Thursday, October 18, 2018

Twitter, the Atlantic Council and its elusive Iranian "troll farms"

The Persians are coming!
The former free speech wing of the free speech party and now serial social media censor, Twitter, has dumped some large chunk of data on us, as part of its supposed campaign to
"...improve public understanding of alleged foreign influence campaigns... making publicly available archives of Tweets and media that we believe resulted from potentially state-backed information operations on our service..."
What’s worse, the Atlantic Council, a NATO-related think-tank, sponsored by the UAE and Saudi billionaires, among others, hand-picked by fb to run their g̶l̶o̶b̶a̶l̶ ̶c̶e̶n̶s̶o̶r̶s̶h̶i̶p̶ ̶c̶a̶m̶p̶a̶i̶g̶n̶ monitoring for misinformation and foreign interference... Its board members include notorious war criminal Henry Kissinger, former CIA chiefs Michael Hayden and Mike Morell, and Bush-era head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.
These folks through their Digital Forensic Research Lab analyzed the Twitter data and came to conclusions regarding Russian and Iranian digital efforts at subversion in the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the world at large. In four parts:
  1. Part One — Seven key take aways from a comprehensive archive of known Russian and Iranian troll operations
  2. Part Two — How the Internet Research Agency regenerated on Twitter after its accounts were suspended
  3. Part Three — Assessing an covert Iranian social media influence campaign
  4. Part Four — Expanding on key conclusions from the Russian and Iranian troll farms
I have skipped the Russian parts for the moment, because this is already part and parcel of the liberal American mythology and the new “blame Russia for everything” systemic narrative strategy. Thus I assume it would need even less evidence for extravagant claims.But I'll check.
I read part 3, though, the Iranian summary. And this is what I’d say about it:
It would be funny if it weren't so breathtakingly bereft of significance.
  • First of all any "troll farm" that attacks the barbarian Saudi regime is in my book on the side of the angels. I mean, do they really think that "Posts on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia... were routinely hostile and accused the kingdom of terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes" is a false accusation and a bad thing?
  • A second point is that I wouldn't trust a NATO and UAE (not to mention Hariri) funded Council, with criminals against humanity on its board of directors, to tell me the time of day, much less what a "healthy public conversation" is. To make these sort of institutions arbiters of what is allowed on social media, is what is truly frightening to me.
  • Thirdly they are accused of retweeting mostly true information, such as "U.S. has wiped Raqqah off the face of earth", "Trump Is Insane" etc. So they are banned for making (and reproducing) valid statements and (in my book again) largely benign, opinions. This should be contrasted with POTUS being allowed to lie and maliciously slander people through the same platform.

Evil Russian or Iranian, (who knows!), propaganda stating a true fact

  • Fourth. and most importantly, the report actually goes out of its way to not identify this activity as government-run. Which raises the question of "why ban them?", unless they plan to go after all of marketing / political / government accounts [in which case see last point]:
The campaign has not been fully attributed. FireEye tracked it to email addresses and phone numbers in Tehran, but did not identify the organization controlling it. @DFRLab’s own research showed that it consistently shared regime messaging, notably from Ayatollah Khamenei. We refer to it as “Iranian” on the basis of its geography and content; this should not be taken to mean “government run.”
While these posts clearly amplified Iranian positions, it is questionable whether they should be viewed as a trolling campaign, in the sense of using social media to engage personally with other users. The overwhelming bulk of these posts served as advertising, aimed at drawing users towards articles on websites associated with the broader messaging campaign. While they targeted individual users, the posts did not seek to engage with them in meaningful discussion. The purpose appears to have been to draw those users’ attention to pro-Iranian websites.
and most damningly:
One issue on which the Iranian accounts might have been expected to go into overdrive was Trump’s decision to decertify, and then abandon, the Iran nuclear agreement, known as JCPOA. Surprisingly, the Iranian accounts were relatively quiet.
This is, of course, surprising only if one pre-assumes this "troll network" is indeed some purely state-backed spy / troll network, and not (as seems more likely) mostly Iranian English language publications' marketing campaigns, along with genuine pro-government (remember, the "reformer" - meaning in Westernese: the most pro-western electable candidate - and not the "hardliner" won in the last Iranian elections) local and diaspora views of citizens and citizen- or media- sponsored patriotic propaganda.
  • Fifth. It seems that the "Iranian trolls" were actively campaigning against Trump at the same time that the alleged Sinister Tentacled Russian Bot Thing was campaigning against Clinton. Indeed it apparently called them on it in clearly clintonite terms...

...which is strange given that Russia is Iran's best bet to avoid some US-induced Iraqi-style apocalypse. Those damn trolls can't even coordinate properly. Although Iranian "trolls" do seem to be consistently progressive and anti-Trump (a fact that the Idiot in Chief will no doubt use at some point, perhaps as a pretext to invade Iran).

Finally: the 400 pound gorilla in the Middle East government-run bots, trolls and government coordinated social media accounts is Israel (extending beyond the Middle East). Which somehow is never part of any study on coordinated influence campaigns, which are now universally part of western government propaganda. The 10 tonne Elephant, and all time champion in the sport, remains the US, but I'm not holding my breath on a similar "analysis" by the Atlantic Council on the US influence networks on Twitter and FB, anytime soon.