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Millennium Post

Shadowy game

In a time when 'fake news' and conspiracy theories are common enough to be banal, the possibility of a disinformation campaign being run by a nation to influence the elections of other nations is still big news. In 2016, a Russian group was known to have carried out an interference campaign during the US Presidental elections. While many experts (from government and non-government entities) have stated that the group had Kremlin backing, the Russian Government naturally denied all possibility. Putin himself faced the question many times and always used a dismissive and humorous approach to deny any reality to such claims. As investigations have made apparent, much of the real groundwork that influenced the election did not heavily rely on the leaked Hillary Clinton emails or possible Russian ties of the Trump campaign. Rather, much of the interference campaign was centred around reaching American voters on social media with certain targeted posts and ads, fake news and general disinformation. At that time, social media giants Facebook and Twitter were criticised for their inability to gain control of the situation. This time around, the American intelligence community

was ready. More importantly, Twitter and especially Facebook were unwilling to deal with the fallout of not tackling the disinformation campaign in time. This time, both Twitter and Facebook claim to have solid proof of the fact that the Russian group known as the Internet Research Agency is trying to push voters towards Donald Trump. In particular, the existence of a fake leftwing news outlet identified as 'Peace Data was unearthed. The group made use of many left-wing clickbait news stories posted on social networks to spread the disinformation. According to a report by Graphika, a social media analysis firm, Peace Data's editorial staff are entirely fictitious. The headshots used for this fake staff were generated by Generative Adversarial Networks, a type of AI that can produce lifelike images of faces. However, even if the editorial staff was fake, someone was writing these articles. Here, the story takes a different turn than the 2016 efforts again. This time, unwitting American freelance writers were involved in the creation of these news stories. Major news outlets such as The Guardian interviewed some of these freelance writers. The experiences themselves varied with a few common points. Some veteran writers were paid upfront. Most were paid more than the usual rates for articles, though some were paid less. The common point was payments being made electronically and the copies being published without any editing. Another common point was that these writers were 'ghosted' after publishing a few articles. Coming at a time when many of these writers would be badly hit by a loss of income as a result of the pandemic, it is not hard to see why a quick and sometimes in-advance payment oppurtunity would be refused. As for the content of the website itself, the Graphika report stated that the news outlet attempted to paint America as a warmongering, law-breaking nation that is being torn apart by racism and rampant capitalism. The outlet did treat Donald Trump negatively but Graphika noted that posts regarding Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris were bordering on hostility. The fake news looked to be targeting left-wing voters in America and convincing them to move away from Biden. This did not mean that the website was steering them towards Trump. What it was instead trying to do was simply influence these voters to not vote at all, a tendency in Democratic voters in America which has historically been favourable for the Republicans. As both Twitter and Facebook started identifying and shutting down these fake news pages, it was realised that the campaign was not limited to the US elections. Indeed, Peace Data also had UK centric content which also was attempting to turn left-wing voters against the Labour Party by painting the current party leader as too much of a centrist. This time, both Facebook and Twiter claim to have shut down the elaborate campaign before any real harm was done. Graphika also agrees with this assessment but has noted that the campaign was steadily growing more complex with many layers to it, some visible, others not so much. It must also be noted that a fake news campaign was also uncovered in Poland and Lithuania this year that was attempting to discredit NATO through similar subversive means. Researchers who studied the campaign have stated that it is part of a broader anti-NATO campaign that has been in effect since 2017. It is clear from all this that subversive elements in certain governments have found misinformation campaigns on social networks to be provably effective in these current times. Their increasingly elaborate schemes point towards a campaign of tinkering that is trying to explore the limits of what such campaigns may achieve. No one nation is the guilty party in such efforts. Just as Russian groups have been identified, so have Chinese groups. It ultimately falls to the vigilance of the social media networks themselves to protect its users against misinformation on the digital front.

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