Havering hashtags and data visualization, anti-vaxxers and US extremists support Taliban, and a whole lot of foreign policy

Hoaxlines Disinformation Newsletter #8.26.2021

Threats

Far-right extremists in the United States applaud Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan

Supporters of far-right extremist movements in the United States applauded the Taliban after the group’s takeover of Afghanistan, cheering the development as an existential defeat of Western powers they believe are responsible for perceived declines in society. Some went so far as to frame the US defeat in the nation as a goal for their own movements to aspire toward.


Data Brokers Are Advertising Data on U.S. Military Personnel

“In a new report for the Cyber Policy Program at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, I surveyed 10 major data brokers and found that they advertise highly sensitive data on U.S. individuals. This includes data on U.S. individuals’ sensitive demographic information, data on their political preferences and beliefs, and data on their whereabouts, and even real-time GPS locations. 

Troublingly, as I focus on in this piece, I also found three data brokers openly and explicitly advertising their data on U.S. military personnel—a case study that underscores the broader threats posed by the unregulated data brokerage ecosystem to civil rights, national security, and democracy.”


US anti-vaxxers are coming out in support of the Taliban

Elise Thomas, an open-source investigator with the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the conversation about current events in Afghanistan differs between mainstream social media platforms, such as Facebook, and apps like Telegram.   

“There’s a bit of a split between people saying, ‘Oh, even people as bad as the Taliban recognize that the vaccine is terrible,’ versus people who are saying, ‘Maybe the Taliban aren’t as bad as we thought,’” she explained.


Disinformation Narratives and News

RUSSIA

Russian state-controlled and diplomatic accounts lambasted the Biden administration for its exit from Afghanistan, scheduled for completion by Aug 31, 2021.

RT and other pro-Kremlin sites ridiculed the US while boosting damning details, alleging corruption, and misleading about its response to Navalny-related sanctions.

  • Both China and Russia have used the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to imply that the US will renege on commitments in Ukraine and to Taiwan, even as the US affirmed its commitment to Taiwan.

RT shared an image where Taliban fighters mocked US military flag-raising at Iwo Jima.

CHINA

China has been portraying itself as both humanitarian and a paragon of scientific excellence, especially in comparison to the US, through its vaccine diplomacy.

  • Pakistan received 1 million doses of COVAX, and that was on blast through state-controlled media and diplomats.

  • Superiority over the US has been a persistent message from China, and August 2021 has not deviated [here, here, here].

Chinese efforts to cast doubt on the US intelligence report on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 have been two-fold.

  • Messaging portrays the inquiry as mere political theatre intended to vilify China. In one instance, a Chinese outlet cited a Russian scientist.

    • It is another instance this month where Russia and China appear united in anti-Western messaging.

    • Both framed Afghanistan as evidence the US will abandon Taiwan and Ukraine.

China continues to push an upcycled narrative based on the 1980s HIV virus disinformation planted by KGB in newspapers throughout the world.4


Russia dipping into reserves to pay for online propaganda

"The Russian government has decided to increase its spending on online propaganda to promote civic identity and the moral values among young people by more than three times to ten billion rubles (140 million US dollars) and is dipping into its reserve funds in order to pay for this. Moscow plans to support no fewer than 200 different internet projects before December 31. They will be selected by the Institute for the Development of the Internet on the basis of open competition. Those proposals which have some other funding, in addition, will be given priority.” -commentary by Paul Goble.


The Taliban's Already Broken Pledge to Protect Afghan Women

"On August 17, the Taliban held their first news conference in Kabul after overthrowing Afghanistan's Ashraf Ghani-led government. Official spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid took questions from journalists, including about the high-profile matter of women’s rights.

Taliban fighters are “unfortunately behaving the same way they did when they were in power” in the 1990s, prior to the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, said Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan politician and one of the female participants in recent Afghan peace negotiations.

“Their political office issues statements that don't make sense. There is no relevance of their statements to the situation on the ground,” she told the Thomas Reuters Foundation on August 16."


Fact Checks

What we know about Covid-19 vaccines and miscarriages

The decision to offer pregnant women the Covid-19 vaccines is based on real-world data from the US, where 130,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated, mainly with mRNA vaccines including Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, without any safety concerns being raised. 

