The plot against George Soros

Hannes Grassegger writes:

The glass tower that houses George Soros’s office in Manhattan is overflowing with numbers on screens, tracking and predicting the directions of markets around the world. But there’s one that’s particularly hard to figure out — a basic orange chart on a screen analyzing sentiment on social media.

The data, updated regularly since 2017, projects the reactions on the internet to the name George Soros. He gets tens of thousands of mentions per week — almost always negative, some of it obviously driven by networks of bots. Soros is pure evil. A drug smuggler. Profiteer. Extremist. Conspiracist. Nazi. Jew. It’s a display of pure hate.

The demonization of Soros is one of the defining features of contemporary global politics, and it is, with a couple of exceptions, a pack of lies. Soros is indeed Jewish. He was an aggressive currency trader. He has backed Democrats in the US and Karl Popper’s notion of an “open society” in the former communist bloc. But the many wild and proliferating theories, which include the suggestion that he helped bring down the Soviet Union in order to clear a path to Europe for Africans and Arabs, are so crazy as to be laughable — if they weren’t so virulent.

Soros and his aides have spent long hours wondering: Where did this all come from?

Only a handful of people know the answer.

On a sunny morning last summer, one of them could be found standing in front of the huge buffet in the Westin Grand Hotel in Berlin. George Birnbaum is built like a marathon runner — tall and slender, his head and face shaved clean. Elegant horn-rimmed glasses frame his piercing blue eyes.

Birnbaum — a political consultant who has worked in the US, Israel, Hungary, and across the Balkans — had agreed to talk for the first time about his role in the creation of the Soros bogeyman, which ended up unleashing a global wave of anti-Semitic attacks on the billionaire investor. But he also wanted to defend his work, and that of his former mentor and friend, Arthur Finkelstein.

George Eli Birnbaum was born in 1970 in Los Angeles, where his family moved after fleeing Nazi Germany. His grandfather was shot by the Nazis in front of his son, Birnbaum’s father, who later survived Auschwitz. Anti-Semitism followed the family as they moved to Atlanta, where Birnbaum grew up, and where the Jewish school he attended was often defaced with anti-Semitic slurs. It left a mark.

In an era when many American Jews drifted away from their specific identity, Birnbaum wasn’t allowed to forget it. Every weekend his father handed him the Jerusalem Post.

“First you learn what’s going on with the Jewish people in the world, then you can worry about the rest of the world,” Birnbaum remembered his father saying. He grew up believing that only a strong nation, the state of Israel, could protect the Jews from a second Holocaust.

All of which makes it bizarre that Birnbaum and Finkelstein’s ideas spawned a new wave of anti-Semitism, and that they did so in the service of an authoritarian leader, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, reviled around the world for his far-right views. The two men took all the arguments against Soros, from East and West, from left and right, and fused them together. Two American Jews, one a towering figure in US politics, helped create a monster. [Continue reading…]

Why do people fall for fake news?

Gordon Pennycook and David Rand write:

What makes people susceptible to fake news and other forms of strategic misinformation? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

These questions have become more urgent in recent years, not least because of revelations about the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 United States presidential election by disseminating propaganda through social media platforms. In general, our political culture seems to be increasingly populated by people who espouse outlandish or demonstrably false claims that often align with their political ideology.

The good news is that psychologists and other social scientists are working hard to understand what prevents people from seeing through propaganda. The bad news is that there is not yet a consensus on the answer. Much of the debate among researchers falls into two opposing camps. One group claims that our ability to reason is hijacked by our partisan convictions: that is, we’re prone to rationalization. The other group — to which the two of us belong — claims that the problem is that we often fail to exercise our critical faculties: that is, we’re mentally lazy.

However, recent research suggests a silver lining to the dispute: Both camps appear to be capturing an aspect of the problem. Once we understand how much of the problem is a result of rationalization and how much a result of laziness, and as we learn more about which factor plays a role in what types of situations, we’ll be better able to design policy solutions to help combat the problem. [Continue reading…]

Facebook’s ‘cult-like’ workplace, where dissent is discouraged and employees pretend to always be happy

CNBC reports:

At a company-wide town hall in early October, numerous Facebook employees got in line to speak about their experiences with sexual harassment.

The company called the special town hall after head of policy Joel Kaplan caused an internal uproar for appearing at the congressional hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh. A young female employee was among those who got up to speak, addressing her comments directly to COO Sheryl Sandberg.

“I was reticent to speak, Sheryl, because the pressure for us to act as though everything is fine and that we love working here is so great that it hurts,” she said, according to multiple former Facebook employees who witnessed the event.

“There shouldn’t be this pressure to pretend to love something when I don’t feel this way,” said the employee, setting off a wave of applause from her colleagues at the emotional town hall in Menlo Park, California.

