Other than President Zelenskyy’s address, I want to focus tonight’s post on one thing: the long form reporting today from The New York Times on the information warfare campaign that the Russians – both Prigozhin’s sort of private Internet Research Agency (IRA) and the GRU’s – targeting the Women’s March and the people involved in organizing it. And, of course, your daily Patron because I know what you’re all really here for…
And just a housekeeping note for tomorrow night: I have a Zoom early evening tomorrow. Depending on how far that backs up my evening, I’ll either have time for a brief just the basics post or just Patron.
Here’s President Zelenskyy’s address from earlier today. Video below, English transcript after the jump:
Good health to you, fellow Ukrainians!
I started this day, as always, with a morning conference call.
The Commander-in-Chief, the Minister of Internal Affairs, the heads of intelligence, the Minister of Defense, the Minister of Infrastructure, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, the Security Service, the Head of the Office, “Ukroboronprom” and some others who are responsible for the most important areas of assistance to our defenders.
This is how my day starts. Often – with the same questions, often – with similar answers. And this is always the time for the most important words for Ukraine.
Izyum, Balakliya, Kupyansk and the Kharkiv region in general are the cities and communities that we have liberated. These words are heard now. They are heard everywhere.
Mariupol, Melitopol and Kherson are also heard, but they will sound even more often and louder when we liberate them.
Donetsk, Horlivka and Luhansk – they will be heard as well. Dzhankoy, Yevpatoriya, Yalta – and they will, too. Definitely.
We do not talk about what’s not ours. Only our words, Ukrainian words, sound.
Every morning, every afternoon, every evening, every night – for 207 days already.
They sound thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, thanks to the Special Operations Forces, thanks to the Main Intelligence Directorate, thanks to the Security Service of Ukraine, thanks to the territorial defense, thanks to the border guards and the entire system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs – from the National Guard and the National Police to the rescuers of the State Emergency Service.
The most important words that are heard thanks to our medical workers and transporters, thanks to energy workers and volunteers, thanks to fighters of the information front and educators, thanks to diplomats and many others who do their job in a way that makes us all stronger. Strengthens our ability to fight and win.
Perhaps it seems to someone now that after a series of victories we have a certain lull. But this is not a lull.
This is preparation for the next sequence. For the next sequence of words that are very important to us all and that definitely must be heard.
Because Ukraine must be free – the whole of it.
And in conclusion, as always, words that sound and will always sound. They are heard by us, they will be heard by our children, they will be heard by our grandchildren. They will be heard in free Ukraine.
Eternal glory to all our heroes!
Glory to Ukraine!
Here’s former NAVDEVGRU Squadron Leader Chuck Pfarrer’s most recent updates about the situations in Izium and Kherson:
IZIUM/2115 UTC 18 SEP/ The cutting of the P-66 HWY has curtailed maneuver options for RU forces. Situation of the roads, and continued use of UKR precision strike munitions, have largely negated what would be the advantage of Russia’s interior lines of communication & supply. pic.twitter.com/nK3B6CCHoq
— Chuck Pfarrer | Indications & Warnings | (@ChuckPfarrer) September 18, 2022
KHERSON/1215 UTC 18 SEP/ The reported crossing of the Inhulets near Mala Seidemynukha would be an important advance. If expanded, this bridgehead would exert extreme tactical pressure on the RU positions at Snihurivka. UKR Air Defense, CAS and SEAD missions take toll on Russia. pic.twitter.com/y9FemZ6NUA
— Chuck Pfarrer | Indications & Warnings | (@ChuckPfarrer) September 18, 2022
And a final battlefield update:
KARMA: The Russian 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade (Military Unit Number 51460) perpetrated the massacre at Bucha. It is now listed as “destroyed” with more than 90% of its soldiers, killed, wounded, captured or deserted. The remainder are now refusing to fight. https://t.co/iVBp9N6O2B pic.twitter.com/PlS1oad7Ws
— Chuck Pfarrer | Indications & Warnings | (@ChuckPfarrer) September 18, 2022
And this will be something to watch:
This puts the Kremlin in a tight spot. Leave this unanswered and you risk letting public criticism spiral.
But Alla Pugacheva is something like a cross between Oprah and the Pope in Russia – a pretty much universally loved figure
— max seddon (@maxseddon) September 18, 2022
Now on to the main topic: The NY Times’ deep dive into Russian information warfare targeting Americans regarding the Women’s March.