 A study hasn’t proved 82% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. A claim we’ve seen circulating around miscarriages and the vaccine was that a study had shown 82% of pregnancies end with miscarriage following Covid vaccinations. This is wrong.  This figure is based on an incorrect calculation. The study in question followed almost 4,000 women who had been pregnant when they got their vaccination.


Doublespeak from Russian FM on Foreign Troops in Libya

"Lavrov denied that Turkey and other parties had refused to discuss the issue of troop withdrawals, saying the matter had been raised at the Second Berlin Conference on Libya held June 23.

"The withdrawal of these troops must necessarily take place, and this process has to be organized step by step,” Lavrov said, according to the state-owned TASS news agency.

“This is the main thing, and not the attempts to divert the discussion into a talk about the legitimate and illegitimate forces there."

That is misleading."


Research

a Hoaxlines Disinformation Newsletter exclusive

Ashli Babbitt trends on Twitter

Hoaxlines detected inauthentic activity discussing Ashli Babbitt in May 2021 and found state-controlled media echoing revisionist narratives regarding the circumstances surrounding the death. Iran and China were mum on the subject for the most part. Russia drove the majority of the foreign state-controlled media discussion in May.

On August 6, 2021, a tweet shown below kicked off a frenzy about Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was fatally shot as she attempted to break into the Speaker’s Lobby inside the US Capitol on Jan 6, 2021.

Data Collection Results

The search query returned a full 91287 tweets from 51880 users. Although the average tweet per user rate was 1.76, the data showed other traits that potentially suggest inauthentic activity, like the network distribution, the retweet ratio, and the quality of the accounts in certain clusters within the data.

Hoaxlines collected tweets that included one of the following key terms.

  • Ashli Babbitt

  • AshliBabbitt

  • "Who killed Ashli Babbitt?"

The retweet ratio for the dataset is 84.2%. This metric can’t prove inauthenticity on its own, but it is helpful in providing a fuller picture of the type of communication happening.

Two separate conversations happened simultaneously.

The red cluster was far more isolated than the blue. Red accounts mixed in with the blue network. Visually, the blue network appears to drive the conversation, or at least it was more important in this network statistically.

  • Centrality, a statistical calculation used to describe relationships in a network, determined the communities, not partisan appearance, although the communities appear to roughly align with partisan leaning.

  • Red roughly aligned with Republican and blue roughly aligned with Democratic accounts.

  • Red was far more sparse, with most activity centered around a handful of accounts.

  • While both red and blue communities showed possible signs of fake accounts, this disproportionately leaned red, so we selected the red community for further examination.


#TrumpWasRight shows signs of inauthenticity

Data from the hashtag #TrumpWasRight, which was the third hashtag to show traits that deviate from what we expect from organic activity within 24 hours, Aug 20, 2021.

The largest benefactors of this boosting activity are shown below in the wider network. RudyGiuliani and RealLizUSA benefitted the most.

Assessing activity for organic and inauthentic activity

In an organic dataset, the top 50 accounts generate 1.5-3% of the activity. In this dataset, just the top 20 most active accounts generated 8.5% of the activity. The most popular tweet in the dataset belonged to RudyGiuliani.

Interestingly Mr. Giuliani had a similar tweet days later with another hashtag that had traits of inauthenticity.

Returning to the #TrumpWasRight tweet, Mr. Giuliani's retweeters had a much higher proportion of recent account creations dates. It's much more than one would ordinarily expect from organic activity.6 Alone, it is not conclusive, but it strongly suggests that fake accounts may have boosted the hashtag.

Many of the RudyGiuliani retweeters had traits associated with inauthentic activity, like high retweet ratios,7 high average tweets per day,8 and blank profiles.  

Within the dataset, retweets accounted for 84% of tweets. Retweet ratios for a dataset do not reliably predict inauthentic activity, but they should be considered in view of other evidence. Hoaxlines used the retweet ratio to calculate the traffic manipulation coefficient, a metric that helps distinguish organic from inauthentic activity. For #TrumpWasRight the coefficient was higher than expected for organic activity.


The pandemic transformed how social work was delivered – and these changes could be here to stay

"To continue providing care during the pandemic, social workers often had to make difficult decisions and adapt quickly to new ways of working with little or no time to prepare. To understand how they managed, we interviewed British social workers based in the West Midlands about their experiences of working during the first wave of COVID in the spring of 2020. We wanted to find out how social workers adapted to new ways of working during the pandemic and how these changes affected the services they delivered."