The episode speaks to an atmosphere at Facebook in which employees feel pressure to place the company above all else in their lives, fall in line with their manager’s orders and force cordiality with their colleagues so they can advance. Several former employees likened the culture to a “cult.” [Continue reading…]

Apocalypse in America: The smell of fascism in the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy

Alexander Reid Ross writes:

Emerging from the fever swamps of 4Chan and YouTube in November 2017, the QAnon conspiracy theory community has spread rapidly from the lunatic fringe to the lunatic mainstream. Some commentators suggest it has all the hallmarks of a secular political cult.

It promises ultimate salvation to its followers – the creation of a utopia of human togetherness, peace and love, brought about through a brutal military crackdown against the “Deep State.” And although it may seem like a sideshow, the Q phenomenon might tell us more about political life than most commentators recognize.

QAnon is a sprawling, shifting conspiracy theory that began life as an ultra-fringe concoction in the online message boards beloved of the alt-right but is now present in more mainstream platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Reddit.

It is anchored in the baseless assertion that the all-seeing, all-powerful President Trump deliberately manipulated the Mueller investigation to target top Democratic politicians and Hollywood stars for their alleged involvement with pedophile rings, the “Deep State” and pharmaceutical companies aimed at enslaving the American people.

Followers believe that “Q,” the alleged deep-throat highly-placed national security source, gradually reveals the extent of the conspiracy that is confirmed by a bizarre parsing of the president’s own words.

Q believers assign to their apocalyptic worldview the term “the Great Awakening,” a clear invocation of the history of religious messianism in the U.S. Like any good conspiracy theory, they blame crime and poverty on “the criminals,” alternately known as the “Deep State” and the “cabal.” No surprise that there’s a strong vein of anti-Semitism in the QAnon world. While humanity is in its natural state peaceful and communitarian, the invidious “cabal” preys on our moral failings, using our differences to tear us apart.

Standing against the “cabal” is Donald Trump, who is using the National Security Agency and the U.S. military to wage a clandestine war against the “globalists” and restore Reaganite family values to America. According to one Q video on YouTube, this campaign manifests a “covert war of biblical proportions, literally a fight for earth, of good versus evil.” [Continue reading…]

Top U.S. intelligence official confirms Russian propagandists tried to meddle in the midterms

BuzzFeed reports:

Russian internet propagandists tried to influence American voters ahead of the 2018 midterms, according to a new report compiled by the top US intelligence official.

The report doesn’t address how effective those efforts were, and it says there was no corresponding campaign that compromised the actual infrastructure of the US voting system.

The report, overseen by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and delivered to the White House on Friday, is classified and not expected to be made public. In a statement, Coats said that “Russia, and other foreign countries, including China and Iran, conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns targeted at the United States to promote their strategic interests.”

It was released in accordance with an executive order that President Donald Trump signed in September, which demands an assessment on whether anyone tried to interfere with a nationwide election 45 days after it’s held, then another assessment 45 days after that on whether such attempts were successful.

Notably, that means that the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will give the White House their additional assessments of meddling attempts on Feb 4, 2019. Neither agency expects to make their reports public. And the government’s full report on the one kind of interference known to have happened in 2018 — Russian attempts to run influence campaigns on social media sites — will likely remain hidden. [Continue reading…]

Russians launched pro-Jill Stein social media blitz to help Trump win election, reports say

NBC News reports:

Two days before the 2016 presidential election, an Instagram account called @woke_blacks posted a message in support of long-shot Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

“The excuse that a lost Black vote for Hillary is a Trump win is bs,” it read. “It could be late, but y’all might want to support Jill Stein instead.”

According to a report commissioned by the Senate, the account was a fake, part of the Russian campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.

The report was one of two that leaked this week saying the Russian effort to disrupt the election specifically targeted black voters and harnessed America’s top social media platforms. But the reports contained another finding that was largely overlooked — the Russians also focused on boosting Stein’s candidacy through social media posts like the one from @woke_blacks.

Building support for Stein was one of a “roster of themes” the Moscow-sanctioned internet trolls “turned to repeatedly” in their effort to disrupt the election, according to a research team led by the New Knowledge cybersecurity firm. The researchers also found that the campaign to bolster Stein gained in intensity in the final days of the presidential campaign and largely targeted African-American voters. [Continue reading…]

Facebook workers are the only ones who can hold Facebook accountable

Siva Vaidhyanathan writes:

Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released reports examining the extent to which Russian-linked actors hijacked Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram to deepen rifts in the American electorate. Then, on Tuesday, the New York Times published a long, investigative piece showing that Facebook had lied about stopping its notorious data-sharing practices that offered sensitive user information to companies that agreed to work with Facebook. This followed a week in which Facebook admitted a “bug” had allowed third-party apps to wrongly access the photos of up to 6.8 million users, including images that people began uploading to the site but didn’t post publicly.