Linda Sarsour awoke on Jan. 23, 2017, logged onto the internet, and felt sick.
The weekend before, she had stood in Washington at the head of the Women’s March, a mobilization against President Donald J. Trump that surpassed all expectations. Crowds had begun forming before dawn, and by the time she climbed up onto the stage, they extended farther than the eye could see.
More than four million people around the United States had taken part, experts later estimated, placing it among the largest single-day protests in the nation’s history.
But then something shifted, seemingly overnight. What she saw on Twitter that Monday was a torrent of focused grievance that targeted her. In 15 years as an activist, largely advocating for the rights of Muslims, she had faced pushback, but this was of a different magnitude. A question began to form in her mind: Do they really hate me that much?
That morning, there were things going on that Ms. Sarsour could not imagine.
More than 4,000 miles away, organizations linked to the Russian government had assigned teams to the Women’s March. At desks in bland offices in St. Petersburg, using models derived from advertising and public relations, copywriters were testing out social media messages critical of the Women’s March movement, adopting the personas of fictional Americans.
They posted as Black women critical of white feminism, conservative women who felt excluded, and men who mocked participants as hairy-legged whiners. But one message performed better with audiences than any other.
It singled out an element of the Women’s March that might, at first, have seemed like a detail: Among its four co-chairs was Ms. Sarsour, a Palestinian American activist whose hijab marked her as an observant Muslim.
Over the 18 months that followed, Russia’s troll factories and its military intelligence service put a sustained effort into discrediting the movement by circulating damning, often fabricated narratives around Ms. Sarsour, whose activism made her a lightning rod for Mr. Trump’s base and also for some of his most ardent opposition.
One hundred and fifty-two different Russian accounts produced material about her. Public archives of Twitter accounts known to be Russian contain 2,642 tweets about Ms. Sarsour, many of which found large audiences, according to an analysis by Advance Democracy Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts public-interest research and investigations.
But there is also a story that has not been told, one that only emerged years later in academic research, of how Russia inserted itself into this moment.
For more than a century, Russia and the Soviet Union sought to weaken their adversaries in the West by inflaming racial and ethnic tensions. In the 1960s, K.G.B. officers based in the United States paid agents to paint swastikas on synagogues and desecrate Jewish cemeteries. They forged racist letters, supposedly from white supremacists, to African diplomats.
They did not invent these social divisions; America already had them. Ladislav Bittman, who worked for the secret police in Czechoslovakia before defecting to the United States, compared Soviet disinformation programs to an evil doctor who expertly diagnoses the patient’s vulnerabilities and exploits them, “prolongs his illness and speeds him to an early grave instead of curing him.”
A decade ago, Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, oversaw a revival of these tactics, seeking to undermine democracies around the world from the shadows.
Social media now provided an easy way to feed ideas into American discourse, something that, for half a century, the K.G.B. had struggled to do. And the Russian government secretly funneled more than $300 million to political parties in more than two dozen countries in an effort to sway their policies in Moscow’s favor since 2014, according to a U.S. intelligence review made public last week.
What effect these intrusions had on American democracy is a question that will be with us for years. It may be unanswerable. Already, social media was amplifying Americans’ political impulses, leaving behind a trail of damaged communities. Already, trust in institutions was declining, and rage was flaring up in public life. These things would have been true without Russian interference.
But to trace the Russian intrusions over the months that followed that first Women’s March is to witness a persistent effort to make all of them worse.
In early 2017, the trolling operation was in its imperial phase, swelling with confidence.
Accounts at the Internet Research Agency, an organization based in St. Petersburg and controlled by a Putin ally, had boasted of propelling Mr. Trump to victory. That year, the group’s budget nearly doubled, according to internal communications made public by U.S. prosecutors. More than a year would pass before social media platforms executed sweeping purges of Russian-backed sock-puppet accounts.
For the trolls, it was a golden hour.
Under these auspicious conditions, their goals shifted from electoral politics to something more general — the goal of deepening rifts in American society, said Alex Iftimie, a former federal prosecutor who worked on a 2018 case against an administrator at Project Lakhta, which oversaw the Internet Research Agency and other Russian trolling operations.
“It wasn’t exclusively about Trump and Clinton anymore,” said Mr. Iftimie, now a partner at Morrison Foerster. “It was deeper and more sinister and more diffuse in its focus on exploiting divisions within society on any number of different levels.”
