, ever critical of tech companies, dodged the question somewhat and said Twitter’s efforts were slow and “derivative of Facebook’s work.”

Russian Trolls Tried to Torpedo Mitt Romney’s Shot at Secretary of State

March 8, 2018

Online campaign targeted the ex-GOP nominee as Donald Trump considered him in late 2016

Donald Trump, then the president-elect, with Mitt Romney after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club in New Jersey in November 2016.
Donald Trump, then the president-elect, with Mitt Romney after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club in New Jersey in November 2016. PHOTO: DREW ANGERER/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, Russia-backed online “trolls” flooded social media to try to block Mitt Romney from securing a top job in the incoming administration, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows.

The operatives called the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, then a contender for secretary of state, a “two headed snake” and a “globalist puppet,” promoted a rally outside Trump Tower and spread a petition to block Mr. Romney’s appointment to the top diplomatic job, according to a review of now-deleted social-media posts.

The revelation comes alongside a new report, in the New Yorker, that alleges the Kremlin pressured then-President Elect Trump to consider a candidate more favorable to Russian interests. Mr. Trump ultimately appointed former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief Rex Tillerson, who has said he has a “very close relationship with” Russian President Vladimir Putin, to lead the department.

Mr. Romney is a Russia hawk, saying during the 2012 campaign that the country was the U.S.’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”

“It’s not surprising that the Russian troll operation tried to do whatever it could to prevent [Mr. Romney] from being secretary of state,” said Ryan Williams, a political strategist and former Romney spokesman.

The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment. The administration has denied any political coordination with Russia during the 2016 campaign, which is a focus of the special counsel investigation that has ensnared a number of Trump associates. Russia has denied having interfered in the election.

The Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, a.k.a. the Troll Factory, ​used fake social media accounts before and after the 2016 U.S. election to collect sensitive personal information on Americans, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found. Shelby Holliday explains how the Russian schemes worked.​

The Journal analysis, which included a review of now-deleted tweets as well as posts on Facebook and Instagram from accounts linked to a pro-Kremlin propaganda agency, showed the trolls’ disdain for Mr. Romney was clear. Several of the most popular accounts slammed the former Massachusetts governor in late November and early December 2016, encouraging their tens of thousands of followers to take action.

The push came just as reports swirled that Mr. Romney could get the job, despite his frequent, harsh criticism of Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign.

“No Romney for Secretary of State! #NeverRomney,” wrote the Twitter account USA_Gunslinger on Nov. 25 to its then more than 26,000 followers. Around that time, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said Mr. Romney had been “nothing but awful” to Mr. Trump during the campaign, and tweeted that she was getting a “deluge” of negative comments about him from Trump loyalists.

The Russian front accounts tried to do more than just spread messages on social media.

One group, “Being Patriotic,” which earlier purchased pro-Trump advertisements on Facebook, encouraged people to gather outside Trump Tower in New York City and protest Mr. Romney’s possible nomination, according to an event listing linked to the group.

“We did NOT fight this hard to get backstabbing Romney as Secretary of State! He will run it like the Clinton Foundation!” the event post said.

The Being Patriotic account, which was booted from Facebook and other social-media platforms last fall, also used Instagram to bash Mr. Romney and promote Rudy Giuliani for secretary of state, according to reposts of the images.

Facebook, which also owns Instagram, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Twitter also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Several of the most prominent Russian-linked Twitter accounts urged people to sign a petition on the website “Romney is everything we voted against when we voted Trump to #DrainTheSwamp! Sign the petition & RT #NeverRomney,” wrote TEN_GOP, an account masquerading as the Tennessee GOP, to more than 50,000 followers on Nov. 30, 2016.

The allegations of Kremlin opposition to Mr. Romney surfaced in a New Yorker article about Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled a dossier of allegations the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian intelligence agencies to win the election.

According to the report, Mr. Steele created another, previously unreleased memo in late November 2016, which said the Kremlin “intervened to block” Mr. Trump’s choice of Mr. Romney for secretary of state. The memo is attributed to a single source described as “a senior Russian official.”

Mr. Steele didn’t respond to requests for comment. When asked about the report that Moscow weighed in on Mr. Romney’s appointment at a briefing Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “I’m not aware of anything regarding that, and don’t know that to be factual in any capacity at all.”

Mr. Romney, who is now running for a Utah Senate seat, said he doesn’t know why Mr. Trump didn’t pick him.

