Discover more from Hoaxlines Lab
Everything Online Malign Influence Newsletter
Hoaxlines Lab • April 24, 2023
Meta is being urged by the board to commission an impact assessment with a focus on how design features like Facebook’s News Feed recommendation algorithms can amplify dangerous health-related misinformation.
On April 19, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a new bill, the STOP CSAM Act (an acronym for “child sex abuse material”). It’s the newest in a line of recent bills that attempt to promote greater safety online, in part by demanding more transparency from the providers of popular internet services. These bills all face a common dilemma: how to enhance public understanding of providers’ internal practices and policies without undermining the legislation’s central safety goal.
Large providers (defined as those with more than 1 million unique visitors monthly and more than $50 million in revenue during the preceding year) would have to file annual reports with the U.S. attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) describing how they fight child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE) on their services.
Those agencies must publish the reports and may make (or the provider may request) redactions in the published versions.
According to a summary of the STOP CSAM bill (the text of which had not yet been released as of press time), large providers’ transparency reports must “describe their efforts to promote a culture of safety for children on their platform.”
Abusers gaming the system is a particularly grave concern in the CSAE context. CSAE offenders tend to be especially savvy users of technology who are sophisticated in evading detection. That’s why Microsoft’s PhotoDNA tool for CSAM detection is licensed only under nondisclosure agreements, and its precise operation is kept secret: to keep bad actors from figuring out how it works.
If private companies have to explain their practices to the state, and particularly how they moderate user speech, then, as my colleague Daphne Keller has observed on Lawfare before, that opens the door to political pressure to change those practices to better suit the state’s preferences.
The company's AI services may be violating data protection laws, and there is no solution in sight.
OpenAI has just one week left to comply with European data protection laws after a temporary ban in Italy and investigations in other EU countries. If it fails, it could face heavy fines, data deletion, or even a ban. However, MIT Technology Review experts say it will be nearly impossible to comply because of how the AI models are trained, by collecting content from the internet.
Privacy advocates pressed Congress during a hearing Wednesday to do more to regulate the multibillion-dollar industry of buying and selling Americans’ private data.
During the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigation Committee hearing, witnesses discussed a wide range of harms posed by the data broker industry, including the potential to reveal the private health or sexual histories of individuals, provide foreign powers with sensitive information threatening national security and enable predatory marketers and scammers.
Before they gobbled up headlines everywhere, large language models ingested truly staggering amounts of data to train their models. That training data didn’t emerge from the ether: Some of it came from other people’s creativity and work. So it’s unsurprising that copyright concerns are front and center in the early days of this technological boom—we’ve been here before.
On April 18, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that has the potential to expand a decades-old position of the Court concerning religious accommodations that employers need to offer their employees. This case, Groff v. DeJoy, has become a lightning rod, attracting attention from religious groups and proponents of the strict separation of church and state.
Many religious organizations have filed amicus briefs in support of increasing the protection of employees who want to follow their religious practices in the workplace. For example, the Muslim Public Affairs Council noted in its amicus brief, “Hardison’s de minimis standard finds support in neither the text of Title VII nor the principles which animate it. Nor does it track the historical importance of religious pluralism in the American tradition. The Founders believed that a “just government” must be “supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand that protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another….By allowing employers to shirk their obligations under Title VII, Hardison diminishes a crucial aspect of American pluralism. Practically speaking, this judicial error harms some of the most vulnerable in society.”
The decision of the Supreme Court has the potential to significantly change the way corporate America deals with religious accommodations for employees. It remains to be seen to what extent is the Supreme Court willing to venture into that space.
Texas and Florida continue to lead the country in book bans—7 districts in Texas were responsible for 438 instances of individual book bans, and 13 districts in Florida were responsible for 357 bans.
Of the 1,477 books banned this school year, 30 percent are about race, and racism or include characters of color, while 26 percent have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.
An emerging feature during this school year have been “wholesale bans”—the removal of untold numbers of books in classrooms and school libraries all at one time. This has been the result of teachers and librarians feeling pressured by new state laws to empty entire classroom collections.
Kenyan police have recovered 58 bodies, mostly from mass graves in a forest in eastern Kenya, thought to be followers of a Christian cult who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves, the country's police chief said on Monday
The rumor followed a Mayor's Office announcement about the reduction of food-related carbon emissions, not a complete prohibition of meat. Moreover, the emissions-reduction program focuses predominantly on the city's spending on food; as of this writing, the private sector does not have to participate in the reduction of food-related emissions.
The claim appeared in a post on Facebook on April 20, 2023
A draft report by the US government on fluoride was misleadingly presented in an Instagram post. This was used to support the post’s claim that the report concluded that fluoride exposure is harmful to children's IQ. The recently released version of the report did not claim there was a relationship between fluoride exposure and childhood IQ.