There was a routine: Arriving for a shift, workers would scan news outlets on the ideological fringes, far left and far right, mining for extreme content that they could publish and amplify on the platforms, feeding extreme views into mainstream conversations.
Artyom Baranov, who worked at one of Project Lakhta’s affiliates from 2018 to 2020, concluded that his co-workers were, for the most part, people who needed the money, indifferent to the themes they were asked to write on.
“If they were assigned to write text about refrigerators, they would write about refrigerators, or, say, nails, they would write about nails,” said Mr. Baranov, one of a handful of former trolls who have spoken on the record about their activities. But instead of refrigerators and nails, it was “Putin, Putin, then Putin, and then about Navalny,” referring to Aleksei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader.
The job was not to put forward arguments, but to prompt a visceral, emotional reaction, ideally one of “indignation,” said Mr. Baranov, a psychoanalyst by training, who was assigned to write posts on Russian politics. “The task is to make a kind of explosion, to cause controversy,” he said.
When a post succeeded at enraging a reader, he said, a co-worker would sometimes remark, with satisfaction, Liberala razorvala. A liberal was torn apart. “It wasn’t on the level of discussing facts or giving new arguments,” he said. “It’s always a way of digging into dirty laundry.”
Feminism was an obvious target, because it was viewed as a “Western agenda,” and hostile to the traditional values that Russia represented, said Mr. Baranov, who spoke about his work in hopes of warning the public to be more skeptical of material online. Already, for months, Russian accounts purporting to belong to Black women had been drilling down on racial rifts within American feminism:
“White feminism seems to be the most stupid 2k16 trend”
“Watch Muhammad Ali shut down a white feminist criticizing his arrogance”
“Aint got time for your white feminist bullshit”
“Why black feminists don’t owe Hillary Clinton their support”
“A LIL LOUDER FOR THE WHITE FEMINISTS IN THE BACK”
In January 2017, as the Women’s March drew nearer, they tested different approaches on different audiences, as they had during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. They posed as resentful trans women, poor women and anti-abortion women. They dismissed the marchers as pawns of the Jewish billionaire George Soros.
And they derided the women who planned to participate, often in crudely sexual terms. In coordination, beginning on Jan. 19, 46 Russian accounts pumped out 459 original suggestions for #RenameMillionWomenMarch, a hashtag created by a right-wing podcaster from Indiana:
The Why Doesn’t Anybody Love Me March
The Strong Women Constantly Playing the Victim March
The Lonely Cat Lady March
The Cramp Camp
The Bearded Women Convention
Broken Broads Bloviating
The Liberal Trail of Tears
Coyote Ugly Bitchfest
In the meantime, another, far more effective line of messaging was developing.
But 48 hours after the march, a shift of tone occurred online, with a surge of posts describing Ms. Sarsour as a radical jihadi who had infiltrated American feminism. Ms. Sarsour recalls this vividly, because she woke to a worried text message from a friend and glanced at Twitter to find that she was trending.
Not all of this backlash was organic. That week, Russian amplifier accounts began circulating posts that focused on Ms. Sarsour, many of them inflammatory and based on falsehoods, claiming she was a radical Islamist, “a pro-ISIS Anti USA Jew Hating Muslim” who “was seen flashing the ISIS sign.”
Some of these posts found a large audience. At 7 p.m. on Jan. 21, an Internet Research Agency account posing as @TEN_GOP, a fictional right-wing American from the South, tweeted that Ms. Sarsour favored imposing Shariah law in the United States, playing into a popular anti-Muslim conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump had helped to popularize on the campaign trail.
This message took hold, racking up 1,686 replies, 8,046 retweets and 6,256 likes. An hour later, @PrisonPlanet, an influential right-wing account, posted a tweet on the same theme. The following day, nearly simultaneously, a small army of 1,157 right-wing accounts picked up the narrative, publishing 1,659 posts on the subject, according to an analysis conducted by the online analytics firm Graphika on behalf of The Times.
Vladimir Barash, Graphika’s chief scientist, said the pattern of interference was “strategically similar” to troll activity targeting the vast anti-Putin protests of 2011 and 2012, with sock-puppet accounts “similarly trying to hijack the conversation, sometimes succeeding.”
“There is some circumstantial evidence that they learned in a domestic context and then tried to replicate their success in a foreign context,” Dr. Barash said.
Much, much, much more at the link!
