Everything I Need to Know about Russia’s Internet Interference I Learned Through College Pranks

Sean Havey/AP

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It's not terribly difficult to inject fake news into conversation.

One February, as a snowstorm headed for the Carolinas, a Raleigh television station debuted a Web form meant to allow local schools and businesses to send cancellations and snow delays straight to the live TV feed. Someone posted the URL to an unofficial university message board, and within minutes, mayhem erupted in the margins of the nightly news:

But while our antics caused little damage aside from a few embarrassed faces in the newsroom, not everyone uses fake news for lulz. As recent events show, sinister actors use the same tricks to spread misinformation and deception — with potentially disastrous consequences.

The Fake News Ecosystem

After dropping out of college in 2006, Ryan Holiday worked as a media strategist for celebrities and corporations. Holiday, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, used every trick of the trade to confuse, baffle, and outright deceive. He created dozens of fake email accounts and Internet personas to stir up controversy, and publicity, for a movie based on Tucker Max’s book, “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.” He dangled lucrative stories sympathetic to his employers in front of desperate bloggers looking for recognition from big-name media outlets. (Think of sponsored content before the mainstream media cut out the middleman and started doing it themselves.) And as Holiday recounts, it’s not just the media who nibble on misinformation — it’s all too easy to get big-name celebrities to Tweet almost anything for the right price.

Russian propaganda outlets use many of the same techniques, with “troll farms” and “bot nets” peddling Russian-backed news stories in an attempt to have them picked up by larger, more influential social media accounts. Starting last summer, their efforts may have been magnified by an algorithm shift at Facebook, which fed users articles and posts more from friends and fewer from mainstream media. A sharper example popped up this month, when American social media accounts began to parrot a half-truth spread by a media outlet in Eastern Ukraine claiming the U.S. shipped thousands of tanks to Europe in an attempt to start World War III, a report based on just a small sliver of truth.    

Catfishing

The least glamorous job I’ve had in nearly 15 years in uniform was tracking down phony social media profiles of senior U.S. military officers created to scam lonely hearts out of thousands of dollars. Scammers have gotten clever in recent years, often editing the Wikipedia entries for senior military officials to corroborate details of the scam. In one case, I found that all references to a senior military officer’s wife and children had been deleted. Fortunately, the scammers left their digital fingerprints on the edits — most notably, by the IP addresses Wikipedia logs whenever an anonymous someone edits an article.

It’s the same mistake Russian trolls made in 2014 after the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. According to an investigation, the Boeing 777 jetliner, which carried 298 crew members and passengers, was struck by a 9M38-series missile fired by a Russian-supplied Buk missile system — a fact hugely embarrassing to the Russian government. Russian state media worked overtime to convince viewers a Ukrainian Su-25 attack jet destroyed the jetliner. According to Janes, however, the Su-25 has a maximum altitude of just 23,000 feet (and just 16,000 feet with its maximum weapons load), far below the cruising altitude of a jetliner. That led several anonymous Wikipedia users to edit the entry for the Su-25, changing its maximum altitude to 33,000 feet, roughly the cruising altitude of a passenger jet. A quick search of the IP addresses led directly to the Kremlin.

Of course, the Kremlin’s not the only culprit when it comes to sneaky Wikipedia edits. Corporations, Hollywood publicists, even politicians — the latter of which has become so pervasive there’s a Twitter account dedicated to keeping track of Wikipedia entries edited from Congressional IP addresses.    

Old Tricks, New Tools

Of course, few of these tricks are new. Over a century ago, sensational journalism showcasing the plight of Cubans not only raked in millions of dollars for media mogul William Randolph Hearst — they also helped spur the US into war with Spain during the Spanish-American War. And leaked emails? John Podesta’s creamy risotto recipe is hardly as scandalous as the affairs of Marquise de Mertueil, whose scandalous letters become her undoing when they’re revealed in the climax of the 18th-century novel Dangerous Liaisons.

Worse yet, human beings have an amazing capacity for self-deception. Wikileaks co-founder Daniel Domscheit-Berg believed that giving unfettered access to a trove of intelligence reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would spur media consumers to carefully sift through hundreds of thousands of pages of information and come to measured, rational, and dispassionate conclusions about U.S. involvement in the region.

Domscheit-Berg had far too much faith in humanity. Rather than read the entirety of the Wikileaks archive in detail, consumers quickly concluded that because there was a trove of secret documents about the war in Iraq and because they felt the U.S. was a villain, clearly the documents were damning — even though by and large, they weren’t. But selective leaks combined with an overactive imagination can spur audiences to do crazy things. Witness how a North Carolina man fired a gun inside a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor, after asking questions about a child sex slavery ring concocted by conspiracy-mongers.

Fact and Fiction Blurred

As NC State students did that snowy day in 2004, pranksters will always use fake news for laughs. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of service members — some in the Pentagon’s upper echelons — turn to a satire website known as The Duffel Blog for laughs.

But not everyone is in on the joke. In December, a representative from the Russian state-sponsored news agency Sputnik emailed the Duffel Blog’s editorial account, addressing the email to “B. Gordon Willard”, the site’s fictitious editor whose name appears literally one line above the words, “We are in no way, shape, or form, a real news outlet.”

Sputnik asked “B. Gordon Willard” if he would be willing to speak about James Mattis, recently nominated for Secretary of Defense, and a frequent fixture in Duffel Blog articles. Though several Duffel Blog contributors mulled feeding humorous misinformation to Russian propaganda outlets (including the rumor that Mattis favored warmer relations with Vladimir Putin after purchasing a Russian mail-order bride), sober heads prevailed and the Duffel Blog declined the interview. The prank may have very well backfired in the runup to Mattis’ confirmation hearings. And besides, the site is hugely supportive of Mattis, its highest-ranking fan.

In today’s world, fake news may have very curious origins.   

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