As the Taliban offensive gained momentum, so did its Twitter propaganda campaign

The most followed Taliban spokesperson bombarded Twitter with triumphant propaganda as the Taliban captured more than a dozen of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals in a week, culminating in the fall of Kabul. A majority of tweets by Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid (@Zabehulah_M33) received engagement not only through likes and retweets but also through more than 1,600 copied messages tweeted out by other user accounts.


Multiple videos surface of Taliban fighters using gunfire to disperse crowds

The Taliban, despite its declarations to the contrary, appears to be resorting to its old tactics of exerting control over the population by intimidation and threat of force, as the DFRLab confirmed three incidents involving the group’s fighters in the cities of Jalalabad, Khost, and Mar-Koh’ in eastern Afghanistan.


Recommended Reads

International Law's Role in Combating Ransomware?

As Jack Goldsmith points out here, this is not the first time Biden or his predecessors have issued stern warnings to Putin about Russian cyber threats. Legitimate concerns overdrawing unenforced redlines aside, what is different this time is that the cyber operations the U.S. expects Putin to put a stop to are not directly attributable to the Russian state. Rather, they are the work of Russian criminals, and Biden considers cyber operations against their infrastructure to be part of the self-help toolkit on the table should Russia fail to take action. 

Specifically, during his call with Putin, Biden told him that the United States would “take any necessary action to defend its people and its critical infrastructure in the face of this continuing challenge,” and when reporters asked whether those actions might include cyber operations against the infrastructure behind the attacks, his answer was a succinct “Yes.”  


The Failure of Counterterrorism After the Civil War

"Despite the many restrictions, threats of violence, and general confusion, initial progress on Black political participation was impressive, even astounding. In Mississippi, almost 80 percent of eligible Black men voted in the summer elections in 1868. Before 1867, no Black American had ever held elected office at the federal level. From 1870 to 1876, there would be two Black U.S. senators, 15 representatives, and more than 600 state legislators—slightly less than 20 percent of Southern political offices in all. Hundreds more Black men held local positions, which were particularly important at a time when government power was highly decentralized. Black representation at the national level peaked in 1875, with eight members of Congress representing six different states.

...the gains achieved by Black Americans in the initial phase of Reconstruction prompted a dangerous backlash from racist extremists in the South. As excellent works by Eric Foner and Allen Trelease make clear, the resulting “insults” were a common source of violence, which was common throughout Reconstruction. White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged throughout the South and, through the use and threat of force, intimidated or prevented Black people from voting and otherwise helped Democrats opposed to Black equality to gain power. As with most terrorism, the psychological effect of their violence was great. “The Ku Klux terror colored nearly every aspect of Southern life and politics, often far beyond the immediate range of terrorist activity,” argues Trelease. He further notes, KKK participation ‘was also a patriotic venture which, like military service in wartime, often had the esteem and support of public opinion.’”

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1

Heidi E. Huntington (2016) Pepper Spray Cop and the American Dream: Using Synecdoche and Metaphor to Unlock Internet Memes’ Visual Political Rhetoric, Communication Studies, 67:1, 77-93, DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2015.1087414

2

Ascott, T. (2020, February 19). How memes are becoming the new frontier of information warfare. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/how-memes-are-becoming-the-new-frontier-of-information-warfare/

3

DiResta, R., Shaffer, K., Ruppel, B., Sullivan, D., & Matney, R. (2019). The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency. 54.

5

Wardle, C., & Derakhshan, H. (2018). Thinking about “information disorder”: formats of misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/f._jfnd_handbook_module_2.pdf

6

DFRLab. (2017). #BotSpot: Twelve Ways to Spot a Bot. DFRLab. https://medium.com/dfrlab/botspot-twelve-ways-to-spot-a-bot-aedc7d9c110c

7

Wright, J., & Anise, O. (2018). Anatomy of Twitter Bots: Amplification Bots. https://duo.com/labs/research/anatomy-of-twitter-bots-amplification-bots

8

Dotto, C. (2019, November 28). How to spot a bot (or not): The main indicators of online automation, coordination, and inauthentic activity. https://firstdraftnews.org/articles/how-to-spot-a-bot-or-not-the-main-indicators-of-online-automation-co-ordination-and-inauthentic-activity/