Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Russian Election Interference For Dummies: Do You Have Any Idea How They Did It?

So.... In 2016, our elections were interfered with.  By Russia.  Maybe by Ukraine.  Possibly by any one of a dozen other countries.   There is very little in today's America that you'll find everyone agrees upon, but this one point it seems all do.

But here's a question... and I would ask you, the reader, to take a moment and ask yourself if you actually know the answer....


Exactly how did these foreign governments interfere with our elections?

I can unequivocally tell you that as a whole, most Americans have absolutely no idea.

Oh, we all know the catchphrases.  Ask the average person, they will mention Social Media.  Bots.  Other words and phrases they picked up on line and from News networks.  But in reality, very few of us can give even a passable explanation of how it was done.

I myself, until recently, fell into that same category.  I couldn't have told you, other than those same key words, what happened.  Nor could I have told you how to prevent it.  What I would have told you is this.... I was not a victim of said interference.  I am not one to buy into silly Internet rumors and propaganda.

I would have been wrong.

I have shared bits and pieces of who we are in previous posts.  I will share a bit here as well, so that you, the reader, understand why and how we embarked on this project.  Digging into fake news is a bit of a hobby for my children and I.  I have taught them to never believe what they see in the media at a glance; question everything.  The truth is that "fake news" isn't just a catch phrase or a talking point; it is a pandemic of sorts.  If you pick ten new stories at random on line, I promise you a third of them will be fake.  Half of  the remaining will be utterly jaded and disfigured by partisan propagandists.  Truth is the most valuable commodity, and it grows more scarce on line with each passing day.  Our hobbiy-ist digging is how the idea came about; The Conservative Opposition is our attempt to share what we find, and to spread the message that in a world where we seem to be judged more and more harshly for our conservative beliefs, it is more important than ever that we hold firm to them.  To try to remind the world that Conservatism is a flag to be waved proudly, not something to make excuses for.  We began this journey as something of a holiday project.  We have a list of questions we wanted to try to solve and share with the world.

One question we wanted an answer to was just how accurate the polls we all see on TV are.  And with a lot of digging, some experimentation and some work, we managed to turn over some fascinating facts, and one major truth; polls are just as liberal slanted as most of the media.  In many cases, they simply lie.  To see how we discovered this, click the little box (Which my youngest designed, along with the page's logo) below.

Another question we looked to answer was this; why, when every rational individual in the world knows there is zero chance of the Senate removing President Trump, are they putting so much time and effort into a futile cause?  If you'd like to see what we uncovered beneath that rock, below you will find yet another cool little box to click.

But back to the question at hand.  learning just how these foreign influencers attacked our elections was at the top of our list, and it's a question we have been working on since the beginning, way, way back in January.

Google wasn't much help.  You can find pages and pages of people talking about it, but we couldn't find a single example of someone telling us just how it works.  And that seems pretty important, doesn't it?  We're being told on a daily basis not only that it happened then, but that it's happening as we speak.  But why aren't they telling us how to stop it?

We quickly realised that the only way we were going to get the answers was to treat it as an experiment.  Take the machine apart, see what makes it tick.  And to do that, we needed the machine.  To get the machine, we had to build one.  And that's exactly what we did.

We began with a page on Blogger.com.  After a brianstorming session which created quite a few comically bad ideas, we settled on what we thought was a legitimate sounding name.... The White House Insider.  Sounds legitimate, doesn't it?  And that was our goal; a home for our fake news machine that would at least pass a casual smell test.  The domain name cost us 10 bucks, and we were off and running.

The next question was... what lie did we want to spread?  It had to be something at least marginally believable.  Something on topic.  Something that would help us understand the propaganda machine.

After a bit more research, we found that there are two subjects that most likely to spread; famous people dying and accusing Donald Trump of doing something wrong.  Now personally, I find the fake death rumor things to be tasteless and annoying.  Just a few weeks ago there were a flurry of stories saying Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson had died.  We weren't really interested in that angle at first, but then my daughter came up with a stroke of pure genius.

