Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Protecting Americans from Russian Disinformation One Tweet at at Time

While so-called Russian "interference" and "disinformation" in the 2016 U.S. election has been pretty much headline news since July 2016, the means that are being taken to counter Russia's "anti-democracy" moves have received relatively little coverage.  Thanks to recent developments, German Marshall has now given us at least one hint about where the battle against Russian disinformation is headed.

For those of you that have never heard of the German Marshall Fund (GMF) (and I count myself among those), the organization's aim is to:

 "...strengthen transatlantic cooperation on regional, national, and global challenges and opportunities in the spirit of the Marshall Plan."

This lofty goal will be accomplished as follows:

In case you've forgotten or were never aware of the Marshall Plan for which the group is named, it is also known as the European Recovery Program in which over $13 billion was channelled to Europe between 1948 and 1951 to finance the economic recovery of European nations after the significant damage that was done to the continent during the Second World War.  The plan is names for Secretary of State George C. Marshall who announced the plan on June 5, 1947.  Given recent history, it is interesting to note that while Americans viewed the Marshall Plan as a generous gift to Europe, the Soviet Union regarded it as an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of other states and, as such, refused to participate.

As part of its mandate to strengthen transatlantic cooperation  in early August, GMF announced the latest in its attempts to foil Russian disinformation with its Hamilton 68 Dashboard tool.  Here is a quote from the announcement:

"In the Federalist Papers No. 68, Alexander Hamilton wrote of protecting America’s electoral process from foreign meddling. Today, we face foreign interference of a type Hamilton could scarcely have imagined.

Since Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, many have warned that Putin will be back in 2018 and 2020.  But the reality is that Russian influence operations never left. As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently stated, the Kremlin is already beginning to “prep the battlefield” for the 2018 elections. But what does this mean?

Russia’s activities continue on multiple fronts. One happening right under our nose and in plain sight is its continued information operations aimed at spreading propaganda and disinformation online. Indeed, Russia’s information operations in 2016 did not happen overnight — they were enabled by a foundation built over several years of operations in U.S. information space. Since the election, Russia’s efforts to shape what Americans think has continued.  Americans deserve to know what messages Russian disinformation networks are pushing.

The Hamilton 68 dashboard, launching today as part of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, provides a near real-time look at Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts online. The top of the page shows tweets from official Russian propaganda outlets in English, and a short post discussing the themes of the day. This is Russia’s overt messaging."

What the Hamilton 68 Dashboard does is monitor the activities of 600 Twitter accounts (none of which are identified) that are linked to online Russian influence efforts.  While there is allegedly a clear connection between Russian influence and these particular accounts, GMF admits that not all of the accounts are directly controlled by Russia (i.e. Vladimir Putin).  The users of these accounts are of three types:

1.) Accounts likely controlled by Russian government influence operations.

2.) Accounts for “patriotic” pro-Russia users that are loosely connected or unconnected to the Russian government, but which amplify themes promoted by Russian government media.

3.) Accounts for users who have been influenced by the first two groups and who are extremely active in amplifying Russian media themes. These users may or may not understand themselves to be part of a pro-Russian social network. 

The 600 Twitter accounts in question are monitored in real time and look for the following types of content:

1.) Content generated by attributable Russian media and influence operations. This is a relatively small proportion of the network’s content. It includes, for example, content generated by RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik.

2.) Content amplified to reflect Russian influence themes. This content is typically produced by third parties, including but not limited to mainstream media, hyperpartisan sites and so-called “fake news” sites. Third-party content is sometimes amplified because it complements Russian influence themes. At other times, it is amplified for the opposite reason, meaning that users in the network are seeking to attack or discredit the content.

3.) Less relevant content. This includes popular hashtags, which the users employ to increase the reach of their messages, developing news stories, and (less commonly) random social dynamics in the network.

Here is a look at the dashboard showing the networks that are engaged in Russian-based disinformation:

The dashboard notes that the Twitter feeds that it tracks seek to:

 "...amplify legitimate reporting when the content suits them, and they promote alternative media outlets that seemingly specialize in the production of disinfo, whether or not the outlets are controlled by the Kremlin. These outlets assemble stories from found objects - bits of information that may have some basis in reality. The final product will leap to conclusions the components of the story do not necessarily support, but which promote a distorted view of events to the Kremlin's benefit."