“I don’t know…why he chose to ask me to come in, or decided not to have me as his secretary of state,” Mr. Romney said in a statement. “I do believe it’s pretty clear that I’m not a fan of Vladimir Putin’s and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not a fan of mine either.”

Based on the information that’s now coming out of congressional committees, Russian goals to interfere in the 2016 election were very broad. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains just how sophisticated the Russian efforts were using social media. Photo: AP

Intelligence experts cautioned that the trolls’ messages aren’t proof of the Kremlin’s preference.

“In many cases the underlying objective is to create confusion and conflict,” said Sean Kanuck, the former head of cyber issues for the U.S. National Intelligence Council now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I would expect the trolls to create uncertainty around whomever is the front runner.”

By mid-December, Mr. Trump had changed course, naming Mr. Tillerson as his choice to lead the department. The oil executive rose to the top of Exxon Mobil partly by negotiating a project with the Russian president.

Most of the posts about Mr. Tillerson in the Journal’s analysis were repetitions of news reports, though a scattering of Russian accounts voiced a positive opinion about the formerly “dark horse” candidate. “Trump to name Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State! Good! #NeverRomney,” wrote the Twitter account ELEVEN_GOP on Dec. 10.

Write to Rob Barry at and Shelby Holliday at

Russian election assaults, cyber and otherwise, pose quandary for 2018 campaigns

March 1, 2018

The Associated Press


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WASHINGTON (AP) — Encrypted messages. Two-factor authentication. Real-time monitoring of social media for malicious internet bot activity.

This is the new reality for candidates running in 2018, scared of email hacks and elaborate misinformation schemes like the ones Russia used to disrupt the 2016 campaign.

And many candidates say they’re concerned they can’t rely on Congress or the White House for advice, or protection.

“Since many in Washington continue to bury their head in the sand over the dangers our Democracy faces, our campaign has taken deliberate steps to guard against cyberattacks by mandating extensive security measures,” said Gareth Rhodes, a Democrat running for an upstate New York House seat. He said he’s put his campaign staff through training on how to identify phishing and hacking attempts.

The horror of 2016′s hacked emails is still fresh for most operatives. Democratic lawmakers saw their cellphone numbers splashed online. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned before the convention. The hacks even prompted a North Carolina man to storm a Washington pizzeria with an assault rifle, based on an internet conspiracy theory that started with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails.

Since then, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been hosting cybersecurity briefings for its candidates and staff, pushing campaigns to use encrypted messaging and two-factor authentication. The National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC, has hired multiple cybersecurity staffers to work with its candidates and promises to do more.

“We’re starting to advise campaigns, but we’re not ready to roll the whole thing out. We’re working on it,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers said this week. “We’re working on the technology-based stuff to try and make sure that we know what’s out there — which is hard, too — and then we try to defend against it the best we can.”

Leaders with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the NRCC negotiated last year on a coordinated defense against hacks and cyberattacks, but the talks crumbled last summer amid accusations from both sides of grandstanding on the issues, according to Democratic and Republican officials familiar with the effort. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Jason Rosenbaum, the former head of digital advertising for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, likened the average congressional campaign to how Rocky Balboa of the ’80s blockbuster movie “Rocky IV” was doing a bare-bones training regime in an isolated cabin in the frozen tundra and clearly was outgunned by Russian prizefighter Ivan Drago.

“Drago had unlimited state resources, and House campaigns are like Rocky, pushing tree logs in the snow,” said Rosenbaum, who also worked previously in Google’s elections and issues department.

Special counsel Robert Mueller only heightened these concerns when he revealed an intricate misinformation campaign run out of Russia, which used fake identities, set up rallies in America and rushed protesters into the streets on both sides of the divide.

The deeper problem, say cybersecurity experts advising campaigns, is that while hacks and phishing attempts can be blocked, misinformation is more amorphous and harder to curtail.

Supporters of Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam may offer the best example of what can, and cannot, be done.

In the homestretch of the Virginia governor’s race last year, a Democratic group aired an explosive ad showing a white man in a pickup truck with a waving Confederate flag chasing four black, Hispanic and Muslim kids through a leafy suburban neighborhood.

It sparked an outcry among conservatives who said it unfairly painted supporters of Republican candidate Ed Gillespie as unrepentant racists. The spot was taken down after two days, and Democrats thought they may have avoided any nasty consequences from the politically insensitive ad. But then a small group of Twitter bots and accounts closely associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-connected troll farm, latched on and kept the ad alive through the final week of the race.