What if we staged one of these things.... about an imaginary political figure?  We would, of course, need to tie in all of the currently trending subjects; Ukraine, Donald Trump, Impeachment.   And so we introduced the world to Melanie Honcharenko.  Once we had the idea, it took shape quickly.  We got the name from a google search of "Ukranian names"  Once we settled on Melanie's name, we searched it on Google images, and picked a picture we thought looked like a believable diplomat.  And on December 4th, we published this.

Witness in Trump Impeachment Found Dead

If you don't want to click the link, no worries.  Here is the story in its entirety.

American Diplomat Melanie Honcharenko was discovered dead in her North Potomac, MD home early Wednesday morning. No details are known at the moment; Maryland authorities have yet to make a statement of any kind.
What is known is that Honcharenko has played an active diplomatic role in Ukraine since 2016, and was an active participant in a number of the incidents described by the witnesses in the Impeachment proceedings of President Donald Trump, and was set to be deposed behind closed doors sometime next week due to the classified nature of her work in Ukraine. Honcharenko was a Ukrainian born refugee, who came to the United states at the age of 4 as her parents fled the then Russian state. She attended Brown University, and later Oxford University in England. She was recruited out of college by a number of diplomatic agencies, and served her country in various roles before joining the diplomatic ranks. She had been a member of the diplomatic community for more than 20 years, and was lauded for her passionate anti-corruption stance and humanitarian efforts. She was expected, according to reports, to further corroborate the testimonies of previous witnesses, and said to have a great deal of perspective from the Ukrainian point of view based on her frequent interactions with Ukrainian government officials. Melanie Honcharenko stepped down from her position in May, just days after Ambassador Marie Yovanovich was recalled. There has been some speculation that Honcharenko was the whistle blower who launched the congressional investigation into President Trump, although no Republican has gone any further than insinuations on the subject. As stated, no official report has been made, or any acknowledgement of Melanie Honcharenko's death; the story was only leaked to various outlets this morning.

That's the entire story.  Our next question;  what to do with it?  We had done our due diligence prior to this;  I won't go into a great deal of detail, as most of the things we did are absolutely basic.  Trust me, I knew virtually nothing about the Internet at this time.  My oldest registered the story and Domain name with a number of search engines.  No, I can't explain it, but it took him all of 15 minutes.  Google it if you'd like to know more.  My daughter created a Twitter and Facebook account, and began Tweeting and sharing.  We posted links to the Tweet in a number of large message boards and political forums.  And then we waited, counting on these facts.... there are a lot of people in this world who believe anything, are impulsive, and live on Social media.  We were banking on the hope that people would share it.  They did at first, on a small scale.  After an hour we had 500 views.  After two hours we broke a thousand.  Almost three thousand when we went to bed.

We woke up in the morning, crowded around the table, and opened the laptop to find a slightly larger number;  more than 50,000.  We were, to say the least, staggered.  Could it really be this easy?  Blogger.com has an analytics page that's actually quite handy; you can see exactly where your views are coming from.  What I can tell you is that Social Media carried the day.  Facebook.  Twitter.  Reddit.  Search Melanie Honcharenko on Google; many of the posts are still there.  As ludicrous as this story was, people were biting;  hook line and sinker.  And dear God, did people run with it.  Below is a link to the Twitter page of someone called LadyWarAnon.  This is a Twitter member with more than 30,000 followers.  Read her post, but more importantly, read the insane comments people left.


By mid afternoon, the story showed no signs of slowing down.  Nearly 100,000 views.  Thousands of Re-Tweets and Likes.  And as the day progressed, we saw something genuinely disturbing start to happen.  Many of the likes and shares were coming from what we now know are referred to as "Burner accounts".  Newly created, no followers, just tweets and re tweets and likes.  Obvious fake profiles, and many of them were in Russian.

The story wound down after about 3 days.  The final tally?  More than 180k views.  We took down the Tweet and Facebook page, and the thing still, on its own, is getting between 50 and 100 views a day 2 months later.

I won't spend too much time on the specifics of our digging; this would be a full book if I did.  If, however you have questions please ask in the comments or message me on our Twitter page and I will answer any questions you may have.