The reason I want to focus on this tonight is that these types of Russian operations didn’t start hesitantly in 2014 and then really ramped up in late 2015 through 2016 when Trump announced he was running for president and climbed to the top of the GOP primary field and kept hovering either just below being in first place as the other candidate pushed to the top before flaming out or in first place in the polling. Rather, these information warfare operations began several years earlier against Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. Then, when the Maidan movement began to gain strength, they were revised, updated, and directed against Ukraine. When they failed to actually prevent the Maidan revolution, or to roll it back, they continued in the attempt to undermine the post Yanukovych governments, including that of President Zelenskyy, while also further building out the efforts against the US, as well as Britain in regard to Brexit.
In all of these lines of effort, the goal was not to create new divisions amongst the targeted populations. Largely because that isn’t really possible. The goal was to identify the political, social, religious, economic, urban/rural, sexuality grievances and cleavage lines within a society and between and within its various demographic groups, political parties, social movements, and religions and religious denominations, and then enflame them. And not just enflame them, but widen them and make the most mundane disagreements seem like existential crises.
You’ll notice that one of the IRA employees quoted in The NY Times reporting has a degree in psychoanalysis. I don’t think that’s a coincidence any more than I think that Cambridge Analytica’s employing behavioral psychologists was a coincidence. These people take the psychological in Psychological Operations (PSYOP) far too literary. While it is true that the purpose of a PSYOP campaign or an information warfare campaign is to influence people and, ultimately to manipulative decision-making, there is far too much literality in how this is both popularly understood and how it is pitched.
I have no doubt that there is an effect on cognition and emotional states. As the article correctly states, the point of a lot of these campaigns is to focus on negatives to create angry and/or disgusted responses. However, the simple reality is we don’t actually have a good way of measuring any of this in real time, let alone its specific effects on decision-making and other actions and activities. We don’t continually monitor people’s brain chemistry, we don’t have people continuously hooked up to brain scanning equipment to measure their neurochemical reactions and responses. What we can measure are the social behavioral responses. How much engagement each message gets, how many times it is retransmitted across the original and other platforms, how many positive versus negative responses, and if the message ultimately gets lifted in whole or in part and retransmitted through much more mainstream channels without any attribution to the operators that initially seeded it.
You’ll have noticed in the article that there is a reference to testing different themes and messages to see which ones did better on all of the indicators I just detailed. Those that did the best were refined further, built out, and used. Those that weren’t were jettisoned. Once the message is seeded, the entire process is straight down the line social learning. People seeing/hearing the message from either primary or secondary affiliations; people internalizing the message, which either promotes or retards certain behaviors – in this case activism and support for the Women’s March and its goals; then people continuing to retransmit and act on it as they see people they admire get rewarded for doing the same.
This we can measure!
As we know, the Russians have not stopped. Right now they’re busy seeding messages in regard to Ukraine; in regard to undocumented immigrants and/or asylum seekers in the US; in regard to inflation and the cost of food, gas, and housing; and, of course, about the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election. We can document that they’ve given boosts to both white supremacist groups and to anti-white supremacists groups at the same time around the same events. They were running both the bogus Ten_GOP account and a local Tennessee Black Lives matter related account at the same time! They’ve been boosting QAnon and Rufo’s agitprop faux moral scandals regarding K-12 education and issues surrounding gender and sexuality too. And that amplification has definitely had an effect! Despite the one critique presented in the reporting of these efforts efficacy, they are, in fact effective. What we are unclear on is just how effective. And we’re also not fully clear on all the behavorial correlates and their directions. But just because we haven’t figured it all out yet, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously.
As the PSYOPers like to say: sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will really hurt you!
That’s enough for tonight.
Your daily Patron!
Hey. I have a little bit of free time on Sunday. So, I think to myself: how did the Maya disappear? Is it possible to repeat this with one another nation? But it is difficult to call them a «civilisation»🤭 pic.twitter.com/mkMMY6FaIQ
— Patron (@PatronDsns) September 18, 2022
Just as a public service announcement for those still worried about what happens when we get to the end of this Bakhtun, the rest of the calendar is on the back of the stone and all that happens is the Backtuns reset!
If you were waiting for a sign – here it is! Holy ducks and I say to you: «Do it!»
— Patron (@PatronDsns) September 18, 2022
And a new video from Patron’s official TikTok:
The caption translates as:
⚠️Fake fire⚠️ If a movie was made about rescuers, the trailer would be like this. Happy First Responders’ Day! #patrondsns #dogpatron