The authors examine over 400,000 links shared in more than 400 vaccine-related Facebook groups/pages, comparing anti-vaccine venues to pro-vaccine venues.
The pro-vaccine venues are roughly 1.7 times more likely to share links to news. The specific news sites shared by anti-vaccine venues are rated less credible by fact-checking organizations, but we find no significant differences in monetization. However, non-news sites, such as blogs, shared by anti-vaccine actors were significantly more monetized. These results emphasize the need to interpret measures of monetization within the context of the broader “attention economy."
Chinese companies now supply a lot of medicines to the US. In just two years, the amount of medicines that the US buys from China has grown by 485%, from $2.1B in 2020 to $10.3B in 2022. This means that China now supplies more than double the amount of medicines it used to. In 2021, the US bought more than 6% of all its medicines from China, up from just under 2.5% in 2020. China is now the fourth biggest supplier of medicines to the US, after Ireland (19.8%), Germany (10.8%), and Switzerland (10.7%).
US companies have been sending more medicines to China, especially ones that help with Asthma. These medicines are packaged for Chinese hospitals and consumers. Since 2017, the amount of medicines China has imported from the US has gone up by almost 2700%. This means US companies now control more than 65% of the $7.9B market for these medicines in China.
Russia has been using anti-French sentiment to form alliances with former French colonies in Africa, causing tension between the United States, Europe, and Africa.
Despite this, Russia's trade with Africa is still low compared to the EU, China, and the U.S. However, Russia is a significant supplier of weapons, wheat, grains, and fertilizer for Africa. The EU's restrictive trade policies are also becoming a problem, causing African countries to rely on raw material exports and wealthier countries to benefit.
On April 17, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed that the Czech Republic seized 74 Soviet-era tanks from Morocco and transferred them to Ukraine: “Morocco signed a contract with the Czech company ‘Excalibur Army’ ... for the modernization of a batch of 130 T-72B tanks acquired in 1999-2001 in the Republic of Belarus. After carrying out the relevant work, 56 tanks were returned to the Kingdom. The remaining armored vehicles, numbering 74 units, were actually expropriated by the Czech side for subsequent transfer to the combat zone in Ukraine.”
That is unsubstantiated.
Morocco did not protest any seizure of its tanks, nor did it confirm such expropriation even happened. Multiple media reports indicated the kingdom voluntarily handed over T-72B tanks to Ukraine after they were upgraded in the Czech Republic. Prague and the firm that upgraded the tanks dismissed Russia’s accusations as disinformation.
This study examines online mobilization strategies that increase e-petition signing in semi-authoritarian regimes.
The significance of the information, persuasion and support effects on the petition signing is tested through linear regression and Bayesian network analyses. The results show that irrespective of the benefits of participation, information-sharing is the most important step for online recruitment into low-cost political activities. Meanwhile, persuasion and social support have no direct impact on e-petition signing.
The Kremlin has a track record of gaining access to sensitive information and successfully weaponizing that material in disinformation campaigns. But Russia proved less able to control narratives around leaks that it didn’t facilitate.
On April 18, the US Justice Department released its accusations against four American citizens and two Russian nationals. They are being charged with trying to influence political opinion, impact the results of a local election in Florida, and eventually interfere with the 2020 presidential election.
The indictment builds on an existing case from July 2022. It claims that Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, a Russian living in Moscow who founded the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, collaborated with at least two Russian intelligence officials between 2014 and 2022 to "engage in a years-long foreign malign influence campaign targeting the United States."
Part of this effort involved recruiting members of various political groups in the U.S., such as the African People's Socialist Party and the Uhuru Movement in Florida, Black Hammer in Georgia, and a political group in California.
Key figures, locations, and organizations can be found here:
See a thread discussing this case in more detail.
As research on violent extremism progresses beyond some of the field's earlier challenges, new ways of gathering primary source data are becoming increasingly popular. One widely implemented data collection methodology across parallel fields is crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing involves gathering information or input from large numbers of people, either for payment or online.
This article analyzes how events of political violence in the distant past can affect the outbreak of terrorism in the present. Civil wars leave a legacy of distrust that can persist for generations, ultimately leading to violent responses to perceived threats. The authors argue that part of the explanation for the counterintuitive phenomenon of terrorism in a prosperous and relatively egalitarian region like the Basque Country, as well as potentially other cases of terrorism, lies in the legacies of political violence from the distant past.
Communities with a history of supporting Carlism, one of the warring factions in the nineteenth-century civil wars, were more likely to support terrorism a century later. The article also demonstrates that the transmission of these legacies was strong in communities that have remained largely isolated in the century, separating the civil war from the terrorism of the 1970s.
News by Country
An Iranian government-backed actor known as Mint Sandstorm has been linked to attacks aimed at critical infrastructure in the U.S. between late 2021 to mid-2022.
