Select Committee on fake news: Russian trolls divided societies and turned countries against one another

Graphics of Facebook pages created by a Russian troll factory displayed during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Nov 1, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - In 2016, two groups of protesters showed up in front of the Islamic Da'wah Centre in Houston, Texas, in support of two diametrically opposite causes.

Donning "White Lives Matter" T-shirts, the first group of 10 protested against what they called the Islamisation of America. The second group of 60, waving signs declaring "Muslims are welcome here", were there in counter-protest to the first.

Both sides were galvanised by their respective Facebook groups - Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America - and even urged to bring firearms to the protest, though Houston police made sure the protest did not turn violent.

What neither group knew was that a Russia-linked group known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) had been behind them both, and at the cost of a paltry US$200, had succeeded in stirring up a very real security threat.

The case was one of several examples cited in a report released by the anti-fake news parliamentary committee on Thursday (Sept 20), to show how deliberate disinformation operations aim to widen social divides and undermine democratic processes and institutions.

Such online falsehoods can even undermine national sovereignty and harm national security, leading experts like Prague-based European Values Think-Tank representative Jakub Janda to call them a "national security threat".

The report summed up how the committee heard from disinformation researchers about how disinformation campaigns allegedly conducted by Russia had posed a serious threat to countries including the US, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and France.

In another example, known Russian trolls ran Twitter and Instagram accounts about the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings, widening the divide between each side.

For instance, some trolls spread the message that activists working on the Black Lives Matter movement who disrespected the American flag should "be immediately shot", while other trolls subtly incited violence by suggesting that "Black people have to (practise) an eye for an eye. The law enforcement officers keep harassing and killing us without consequences".

Other disinformation operations also sought to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, and to denigrate and harm presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's electability by spreading negative, untrue stories about her.

Mr Janda noted that "disinformation operations often have the goal of undermining public trust towards democratic institutions, and causing the public to lose trust in institutions like the free media and democratic political parties", the report said.

In Ukraine, Russian disinformation operations also found considerable success.

These operations "allegedly fuelled existing tensions between different communities, discredited Ukraine's standing in other European Union countries, and even resulted in the loss of territorial sovereignty and lives in Ukraine", noted the report.

For instance, Ukraine's relationship with the Netherlands was allegedly poisoned by Russian media outlets which spread the false story that the Ukrainian military had shot down Flight MH17, which killed 193 Dutch citizens.

When the Netherlands held a referendum in April 2016 to approve a trade agreement between EU and Ukraine, few people turned out to vote, and two-thirds of those who did rejected the agreement.

Almost 60 per cent of the Dutch who voted against the trade pact opposed it because they believed the Ukrainian government was corrupt, according to a poll cited by a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official. Also, 19 per cent of them believed the unproven claim that Ukraine had shot down MH17.

Mr Ruslan Deynychenko, one of the founders of fact-checking organisation StopFake, argued that disinformation operations in Ukraine ultimately resulted in the loss of territorial sovereignty and Ukrainian lives by fuelling the the annexation of Crimea and armed conflicts in Eastern Ukraine.

He cited how many of the Russia-linked fighters who fought on Ukrainian soil reportedly said they were motivated to fight by Russian television coverage of supposed Ukrainian "atrocities" against Russian-speaking citizens.

Mr Deynychenko said that such foreign disinformation campaigns by state actors "aim to weaken a country, reduce its ability to resist foreign aggression, change its foreign policy, and create conditions for its inclusion in a foreign country's sphere of influence", the report added.

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