In a matter of hours, an easily missed TV ad quickly punched through the din of the national news and was enshrined as one caustic part of the 2017 governor’s race. Now, with the 2018 vote looming for hundreds of candidates for governor and the House and Senate, it’s a cautionary tale about the perils of a new political landscape filled with bots, trolls and even “cyborgs” — real people blasting from dozens of social media accounts at a time.

“You’re not going to be able to battle them in the digital sphere, there’s just too many. It’s calling them out for what they are. They’re not voters, they’re not constituents — they’re just machines,” said David Turner, who worked as Northam’s spokesman during the governor’s race.

A social media report commissioned by Virginia’s teachers union pinned much of the blame on 15 Twitter accounts. The report did not specifically state that the accounts were operated by Russia’s troll farm, but the accounts were heavily retweeted and promoted by Russian accounts, according to a database compiled by NBC of tweets purged by Twitter.

U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russian operatives didn’t stop on Election Day 2016. While they offered few details, officials said they expect attacks to continue through the current election season.

The social media giants, too, have struggled to come up with answers on their own.

Through the end of the 2016 election campaign, the Tennessee Republican Party pressed Twitter to take down an impostor account that was tweeting wild accusations — like claims that then President Barack Obama wanted to convert children to Islam. But Twitter didn’t do anything for 11 months, until it discovered the account was linked to Russian meddling in the election.

Mueller later tagged the account “@TEN_GOP” as one of the most active run by the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia.

But when Twitter recently purged thousands of accounts it discovered were fake or automated, it spurred a backlash among conservative pundits online who lost thousands of followers. The hashtag “#TwitterLockout” quickly began trending last week in response to the purge.

Later the same day, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Devin Nunes, mocked Democrats on Twitter worried about Russian meddling: “Catch up on mainstream media Russian conspiracy theories in this piece by @FDRLST PS-If you are a Russian Bot please make this go viral PSS-If you’re not a Russian Bot you will become one if you retweet.”

Mueller’s indictment of the Russian nationals and companies two weeks ago outlined an effort that was mostly aimed at helping Trump and hurting Clinton. But their targets weren’t all Democrats — the indictment said the Russians also tried to spread misinformation about some of Trump’s GOP primary opponents, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s campaign manager in 2016, said the campaign noticed misinformation online but didn’t suspect it was from Russians. He’s not managing any campaigns this year, but advises anyone who is slammed by negative content online to create more of their own content that is positive.

“What I learned early on is you can only focus on the things you can control and don’t worry about the rest,” Sullivan said. “And to a large extent this is beyond any campaign manager’s control.”

The other problem, noted Stivers from the NRCC, is that misinformation is a quintessential part of campaign politics.

“It’s been part of American politics since the presidential campaigns of the 1800s,” he said.


Associated Press reporter Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

Russia’s Attack on U.S. Troops — Trying to drive Trump out

February 24, 2018

Putin’s mercenaries are bloodied in Syria, as he tries to drive Trump out.

Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin around his factory which produces school means, outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 20, 2010.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin around his factory which produces school means, outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 20, 2010. PHOTO: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The truth is starting to emerge about a recent Russian attack on U.S. forces in eastern Syria, and it deserves more public attention. The assault looks increasingly like a botched attempt to bloody the U.S. and intimidate President Trump into withdrawing from Syria once Islamic State is defeated. The U.S. military won this round, but Vladimir Putin’s forces will surely look for a chance at revenge.

Here’s what we know. Several hundred men and materiel advanced on a U.S. Special Forces base near Deir al-Zour on the night of Feb. 7-8. Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White confirmed soon afterward that the “battalion-sized unit formation” was “supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.” U.S. forces responded in self-defense “with a combination of air and artillery strikes.”

Ms. White wouldn’t confirm how many attackers were killed or who was fighting, though the U.S. had “observed” the military buildup for a week. Defense Secretary James Mattis called the confrontation “perplexing,” adding that “I have no idea why they would attack there, the forces were known to be there, obviously the Russians knew.” He’s referring to the U.S.-Russia “deconfliction” agreement in which the Russians agreed to stay west of the Euphrates River.

Now we’re learning that Russian fighters were killed in the attack, and Lebanese Hezbollah was also involved. The Kremlin has tried to cover up the deaths, but that’s getting harder as the body bags come home and Russian social media spread the word. The Foreign Ministry finally admitted Tuesday that “several dozen” Russians were killed or wounded but claimed that “Russian service members did not take part in any capacity and Russian military equipment was not used.”

