Staff Columnist

Beware: Russians in your yard

Kremlin hopes to infiltrate local as well as national

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reusters)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reusters)

Sitting with Chris Wallace of Fox News on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped to muddy the facts about his country’s interference in American affairs and elections by alluding to the physical distance between the two countries.

“Do you really believe that someone acting from the Russian territory could have influenced the United States and influenced the choice of millions?” asked Putin in response to Wallace’s questions about ongoing Russian aggression.

But that’s exactly what U.S. and ally intelligence agencies have proved. And, regardless of President Donald Trump’s shameful display in Helsinki, we’d be wise to take heed.

The 11-count indictment unveiled last week as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ongoing aggression documented why 12 Russian intelligence officers are accused of hacking computers at the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. That’s the national headline, but on page 26 of the indictment is this bit of information:

“In or around October 2016, (Anatoliy Sergeyevich) Kovalev and his co-conspirators further targeted state and county offices responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. elections. For example, on or about October 28, 2016, Kovalev and his co-conspirators visited the websites of certain counties in Georgia, Iowa and Florida to identify vulnerabilities.”

An earlier indictment issued by the special counsel said Russian agents purchased social media ads alleging fraud in the Iowa caucus process as part of their attempt to sow distrust.

Beyond these direct attacks and well-documented alias and robot activity on social media, investigators also have discovered Russian social media sleeper accounts, set up as early as 2014, prepared to take advantage of Americans’ trust in local news outlets.

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For instance, the Russians co-opted the name Chicago Daily News, a legitimate publication that closed in 1978. Others took on local- and legitimate-sounding names like Milwaukee Voice or Seattle Post, and, at least as far as researchers have found to date, these accounts quietly went about the work of circulating legitimate local news items and gathering social media followers in the thousands.

“They set them up for a reason,” social media analyst Bret Schafer with the Alliance for Securing Democracy told NPR. “And, if at any given moment, they wanted to operationalize this network of what seemed to be local American news handles, they can significantly influence the narrative on a breaking news story. But now, instead of just showing up online and flooding it with news sites, they have these accounts with two years of credible history.”

Not only did Russians understand and intend to exploit the significant trust Americans place in local news outlets, but they hoped to connect local media to the national “fake news” falsehood in attempt to undermine the influence of public watchdogs at the most local levels.

And while much of this activity has been shut down by social media platforms, there’s no guarantee it has ended.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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