As the federal election draws nearer, National Observer is committed to bringing you the news you need to stay informed. Through the Election Integrity Reporting Project, we're publishing exclusive investigations, in-depth analyses, fact-checks and breaking news, spanning topics from climate change to hate groups to fake social media accounts and beyond. Now, we're also adding a weekly round-up to bring you a condensed version of the week in disinformation-related news.
This edition includes a fake intelligence bulletin planted by Russia, a network of inauthentic accounts removed from Twitter for mass-tweeting about a controversial smart city project, an anti-social media summit at the White House and a Twitter outage that sparked hours of conspiracy theories.
Russia planted conspiracy theory about slain Democratic staffer Seth Rich
In the summer of 2016, a soon-to-be viral conspiracy theory started circulating on forums like Reddit and 4chan, claiming that the murder of Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer Seth Rich was not the result of a botched robbery, after all, but was actually carried out by a contract killer working for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The baseless conspiracy theory eventually made its way from the fringes of the internet all the way into the White House, marking the beginning of what would become a defining feature of the Trump presidency.
Now, nearly three years after the conspiracy theory emerged, we may finally know where it came from.
In a new investigation published by Yahoo News, reporter Michael Isikoff traced the origins of the rumours back to a fake report produced by the Russian foreign intelligence agency SVR.
Trump has already weaponized social media to advance his own agenda and silence his critics — and now, he's threatening to weaponize the presidency to go after those same platforms if they try to clean up their act ahead of the next election.
The fake "intelligence bulletin" outlining the initial conspiracy theory about Rich was released just three days after his killing in July 2016. The same day, the details were published on the website whatdoesitmean.com, which attributed them to "Russian intelligence."
Over the next two and a half years, Russian propaganda outlets and operatives working for Russia's Internet Research Agency ("troll factory") amplified the conspiracy theory, often using accounts purporting to be American citizens and U.S.-based organizations.
Ultimately, however, the story took hold in the U.S. because Americans embraced and amplified it.
Fringe right-wing websites fanned the flames from the start, but in May 2017, the story went mainstream when Fox News published (and later retracted) an article claiming Rich may have been the source of the hacked Democratic emails published by WikiLeaks. The implication of the now-debunked piece was that Rich was murdered for handing over the emails.
The Fox News story breathed new life into the conspiracy theory. By July 2017, an estimated 10,000 posts dedicated to the topic had been created on the popular pro-Trump Reddit forum r/The_Donald.
Numerous government officials also floated the conspiracy theory, including then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who — according to Isikoff — texted a 60 Minutes producer to say Rich’s death was "a contract kill, obviously."
The revelation that Russia may have been involved in planting the Seth Rich conspiracy theory is not entirely surprising, given Russia's history of manufacturing and amplifying conspiracy theories. Perhaps the most notorious example is Operation INFEKTION, a project that included planting a story in an Indian newspaper in 1983 in an effort to make it look like the U.S. military was responsible for the AIDS crisis.
With the advent of social media, disinformation operations like this have become easier and cheaper to pull off. In recent years, Russia has been involved in spreading conspiracy theories about everything from vaccines to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the downing of Flight MH17.
Twitter removes inauthentic accounts mass-tweeting about Sidewalk Lab
Twitter removed a network of dozens of accounts last week following the discovery of what appeared to be co-ordinated inauthentic activity surrounding Sidewalk Labs’ controversial smart city project in Toronto.
Freelance journalist Sean Craig flagged the strange activity last Monday, noting: “There are currently dozens of seemingly coordinated, perhaps bot, accounts sending identical tweets linking to an article supportive of Sidewalk Labs' development plans in Toronto. All of them appear to have been created in May and claim to be privacy experts or advocates.”
There are currently dozens of seemingly coordinated, perhaps bot, accounts sending identical tweets linking to an article supportive of Sidewalk Labs' development plans in Toronto. All of them appear to have been created in May and claim to be privacy experts or advocates. pic.twitter.com/Alk7Ofqz8f— Sean Craig (@sdbcraig) July 8, 2019
The link directed users to a press release published on the website of the think tank Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), which focuses on issues surrounding data privacy.