I think the main thing we learned from this experiment has little to do with outside interference other than in the sense that it is the primary reason that we are vulnerable to the online attacks from these interlopers.  We live in a new age of free flowing information.  Whereas a couple of decades ago we were spoon fed what major media.... Television, Newspapers, Radio.... chose to feed us, we are now free to choose what flavor of news we consume.  And with that freedom has come a plague of disinformation.  People are, at least online, gullible and lazy.  As we proved, the majority of people do not take the time to fact check much of anything.  And the more sensationalist something is, the less likely people are to.  If it makes a good hashtag, out it goes onto their Social Media outlet of choice.  And as much as I'd like to blame this exclusively on the far left conspiracy theorists, this is a universal problem.  Not that the snowflakes weren't a big part of this, but there were plenty of our conservative friends who came along for this ride.  I stumbled onto literally dozens of Tweets and messages from folks who immediately took to the web to blame poor Ms. Honcharenko's death on the Clintons.  I even learned a new word; Arkanicide.  (It refers to a theory that the Clintons kill many of their detractors... without addressing the validity of that theory, I can comfortably say they did not kill this individual.)

The point?  I'll summarise with a side story.  When my two oldest kids were little, my daughter was quite the little antagonist.  She had a little sing song  tune she would sing to her older brother filled with childish insults, and it infuriated him.  I would tell him the same thing every time; she does it for a reaction.  Don't give it to her, and singing her song won't be worth the effort.  We make it worth it for these people to sing us their song, because far too many of us sing it right along with them.

So now we had an idea of "how", or at least a starting point.  The sudden burst of Russians liking our story was a huge red flag for us, and over the next few weeks, be began to pick apart the tweets.  We found literally hundreds of Brand new Twitter accounts that had Tweeted our story.  And it was the same on other platforms.  But why?  why would Russians suddenly take an interest in this?

So we went back in time.  One beautiful thing about the Internet is that when you make a footprint, more often than not it stays put.  We worked our way back all the way to 2016, and found that this is far from uncommon.  A story or Tweet or post begins to pick up traffic, and suddenly a mass of these anonymous folks come along and bury it with views and likes and such.  And on the Internet, traffic begets traffic.  If #PlatypusButt trends, thousands of people will search it.  It's all a circle.  To summarise, somewhere in Russia there are people monitoring the Internet.  When something pops up they want to spread, they jump in and spread it.  This isn't a guess or opinion; it's a fact.  We found literally hundreds of examples.

What surprised us at this point was the variety of subjects in which this occurred.  At a glance, it almost looked random.  There wasn't a partisan lean in either direction.  So if you're one of those under the impression that this is just a matter of Russia assisting Donald Trump, you are very wrong.  Go back and look at posts leading up to 2018.  Did the Russians play a part in Trump's 2016 victory?  They tried.  But they played as much, of not more of a role in every single election a democrat won in 2018. And if you look to more current on line content, You'll find plenty of pro and anti Trump subjects they're amplifying.

Why would they play both sides of the fence?  After breaking this all down, that's one of the easier answers.  Vladamir Putin doesn't have a pro Trump agenda, regardless of what Liberals would have you believe.  He has an anti America agenda.  That was the common thread in the posts we found;  They all created discord.  Putin tried to help Trump win in 2016 because he knew it would create chaos.  And Russia's effort to Help the Democrats win the house in 2018?  Is there a single person here who didn't know the moment the Democrats won the House that impeachment was a foregone conclusion?  And look at us now.  Chaos everywhere.

But the Russian effort went far beyond simply sending fleets of bots and, in more cases than you'd think, human beings (Again, dig... there are actually what look like call centers in Russia; rows of computers lined up with people manning them is shifts) to drive controversial topics.  Take a good look at the White House Insider page,  I guarantee you a fourth of the blogs and pages out here... again, both conservative and liberal.... are run by people who have never set foot in America.