Russia’s charm offensive in Africa taps into the continent’s genuine disillusionment with the West, but it is based on false narratives and half-truths. Surprisingly, one person willing to call out the Kremlin on its duplicity is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, a notorious private militia that is closely tied to the Russian state. Here's what that could mean.
Burlinova allegedly sent information about her meetings with participants at US universities to Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).
The FBI claims Burlinova's efforts were aimed at influencing future US leaders on behalf of the Russian government.
Burlinova's organization, Creative Diplomacy or PICREADI, hosted young professionals at annual events in Russia for four years, with partial funding from the FSB.
Burlinova allegedly provided extensive information to the FSB about US participants in the Meeting Russia programs, aiming to influence some to become public figures.
Founded in 2010, PICREADI focused on Russian public diplomacy.
Burlinova and a colleague visited several US universities, with the FSB providing funds for the trip.
Burlinova supported Russian government positions but didn't appear as an unwavering Kremlin supporter. Between 2017 and 2021, Burlinova organized annual Meeting Russia events in Moscow for young professionals. Participants' expenses were mostly covered, and Burlinova denied being a Russian foreign agent. The program ended after 2021 for unclear reasons, and Burlinova was hit with financial sanctions by the US Treasury Department in 2022.
Burlinova posted a photo of herself with convicted Russian foreign agent Maria Butina on her Telegram channel in April 2023.
The rapidly deteriorating conflict in Sudan features domestic in-fighting among political players and meddling from external states, warlords, armed militias, and a range of other violent non-state actors.
The conflict has now spread to the western region of Darfur, where, if the fighting continues to escalate, it could easily spill over into Chad.
More than 300 people have reportedly been killed and over 3,000 wounded since Saturday, and the numbers are expected to rise as the situation continues to deteriorate.
A humanitarian crisis could soon overwhelm Sudan, where civilians in Khartoum, which has not previously seen such violence, are trapped inside their homes, many lacking access to supplies of water, food, electricity, and medicine.
Kurdish journalist Mir Ali Kocer was accused of spreading disinformation after reporting on the aftermath of a Turkish earthquake. Under investigation and potentially facing trial, Kocer could receive up to three years in prison if found guilty.
Experts believe that the disinformation law, implemented in October 2022, contributes to the erosion of democratic freedoms in Turkey under President Erdogan. The law could threaten freedom of speech during the upcoming presidential election. Barish Altintash, co-director of the Media and Law Research Association, says the law could be used to prevent election coverage, justify detentions, and block internet access.
The law's vague wording enables it to be used against journalists and citizens alike. Turkey ranks fourth for imprisoning journalists behind Iran, China, and Myanmar.
According to Nordic Monitor, a new organization, Tübamer, aims to influence the upcoming Turkish elections. Tübamer appears connected to Yevgeniy Prigozhin via overlapping employees. Prigozhin is connected to United World International (UWI), one of the state-affiliated outlets where overlap occurs. The report also highlights the close ties between the Aydınlık group and the Erdoğan government, which have enabled the group to act with impunity.
The UWI is effectively run by Prigozhin, who was previously designated in the US by multiple sanctions authorities for facilitating attempts to interfere in US elections. He is the Russian financier of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which he utilizes to conduct global influence operations. According to the US Treasury, Prigozhin directs the generation of content to denigrate the US electoral process and spreads false narratives online through shell companies he set up in Russia and other countries.
“We’re a Russian-speaking media,” Rakovitsa told me as we settled in at the lobby bar of the InterContinental hotel in central Kyiv, now a hub for foreign journalists reporting on the war as the world looks on. Born and raised in Mariupol, Rakovitsa is also in the business of storytelling, but her audience is closer to the action than most. The Institute’s online newsroom, News of Donbas, is aimed at people in Ukraine’s Russia-occupied territories.
“In order to reach our audience, we don’t use hate speech,” Rakovitsa told me. “We use the principles of conflict-sensitive journalism, and we don’t label people as orcs and Rashists,” she said, referring to the slang epithets that many Ukrainian media now use to describe Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine
Russians hungry for facts have driven traffic to the YouTube channel in particular. More than 70% of the channel’s 169,000 subscribers are logging on from Russia, although some portion of this figure is likely Ukrainians who were forcibly moved to Russia over the course of 2022.
In the past, the organization’s divergence from the norm has led to criticism or doubt from other media outlets. Before the war, much was made of News of Donbas’ decision to publish photographs of Denis Pushilin, the Russia-backed leader of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic.
“Our audience there watches us, trusts us, knows we are pro-Ukrainian media,” said Rakovitsa. “We don’t say they are fools and blame them for Russia’s actions,” she said.
Episode 77 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast, which is also the second installment of the IWI Project on Cyber, explores cyber operations in the war in Ukraine. The episode guests examine the use of cyber warfare and digital information operations in Ukraine since 2014.