That depends on how you define “Russian military.” Evidence is growing that the attack was orchestrated by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch who does much of Mr. Putin’s dirty work. His businesses include the Internet Research Agency, a media operation indicted by a federal grand jury last week for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Mr. Putin has a history of using mercenaries in Crimea and southern Ukraine, the better to preserve deniability if something goes wrong. The Obama Administration blacklisted Mr. Prigozhin in 2016 for supporting Russia’s Ukraine invasion, and in June the Trump Administration sanctioned Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian intelligence officer associated with Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group of mercenaries.

Wagner has been fighting in Syria since 2015, according to the Institute for the Study of War’s Bradley Hanlon, including campaigns to retake oil-rich areas. Mr. Putin has been doling out contracts tied to oil and mining to mercenaries in Syria, including to Mr. Prigozhin.

The Washington Post reported Thursday, citing intelligence sources, that Mr. Prigozhin had “secured permission from an unspecified Russian minister” for the attack and had also “discussed” it with Syrian officials. Mr. Prigozhin would never undertake such an operation unless he felt he had clearance from the highest levels of the Kremlin.

Why risk such an attack, especially given how badly it went for Russia? Mr. Putin is constantly probing for weaknesses in adversaries, and perhaps he wanted to embarrass Mr. Trump by capturing some Americans. Perhaps he hoped to push the U.S. troops back and seize the nearby oil fields. With Mr. Trump sending no clear signals about U.S. intentions after Islamic State, and given his 2016 campaign claims that Syria is someone else’s problem, Mr. Putin might have thought that some American casualties, prisoners or a retreat would increase calls inside the U.S. to leave Syria.

The U.S. military response was impressive and laudable, but American silence about the Russian attack is puzzling. The attack shows again that Mr. Putin is looking to damage U.S. interests wherever he sees an opportunity, even at the risk of a U.S.-Russia military engagement. Maybe Mr. Trump doesn’t want to humiliate Mr. Putin, but the Russian won’t forget this defeat merely because the U.S. is quiet about it.

The danger is that he’ll interpret U.S. silence to mean that he can risk an attempt at revenge. Mr. Putin is running for re-election this spring, and while he has rigged the vote to guarantee victory, the Russian public needs to know his mercenaries suffered a humiliating defeat. If the U.S. won’t tell the truth, Mr. Putin has an easier time telling lies.

The Russian engagement also shows that the U.S. is operating a de facto safe zone for allies in eastern Syria. The Pentagon is still pursuing dispersed Islamic State fighters, but another goal is to influence the shape of post-ISIS Syria. Mr. Putin wants to push the U.S. and its allies out so its axis with Iran can dominate Syria. Look for more such confrontations to come.

Appeared in the February 24, 2018, print edition.

Russians charged over US 2016 election tampering

February 16, 2018

BBC News

 Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
Russians used ‘information warfare’ against the US election process

Thirteen Russians have been charged with interfering in the US 2016 election, in a major development in the FBI investigation.

Three of those named have been accused of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and five have been accused of aggravated identity theft.

The announcement was made by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged Russian meddling.

Three Russian companies are also named in the indictment.

One of them is the Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg, which the 37-page indictment said “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election”.

Speaking at a news conference, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said there was no allegation that any American was “a knowing participant in this illegal activity” nor was it alleged that the meddling altered the election outcome.

What does the indictment say?

It says a group of Russians:

  • Posed as Americans, and opened financial accounts in their name
  • Spent thousands of dollars a month buying political advertising
  • Purchased US server space in an effort to hide their Russian affiliation
  • Organised and promoted political rallies within the United States
  • Posted political messages on social media accounts that impersonated real US citizens
  • Promoted information that disparaged Hillary Clinton
  • Received money from clients to post on US social media sites
  • Created themed groups on social media on hot-button issues, particularly on Facebook and Instagram
  • Operated with a monthly budget of as much as $1.25m (£890,000)

The indictment says those involved systematically measured how well their internet posts were doing and adjusted their strategies to maximise effectiveness.

It also says those named in the indictment began discussing how to affect the election as early as 2014.

“By 2016, defendants and their co-conspirators used their fictitious online persons to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election,” the indictment continues.

“They engaged in operations primarily to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”

President Trump was briefed on the indictment earlier on Friday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

How has Russia reacted?

“There were 13 of them, according to the US Department of Justice. Thirteen people interfered with the US elections?” said Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said. “Thirteen against the billion-dollar budgets of the security services? Against espionage and counter-espionage, against new systems and technologies? Absurd? Yes.”

One of the men named in the indictment – Evgeny Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s chef” denied election tampering.

“The Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agency Ria Novosti on Friday.

“I have great respect for them. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

Grey line

Heat of investigation is increasing

Analysis by Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, Washington

On Friday, Robert Mueller’s team released a slate of indictments that lays bare what it asserts is the full shape of the Russian meddling apparatus.

And what an apparatus it was. In the run-up to the US presidential election “Project Lakhta”, as it was called, had an operating budget of more than $1m a month.

Russians associated with the organisation travelled to the US, posed as Americans and gathered information on where best to target its attempts to “sow discord” in the US political process. Swing states were identified and efforts, according to the indictment, were made to boost the prospects of Republican Donald Trump and undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Although the indictment does not suggest collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, it says the meddling effort may have been aided by “unwitting individuals” associated with the Republican nominee.

The White House may breathe a sigh of relief with that particular revelation. But the heat is increasing, and the investigation isn’t over yet. At the very least, if Mr Mueller’s allegations hold up in court, it will become increasingly difficult for the president to argue that Russian meddling on his behalf is an unsubstantiated hoax.

Grey line

What is the investigation about?

US intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway the 2016 presidential election in favour of Republican candidate Donald Trump.

In May last year, Mr Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate whether anyone from his campaign colluded in the effort.

As part of the inquiry, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has been charged with conspiring to defraud the US in his dealings with Ukraine, and conspiracy to launder money.

A business associate of his, Rick Gates, was also charged with conspiracy to launder money. A third adviser to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

This week President Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was interviewed by Mr Mueller.

Mr Trump has been accused by opponents of trying to interfere with the investigation. The president denies this – as well as any allegation of collusion with Russia during the campaign.

Includes video:


Russian Twitter Support for Trump Began Right After He Started Campaign

November 6, 2017

In three months after Mr. Trump announced his candidacy, tweets from Russian accounts offered far more praise for the businessman than criticism

Based on the information that’s now coming out of congressional committees, Russian goals to interfere in the 2016 election were very broad. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains just how sophisticated the Russian efforts were using social media. Photo: AP

Kremlin-backed support for Donald Trump’s candidacy over social media began much earlier than previously known, a new analysis of Twitter data shows.

Russian Twitter accounts posing as Americans began lavishing praise on Mr. Trump and attacking his rivals within weeks after he announced his bid for the presidency in June 2015, according to the analysis by The Wall Street Journal.

A U.S. intelligence assessment released early this year concluded the Kremlin developed a “clear preference” for Mr. Trump over his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, but cited December 2015 as the earliest suspected time that Russian social-media accounts advocated for Mr. Trump.

The earlier starting point of pro-Trump tweets highlights the breadth of the Russian effort to manipulate social media during the 2016 election. Kremlin-paid actors sowed division among Americans with fake pages and accounts, inflammatory postings and thousands of paid ads aimed at both liberal and conservative audiences, according to testimony before Congress last week.

The Journal analyzed 159,000 deleted tweets from accounts that Twitter identified to congressional investigators as operated by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency.

Twitter said it has suspended all 2,752 of the accounts, which removes their tweets from its platform. Congress released the names of the accounts on Nov. 1, during hearings on Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Based on the information that’s now coming out of congressional committees, Russian goals to interfere in the 2016 election were very broad. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains just how sophisticated the Russian efforts were using social media. Photo: AP

In the three months after Mr. Trump announced his presidential candidacy on June 16, 2015, tweets from Russian accounts reviewed by the Journal offered far more praise for the real-estate businessman than criticism—by nearly a 10-to-1 margin. At the same time, the accounts generally were hostile to Mrs. Clinton and the early GOP front-runner, Jeb Bush, by equal or greater margins.

The Journal pieced together the deleted tweets from data it has collected as well as that provided to the Journal by several researchers. The records contain at least one tweet from more than 2,000 of the accounts.

A Twitter Inc. spokeswoman declined to comment. In Senate testimony last week, a Twitter attorney said the company takes seriously “that the power of our service was misused by a foreign actor for the purpose of influencing the U.S. presidential election,” and said Twitter is beefing up its efforts to combat such activities.

Mr. Trump, a regular user of Twitter himself, has called claims that the Russians manipulated the 2016 election via social media “a hoax.”