And message boards.... I had absolutely no idea how much of a presence they have on message boards and forums.  I spent and entire weekend doing nothing but watching football and surfing these boards.  Once you spend some time focused on them, you start to see patterns.  Pick a heavily trafficked board.  Find the politics threads... they all have them.  Pick the person who starts the thread and look at their other posts.  You'll find that they make just enough non specific, non committal posts in other threads to keep the appearance of a normal member.  An example:  I won't name the board, but it's a college football board.  Insanely active.  A thread was started with a link to a Tweet bringing up a supposed Trump misdeed.  The poster was very active in this thread, and put in some real work keeping it active and drawing people into anti Trump rhetoric.  When I clicked his profile and looked at other posts, there were exactly five a day, and nearly always one or two words.  The do have tells; the profile pics are invariably some perfectly chiseled model.  Their Bios are always incredibly generic.  When they do say more than two words, they tend to misuse verb tenses.

You've probably noticed quite a few mentions of Twitter in this story.  That's because Twitter is their main battle ground.  Next time you see a political hashtag trending, search it.  Look who's actually Tweeting it.  You will find a stunning number of the burnout accounts I mentioned earlier.  It's just like it was with our Melanie story;  when they see something chaotic making noise, they amplify it.

When you look at all of these things individually,  they don't seem all that frightening.  But as a whole, they create a web of propaganda portals.  After spending a number of weeks just studying this, I started to see the patterns.  For example, the day after Soleimani was killed in #TrumpWar spent a good part of the day trending.  I did a check of the more active boards I had singled out, and found that in nearly all of them, a thread had been started on the subject in nearly all of them, many with a link to a Tweet that in turn contained a link to one of the blogs discussed earlier.

In short, there is a Network out there encompassing a good portion of the web.  This is a fact; one that is not overly hidden.  It isn't blatant, but it's also not hard to see.

I have, until now, stuck mostly with facts.  After nearly 2 months of intensive study, I will now share my conclusions.  And please bear in mind as you read this that I am in no way an expert in anything Internet related.  Nor am I a politcal pundit.  I am, as I have stated, just a guy.  I don't expect anyone to accept my opinion as fact;  the truth is I would rather that you, reader, do not.  In a perfect world, you will use this story as a starting point, and do some digging of your own.  Please, please, please... fact check me.

First of all, I believe that Russia is, as we speak, interfering with our 2020 election.  I believe they will attempt to both help Trump to win in 2020 and to help the Democrats to take the Senate.  Why?  Think for a moment.  If those two things happen, what comes next?  The House will bring new articles of impeachment, and we will go through this entire chaotic nightmare again.  And that is exactly what Putin wants.

They will continue to stir up chaos, just as they now have been for years.  Not only on our elections, but in everyday life.  Now that my eyes are open to this, I simply can't unsee it.  It terrifies me how a bunch of people thousands of miles away have this much control over the ebb and flow of public opinion in our country.

So the final question here is this:  What can we do?  There is no simple answer.  Or if there is, it lies with the story of my little antagonising daughter.  We have to find a way to make it so it's no longer worth the effort for them to sing their song.  It begins with education.  More than anything, educating ourselves.  Stop believing everything you see on the web.  Fact check everything, because much of it is either inaccurate or an outright lie.  I don't care if the article you just found is a juicy hashtag ready bombshell.  If it sounds too juicy to be true, it probably is.  And when you find a lie, let it be known!  They flood us with lies and inaccuracies;  the only real antidote here is to flood that same space with truth.

We are a nation divided at the moment.  A nation caught in a partisan civil war that isn't helping anyone; and a great deal of the blame here lies with those from outside who wish us harm.  Make no mistake here; we are at war.  In the age of information, war is no longer fought with guns and soldiers, although that day may come sooner than any of us wants if we don't fight this battle.  Russia is invading us just as surely as if they were launching bombs, and sadly.... they haven't needed to fire an actual shot. They're using our laziness and gullibility to make us destroy ourselves from within; we're doing the job for them.  We need to wake up.  We need to stop acting like sensationalism whores, splashing whatever dirt we can all over the web without thought or concern to the truth of it.  Truth is our solution, and most likely the only solution.  Find the truth and share it.