According to the CBC, both Sidewalk Labs and FPF denied having any involvement in buying automated accounts. The accounts were removed after FPF reported them to Twitter.
Most of the accounts tweeting the link featured an image of a person with sunglasses on, which — as the CBC noted — is an indication that the images might have been composite photos created using artificial intelligence.
The accounts shared other similarities, too, including handles and bios that are consistent with the style of fake profiles produced by websites like “Fake Person Generator.”
Trump's anti-social media summit
On Thursday, the Trump White House hosted an event billed as the first-ever "Social Media Summit." The event was supposed to bring together "digital leaders" to discuss the "opportunities and challenges of today's online environment," but not a single major social media company was invited to attend.
Instead, Trump used the event to rally his base around his digital army — a core group of online influencers and allies who were pivotal during his 2016 campaign and will be just as crucial if he hopes to win again in 2020.
Included among the attendees were prominent conspiracy theorists, far-right media figures and right-wing activists, some of whom have criminal records stemming from their work and nearly all of whom have been engulfed in serious scandals involving everything from plagiarism to racism. Several attendees also have ties to white nationalism.
Trump spent much of the summit praising these extremist figures. But he also saved enough time to rail against social media companies and express his disdain for the free press.
The president used the event to air grievances over his treatment by Big Tech, but also to praise some of the most caustic voices on the right, who help energize Trump’s political base.
“Some of you guys are out there,” he told them. “I mean it’s genius, but it’s bad.”
“With amazing creativity and determination, you are bypassing the corrupt establishment, and it is corrupt,” Trump said. “And you’re bypassing the very, very corrupt media.”
Trump also spent much of his 50-minute speech lamenting what he described as "censorship" and anti-conservative bias. Claims that social media companies are silencing conservative voices, limiting their audience and systematically removing their content have become somewhat of a rallying cry among right-wing politicians and media figures, despite being debunked repeatedly.
Even though there's no evidence supporting it, the right-wing narrative about tech bias and censorship has taken on a life of its own and even sparked calls for government to take action against social media companies. Some tech giants are now so afraid of backlash that they've backed away from implementing stronger policies aimed at removing hate speech and disinformation from their platforms.
Ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook reportedly had the tools to identify and slow the spread of "fake news" and other hoaxes, but the company decided not to act because executives feared accusations of bias. As a result, Facebook ended up playing a major role in the spread of misleading and false content surrounding the election, with some even suggesting the platform was responsible for Trump's win.
As social media companies consider new ways to crack down on disinformation and hate, they'll do so with the knowledge that the president could use any such action to call for investigations, regulations or punitive measures in response.
Trump has already weaponized social media to advance his own agenda and silence his critics — and now, he's threatening to weaponize the presidency to go after those same platforms if they try to clean up their acts ahead of the next election.
Twitter goes down, conspiracy theories fly
Twitter was out of service for hours on Thursday in an outage that affected users worldwide. The company attributed the problem to an “internal configuration change,” but conspiracy theorists were quick to pounce on the timing of the service disruption, which coincided with the White House Social Media Summit.
Infowars, the far-right conspiratorial website founded by Alex Jones, noted the “suspicious timing” of the outage and suggested that it may be part of an “AI-driven censorship program” designed to manipulate the flow of information and “gain greater control over what people know.”
In a video, Infowars host Harrison Smith called the technical glitch — and the error message it prompted — “unprecedented,” saying, “essentially, this has never happened before.”
Twitter has actually experienced numerous widespread outages — so many, in fact, that it has become a meme. Just last week, Twitter’s DM services and notifications went down. Thursday’s error message was a standard one that appears frequently when the platform is experiencing glitches.
But the mundane nature of the technical error didn't stop the conspiracy theories from spreading across social media and fringe websites. The Infowars video also appeared on Newswars, a platform launched by Alex Jones in 2017 to “battle against fake news,” and on other right-ring websites.
Notably, Russian propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) also joined in, asking whether the outage was “coincidence or conspiracy?” The answer, of course, is always conspiracy.
That's all for this week's edition. Until next time, stay vigilant and stay tuned to National Observer's ongoing coverage of disinformation, social media manipulation, propaganda and more.