It is interesting to note that one of the top hashtags used by Russian-linked Twitter accounts is "Charlottesville" and that of the top ten topics in the last 48 hours, Charlottesville appears in the number two spot.

The whole point of this exercise is to "help ordinary people, journalists and other analysts identify Russian messaging themes and detect active disinformation or attack campaigns as soon as they begin. Exposing these messages will make information consumers more resilient and reduce the effectiveness of Russia’s attempts to influence Americans’ thinking, and deter this activity in the future by making it less effective."

Fortunately for all of us, the German Marshall Fund is "not telling us what to think", rather "they believe that should know when someone is trying to manipulate us".  At least we know that, in this time of the most overt Russian "aggression" since the end of the Cold War, GMF has our best interests at heart and is trying to prevent us from being manipulated.  After all, last thing that the German Marshall Fund wants is to manipulate us, isn't it?

Monday, August 21, 2017

How Not To Spend U.S. Tax Dollars in Afghanistan

With the conflict in Afghanistan now grinding into its 16th year despite the fact that the war was officially over in 2014 and the Trump Adminstration putting its own spin on Afghanistan's future, recent developments show that taxpayers who have already ponied up $1.07 trillion to put the Taliban "in their place" are spending money on luxury items that they cannot afford themselves.

On August 9, 2017, U.S. Senator Claire Connor McCaskill (D-Missouri), the top ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released information that should cause American taxpayers to have an apoplectic stroke.  According to her press release, Senator McCaskill had demanded answers back in May 2015 when it became apparent that an audit of the money spent in Afghanistan on national reconstruction by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) was "questionable" and that at least some of the spending on the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund was unsustainable, recommending that further taxpayer funding be prohibited and that a further investigation of spending be undertaken.  Under this request, the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) reviewed the "Legacy East" contract, a contract which was given to subcontractor New Century Consulting.  The purpose of the Legacy East project was to provide counterinsurgency exports to mentor and train the Afghan National Security Forces.

According to Senator McCaskill, when the DCAA audited the contract and subcontractor, they found that New Century Consulting had billed the U.S. government for over $50 million in questionable costs including the following:

1.) purchases of seven luxury cars including Porsches, Alfa Romeos, a Bentley, an Aston Martin and a Land Rover

2.) expenditures of $42,000 in cash on automatic weapons and $1500 on alcohol despite regulations or contract provisions that forbade such expenditures.

3.) NCC kept its CEO and CFO on payroll as "executive assistants" at salaries that reached an average of approximately $420,000 in 2012.  According to the press release, these employees worked at home and never travelled to customer locations.  As well, no documentation exists to prove that any work was actually done by the individuals.

According to the latest report by SIGAR, NCC spent $143.3 million on the Afghanistan Source Operations Management (ASOM) training and mentoring program as a subcontractor o Jorge Scientific Corporation.  The report did conclude that NCC "successfully performed the tasks required by the contracts", however, we find that following:

"...CTTSO’s (Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office) attempts to assess contractor performance relied, in part, on contractor-provided data, such as NCC’s self-assessments created by its mentors and compliance officers. SIGAR reviewed the self-assessments and found that NCC deemed the Legacy and ASOM programs a success, but provided few specifics to support its claim."

Here is a screen capture of New Century's website:

Here is some background information on NCC's executive and management teams:

And, in case you wondered, here is NCC's response to the accusations made by Senator McCaskill:

Here is a quote from the company's letter to Mr. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction:
"With respect, we regret the general negative tone of the wording in your report, and the way it has portrayed both New Century and the highly professional US Government entities who have managed programmatic delivery, such as ARL and CTTSO. This has led to sensationalized press comment labeling the programs a “failure” when these programs are regarded by all exposed to them in an operational setting as hugely successful and a sound investment by the US Government.

We have always striven to deliver a valuable and cost-effective service in support of what have been (and continues to be) very challenging missions. We are fully aware that if we do not consistently deliver tangible, positive results then our services will no longer be in demand. We are proud that the majority of our work comes from second and subsequent contracts with the same clients, so we are reassured that what we offer is valued, relevant and effective.

Our personnel had deployed in support of Coalition Forces in Afghanistan in a very challenging and hostile environment, initially to a province where some other contractors would not even deploy due to the level of threat. We are disappointed that the audit report has failed to acknowledge the dedication, professionalism and commitment of the mentors and trainers who delivered the programs; or recognize that in their delivery one of our personnel, Ken McGonigle, paid the ultimate sacrifice whilst preventing an RPG attack on an Osprey aircraft carrying Vice-Admiral Robert Harward and his staff. Despite being a contractor, Ken was decorated by the US Government for his bravery and was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal in the United Kingdom."