The Times story not only capped off a terrible year of revelations and meltdowns for Facebook. It revealed the only party that has power to influence Zuckerberg and the rest of Facebook management: Facebook employees themselves.

Talented workers are at a premium in Silicon Valley. All the big technology companies bid for the sharpest talent and pay so handsomely that they have made the Bay Area unaffordable and almost unlivable for anyone who does not work full time for them.

And yet, Facebook workers were the sources of the interviews and documents that New York Times reporters used to construct the story of unwarranted and possibly illegal data sharing with the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, Sony, and the Russian search engine Yandex (which has close ties to the Kremlin). So clearly, their consciences are getting to some of them.

Over the past few years, Facebook has actively helped the likes of Modi, who runs a political party that has stoked hatred and tolerated mass violence against Muslims; Rodrigo Duterte, who ran for president of the Philippines promising to unleash deadly vigilante and police violence on citizens; and Donald Trump, who opened his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and was recorded boasting of committing sexual assault.

I have been asking Facebook employees how they sleep at night knowing how much hatred and violence the company has fostered. Now it seems at least a few can’t sleep well after all and have decided to do something about it. [Continue reading…]

As Facebook appeared to raise a privacy wall, it secretly carved an opening for tech giants

The New York Times reports:

For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.

The special arrangements are detailed in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. The records, generated in 2017 by the company’s internal system for tracking partnerships, provide the most complete picture yet of the social network’s data-sharing practices. They also underscore how personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.

The exchange was intended to benefit everyone. Pushing for explosive growth, Facebook got more users, lifting its advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired features to make their products more attractive. Facebook users connected with friends across different devices and websites. But Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier. [Continue reading…]

What we now know about Russian disinformation

Renée DiResta writes:

The Russian disinformation operations that affected the 2016 United States presidential election are by no means over. Indeed, as two new reports produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee make clear, Russian interference through social media — contrary to the suggestion of many prominent tech executives — is a chronic, widespread and identifiable condition that we must now aggressively manage.

The Senate committee asked two research teams, one of which I led, to investigate the full scope of the recent multiyear Russian operation to influence American opinion executed by a company called the Internet Research Agency. The Senate provided us with data attributed to the agency’s operations given to the Senate by Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet (Google’s parent company), companies whose platforms were manipulated for that purpose.

Our report, announced by the committee on Monday, concludes that Russia was able to masquerade successfully as a collection of American media entities, managing fake personas and developing communities of hundreds of thousands, building influence over a period of years and using it to manipulate and exploit existing political and societal divisions. While Russia is hardly the only geopolitical actor with a well-thumbed disinformation playbook, a look at the data — which concerned the Internet Research Agency’s operation over the last three years — reveals its enthusiasm for and commitment to modern information warfare.

Regardless of what any tech executives may have said, the data indicate that this was not a small-scale problem fixable by tweaking a platform’s advertising purchase policy. Rather, it was a cross-platform attack that made use of numerous features on each social network and that spanned the entire social ecosystem. [Continue reading…]

Russian effort to influence 2016 election targeted African-American

The New York Times reports:

The Russian influence campaign on social media in the 2016 election made an extraordinary effort to target African-Americans, used an array of tactics to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and unleashed a blizzard of posts on Instagram that rivaled or exceeded its Facebook operations, according to a report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The report adds new details to the portrait that has emerged over the last two years of the energy and imagination of the Russian effort to sway American opinion and divide the country, which the authors said continues to this day.

“Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms,” says the report, produced by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Texas, along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC. One continuing Russian campaign, for instance, seeks to influence opinion on Syria by promoting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and a Russian ally in the brutal conflict there.

The New Knowledge report, which was obtained by The New York Times in advance of its scheduled release on Monday, is one of two commissioned by the Senate committee on a bipartisan basis. They are based largely on data about the Russian operations provided to the Senate by Facebook, Twitter and the other companies whose platforms were used.

The second report was written by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University along with Graphika, a company that specializes in analyzing social media. The Washington Post first reported on the Oxford report on Sunday.

The Russian influence campaign in 2016 was run by a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency, owned by a businessman, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Mr. Prigozhin and a dozen of the company’s employees were indicted last February as part of the investigation of Russian interference by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel.

Both reports stress that the Internet Research Agency created social media accounts under fake names on virtually every available platform. A major goal was to support Donald Trump, first against his Republican rivals in the presidential race, then in the general election, and as president since his inauguration.

Creating accounts designed to pass as belonging to Americans, the Internet Research Agency spread its messages not only via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which have drawn the most attention, but also on YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+, among other platforms. Its attack on the United States used almost exclusively high-tech tools created by American companies. [Continue reading…]