“BOOM! DOWN GOES @jebbush,” wrote @DorothieBell, three weeks after Mr. Trump entered the race. The account, claiming to be run by an American “Conservative wife, mother” who wanted to “take this once great country back!!!,” linked to a Breitbart News article about Mr. Trump attacking Mr. Bush for being soft on immigration.

In August, @TamaFlan, claiming to be an American named Tamar Flanagan, tweeted: “#TrumpBecause It’s time for @BarackObama and @HillaryClinton to go quietly into the night #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.”

Other accounts criticized Mr. Bush for being a “RINO” (Republican in name only). One offered a succinct put-down: “@JebBush ewww.”

The numerous Russian Twitter attacks on Mrs. Clinton during this three-month period included a tweet comparing her treatment of the press to Adolf Hitler’s, adding: “Heil Hillary.” Another account tweeted links to an editorial—published months earlier—criticizing Mrs. Clinton’s “Culture of Corruption.”

Many political messages were sent out word-for word by multiple Russian-backed accounts, often within minutes of each other, suggesting a coordinated campaign.

Of the Russian-backed accounts that tweeted about Mr. Trump in the summer of 2015, at least 40 served up positive sentiment; just one account captured by the Journal data expressed strong negative opinions.

The exception was @Jenn_Abrams, an account that pretended to be run by an opinionated American blogger that eventually attracted 71,000 followers and many media mentions. “I’d rather join #ISIS than have Donald Trump as my president,” that account tweeted on the day Mr. Trump announced his candidacy.

It isn’t clear whether the Russian accounts truly backed Mr. Trump from the start, or viewed support for the upstart candidate as an opportunity to disrupt U.S. politics.

As the November 2016 election approached, the Kremlin preference for Mr. Trump became even more pronounced. Pro-Trump tweets—either favoring him or attacking his opponent—outnumbered those for Mrs. Clinton by a 30-to-1 ratio in the two weeks before the election, the Journal analysis found. There were about 236 pro-Trump or anti-Clinton tweets captured in the Journal data during those two weeks compared with seven that were pro-Clinton or anti-Trump.

Much of the Russian social-media disinformation campaign has been linked to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, a shadowy, so-called troll farm that spread Russian propaganda across the Internet.

Twitter has said the 2,752 Internet Research Agency-operated accounts sent out 131,000 messages on its platform in a 2 1/2-month period around the November election. Messages from a much broader network of automated bot accounts were viewed about 288 million times in that period.

Nearly all of that activity has vanished, because Twitter removes all tweets from suspended or deleted accounts and requires its vendors to do the same. That makes it difficult to analyze past behavior; the tweets captured by the Journal represent only a slice of the messages sent out by the troll farm-operated accounts.

The Kremlin social-media operation didn’t always favor one U.S. political party, and spanned the ideological spectrum.

A Facebook account called Blacktivist claimed to push the Black Lives Matter movement, while an account called Heart of Texas agitated for that state’s secession.

The Russian-backed Twitter accounts were so successful at imitating Americans that they were frequently followed and retweeted by prominent people, including Trump campaign insiders, and quoted in mainstream media publications.

One such account, @Pamela_Moore13, which claimed to be operated by a Texan who was “Conservative. Pro God. Anti Racism,” amassed an impressive 70,000 followers—including retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity —before being suspended by Twitter in the purge of Russian accounts.

An attorney for Mr. Flynn and spokeswoman for Fox didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Before the election, at least 104 of the Russian-controlled accounts, including many of those with tens of thousands of followers, posted hashtags supporting Mr. Trump, including variations of the campaign catchphrase Make America Great Again. More than 90 accounts posted negative messages about Mrs. Clinton’s health, emails and alleged corruption. The accounts posted a handful of pro-Clinton hashtags.

For the GOP debate on Dec. 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, dozens of the accounts live-tweeted using the hashtag #VegasGOPDebate. Many showed a clear preference for Mr. Trump.

“Trump is a real leader, I believe debates will help to see it,” six of the accounts wrote.

“Only Trump can deal with #ISIS,” wrote @MarissaImStrong to its 413 followers.

One, @Cheese_Monay, disagreed, tweeting: “We need real debates not this clown show on #Fox.”

On Election Day, the accounts warned of rigged voting machines and called for an indictment of Mrs. Clinton.

As voting wound down that day, @JacquelinIsBest tweeted to its 2,100 followers: “I can’t believe I was able to experience our potential president speak at his very last rally. #HillaryForPrison2016 #TrumpForPresident.”

Write to Mark Maremont at and Rob Barry at