Only time will tell if Senator McCaskill's assessment of the New Century Consulting expenditures is correct.  If it proves to be correct, it is yet another prime example of why the war in Afghanistan continues to be among the most costly in history.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Health of Brand USA

With the Trump Administration taking a great deal of criticism for its policies, it begs the question; how has the American brand been impacted.  In Pew's most recent versions of its Global Attitudes and Trends survey, we get a sense of how the public in many nations regard the United States, a view that is quite important in this time of endless criticisms of many nations by Washington.

The poll was taken during the first quarter of 2017 and respondents were interviewed by telephone or with a face-to-face interview.  Between 1000 and 1500 people in 37 nations took part in the survey with a total of 40.477 respondents.  Pew Research Center international studies target the permanent adult population (aged 18 and older) with attempts to cover as much of the adult population as possible, limiting their coverage to areas that are extremely remote or subject to insecurity (i.e. parts of Pakistan).  The margin of error is generally between 3.0 and 5.0 percentage points 19 times out of 20.  With that background, let's look at how the world views "Brand America".

Let's start with a look at how various regions and countries view the United States:

A global median of 49 percent of respondents held a favourable view of the United States, a significant drop from the median of 64 percent during the later years of the Obama Administration.  Let's look at a breakdown by region:

1.) Europe - the median for Europe was 52 percent unfavourable and 46 percent favourable.  Four out of ten EU countries surveyed had a more positive view of the United States; Poland (most favourable at 73 percent), Hungary, Italy and the United Kingdom.  The remaining six nations surveyed had a negative view with Germany having the highest unfavourable rating at 62 percent.

2.) Asia - the median for Asia was 57 percent favourable and 23 percent unfavourable with all 7 nations surveyed having a more positive view of the United States.  The the most positive view of the United States was held by Vietnam at 84 percent with only 11 percent negative. 

3.) Middle East - the median for the Middle East was 64 percent unfavourable and 27 percent favourable.  Only one of the five nations surveyed had a positive view of the United States; Israel at 81 percent.  The most unfavourable rating came from Jordanians with an 82 percent unfavourable view.

4.) Africa - the median for Africa was 56 percent favourable and 26 percent unfavourable with all six nations having a positive view of the United States.  The most positive view of the United States was held by Nigeria with a 69 percent favourability rating.

5.) South and Central America - the median for South and Central America was 47 percent favourable and 38 percent unfavourable.  Four of the seven nations surveyed had a more positive view of the United States; Columbia (most favourable at 51 percent), Peru, Brazil and Venezuela.  The remaining three nations had a negative view of the United States with Mexico having the highest unfavourable rating at 65 percent.

6.) Canada - 43 percent favourable, 51 percent unfavourable.

7.) Russia - 41 percent favourable, 52 percent unfavourable.

It is interesting to see how outsiders' view of the United States varies with age.  In 16 of the 37 nations surveyed in 2017, young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have a more favourable view of the United States than their older counterparts, sometimes by a very wide margin.  For example in France, 64 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 viewed the United States positively compared to only 40 percent of people aged 50 and older.  As well, there is a gender gap with men expressing a more positive opinion of the United States that women in ten nations; in the case of Australia, 58 percent of men viewed the United States positively compared to only 38 percent of women.

Let's close with a table showing how much the world has changed its view of the United States with the change in political leadership in 2017:

As you can see, of the 37 nations in the study, respondents in only six nations have a more positive feeling about the United States since the Trump Administration took control with Russia heading the group with a 26 percentage point improvement in favourability, rising from 15 percent to 41 percent despite the ongoing anti-Russia sentiment in the United States.  On the other hand, Mexicans view of the United States took the biggest plunge with favourability dropping by 36 percentage points from 66 percent to 30 percent.

It is interesting to see how Brand America is under pressure during the first six months of the Trump Administration.  While nearly half of respondents around the world still give a positive overall rating to the United States image, there has been a substantial growth in the number of people, particularly among America's traditional allies in Europe and the Middle East (save Israel), who believe that the United States is not following a favourable path.  That is particularly evident when one looks at Donald Trump's international confidence rating as shown here: