Virtual war

October 16, 2017

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WHAT does a Pakistani actress have to do with the German elections?

Prior to the polls that saw the extreme right-wing AFD party make major gains, a Twitter account claiming to be of a leftist election staffer made waves in the German social media. The poster claimed that she would (illegally) stamp votes in favour of AFD as invalid, thus rigging the election against them. Predictably, AFD supporters were outraged at what seemed like a clear attempt to steal their mandate.

After a while, the same account posted that she had been removed from her post. While most took these tweets at face value and as confirmation of their beliefs, the problem is that the display picture on the account was not of any German, or even any European. This was a picture of Pakistani model and actress Aiza Khan, photo-shopped to add a streak of red to her hair, a nod to the fake persona’s purported socialist beliefs.

The propaganda has been devious.

Was this a mere prankster, or was it a deliberate attempt to create chaos before polls? If the latter, was this done by an AFD sympathiser as a kind of virtual false flag operation or was this part of an operation by a hostile foreign power aiming at influencing the German elections?

The US election throws up even more interesting examples of such manipulation, like that of Melvin Reddick, who, according to his Facebook profile, lives in the swing state of Pennsylvania and has recently had a political awakening. The display picture on his profile is typical: showing him wearing a red baseball cap on backwards and lovingly holding his young daughter.

A few months before the US elections, Reddick posted about a newly created website called DCleaks.com, which claimed to reveal the hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the US.

The site, which Americans officials believe was created by Russian intelligence, was one of the first to post material obtained from prominent Americans by Russian hackers, and Reddick’s was one of many accounts that promoted the site and posted its contents on social media.

But Melvin Reddick doesn’t actually exist. When The New York Times investigated, they found that there was no record of his living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as his profile claimed, nor had he attended the high school and college he claimed to have. Other pictures posted by Reddick show him sitting at a Brazilian bar and another shows him in a room with a Brazilian-style electrical outlet.

When The Times published those pictures, they were picked up by Brazilian media, which led to the discovery that the pictures were actually of Charles David Costacurta, a Brazilian salesman who was shocked to discover that his personal pictures had been stolen from his Facebook profile despite stringent privacy settings.

Reddick is one of thousands of accounts that US officials allege were created and operated by Russia in an effort to swing the election in Trump’s favour. Facebook has confirmed that Reddick is an imposter and has removed him and many other such accounts.

In many cases, the propaganda has been devious. CNN reports that a social media campaign calling itself Blacktivist and posting content aimed at creating outrage against the US government among African-Americans was being operated by Russia. The alleged aim of these and similar accounts was to amplify already existing racial tensions in the US in the run-up to the polls. Along with Blacktivist, some 470 Russian-linked accounts were identified by Facebook and reported to Congress.

Facebook also shared this information with Twitter, which took action on 200 accounts it determined were linked to Russia and sought to interfere in US politics.

Facebook recently revealed that Russian-linked accounts spent around $100,000 on political ads with “divisive social and political messages”. This may seem a small amount, but on Facebook these can reach a significantly large number of people. Moreover, this spend was simply to amplify and support other disinformation tactics already in place, and at incredibly low cost. For example, The Daily Beast reported that Russian operatives created fake accounts and used Facebook’s event tool to promote politically themed protests in the US, such as an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rally in Idaho.

Similar trends were also seen in the Brexit vote and the French elections. Older examples abound as well, such as the abortive US plan to create a mobile-phone based Cuban Twitter that would start off innocuously but then move towards anti-Castro propaganda. In 2013, the South Korean intelligence agency was accused of sending out 1.2 million tweets in an attempt to support presidential candidate Park Geun-hye. The use of false flags, sleepers and agent provocateurs is not new, but their organised and systematic deployment on social media indicates that a new chapter is being written in the history of propaganda and psychological warfare.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2017