October 18, 2017 Last Updated 8:30 am

Russian activities on social media during 2017 campaign begin to come into focus; Twitter CEO buries his head in the sand

Morning Brief: Neither Facebook nor Twitter executives appear willing to alter their business models, instead aim to put a fig leaf over serious platform issues

The breadth and extent of Russian involvement in social and digital media targeting Americans and the American political system is finally being revealed, thanks to the work of journalists that have doggedly pursued the issue. For TNM, which had its second sister site shuttered last year after it came under constant DDoS attacks, this remains an important issue, though the Congress and the Trump administration are doing little to look into the matter.

In September, Natasha Bertrand of BusinessInsider wrote about a Russian-based Facebook group that was pretending to be a home grown Texas session organization. That group organized anti-Clinton rallies that were seen as a bit odd in that those who showed up noticed that no one from the Facebook group attended.

Yesterday, Casey Michel, a freelance journalist of The Washington Post covered the same subject, only this time taking the angle of how easily Texans were fooled by the Russian initiative. A week earlier, Michel wrote a piece for Think Progress entitled Website targeting black Americans appears to be elaborate Russian propaganda effort which showed how Russian actors targeted African Americans though a rather crude effort online. And in July, Michel wrote an article for <em>The New Republic on Donald Trump Jr’s connections to Russian pop star Emin Agalarov.

The Washington Post, Casey Michel:

How the Russians pretended to be Texans — and Texans believed them

There were other oddities about the site. Its organizers had a strangely one-dimensional idea of its subject. They seemed to think, for example, that Texans drank Dr. Pepper at all hours: while driving their giant trucks, while flying their Confederate battle flags, while griping about Yankees and liberals and vegetarians.

But Heart of Texas, sadly, was no joke. At one point the page’s organizers even managed to stir up its followers into staging an armed, anti-Islamic protest in Houston. As gradually became clear, this was part of a broader strategy. The sponsors of the page were keen to exacerbate America’s own internal divisions. At certain moments they lent support to Black Lives Matter, while in others they would play to the latent (or obvious) racism of Donald Trump’s base.

Meduza Project:

Russian journalists publish massive investigation into St. Petersburg troll factory’s U.S. operations

The Internet Research Agency, Russia’s infamous “troll farm,” reportedly devoted up to a third of its entire staff to meddling in U.S. politics during the 2016 presidential election. At the peak of the campaign, as many as 90 people were working for the IRA’s U.S. desk, sources told RBC, revealing that the entire agency employs upwards of 250 people. Salaries for staff working in the U.S. department apparently range from 80,000 to 120,000 rubles ($1,400 to $2,100) per month…

…A source also told RBC that the Internet Research Agency spent almost $80,000 over two years, hiring roughly 100 local American activists to stage about 40 rallies in different cities across the United States. The activists were hired over the Internet, communicating in English, without their knowledge that they were accepting money or organizing support from a Russian organization. According to RBC, internal records from the IRA verify its role in these activities.

The main activity in the troll factory’s U.S. desk was to incite racial animosity (playing both sides of the issue), and promoting the secession of Texas, objections to illegal immigration, and gun rights.



Then there is Twitter.

Jack Dorsey is a lot like Eddy Cue of Apple, a man who will do anything other than what needs to be done.

In Cue’s case, it is getting iTunes software rewritten and the App Store redesigned with their developers in mind rather than just Apple. It has led to publishers losing millions of dollars in subscription revenue, and the end of any momentum digital edition apps may have had.

In Dorsey’s case, it is cleaning up Twitter and making it a social media outlet that can be trusted, where Russian agents can’t target American politicians for support or criticism as they did just this week when thousands of Twitter bots instantly began to follow Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in order to support his campaign.

Instead, Dorsey is playing around the edges, yesterday unveiling new rules of fighting hate and abuse on Twitter. It is a joke.

Twitter will report earnings next week, and once again Twitter will be asked by investment companies about new customer acquisition, and Dorsey will brag up the numbers… despite the fact that a huge percentage of new customers are bots and trolls.

Journalists, in particular, use Twitter, and publishers use Twitter to promote their content. What we need is a new Twitter, one where every account is verified, and it is impossible to create a new account on the fly in order to troll reporters.

The old Twitter needs to go away… or Jack Dorsey needs to go away.

WIRED, Erin Griffith:

Here Are Twitter’s Latest Rules for Fighting Hate and Abuse

When Twitter could take credit for revolutionary political movements like the Arab Spring, it was easy for the company’s executives to joke about their liberal stance on free speech. (Twitter, they said, was “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”) But things are a bit more complicated now, as Twitter increasingly plays host to bullies, harassers, Nazis, propaganda-spreading bots, ISIS recruiters, and threats of nuclear war. Twitter’s toxic content problem isn’t just bad for humanity—it’s bad for business, driving people away from the platform…

…The new plans stop short of sweeping measures such as banning pornography or specific groups like Nazis. Rather, they offer expanded features such as allowing observers of unwanted sexual advances—as well as victims—to report them, and expanded definitions, such as including “creep shots” and hidden camera content under the definition of “non-consensual nudity.” The company also plans to hide hate symbols behind a “sensitive image” warning, though it has not yet defined what qualifies as a hate symbol. Twitter also says it will take unspecified enforcement actions against “organizations that use/have historically used violence as a means to advance their cause.”



Janine Gibson, formerly with The Guardian, now editor at BuzzFeed UK, has penned an interesting column for the Columbia Journalism Review. It mercifully tackles the issue of modern journalism, rather than modern publishing. That is, it shies away from getting into areas of revenue and profits, something that it appears every other journalist feels is their domain. If it is, as many claim, then the school of journalism should be moved out of the liberal arts area and merged into the business school.

CJR, Janine Gibson:

A crisis of relevance

I well remember the day we at The Guardian used a live blog for the first time to tell a news story. What it allowed was immediacy, or what felt like it. I remember explaining to countless journalists that the sacred pyramid structure we had been taught was the wrong way round for the internet. That “tell me what’s happening now” was as important as ordering the information. There was the excitement and feeling of a revolution when we realized we could tell a complex story such as the Gulf oil spill—with its environmental, scientific, business, legal, and political implications—in a single article, while readers could comment and participate.

Suddenly, text journalism felt rounded and explanatory and live and relevant and all the words that add up to valuable. We became experts in reaching vast audiences all over the world, at targeting and distributing content, at SEO and framing tweets and making sure our work found you if there was the remotest chance you might be interested. As, of course, did everyone else.

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