That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
Website Spoofing, URL Hijacking and Other Russian Tricks
| S:2 E:2
The rebellion in Russia has caused Moscow to complain about - ironically - disinformation. But the Russians continue to practice this insidious craft themselves in clever ways, including so-called "website spoofing," in which fake websites are created to look like the real thing. Mereddith Wilson and Theo Gioe of Emergent Risk International, along with Beatriz Saab of Berlin-based Democracy Reporting International, share their insights.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking to his country as a rebellion led by a one-time ally stunned the world. It proved to be short-lived but raised questions as to whether the Putin regime itself will also be short-lived.
On Russian TV that same night, there were complaints that some of the information about the uprising — led by Yevgeny Pre-gozhin — the shadowy head of the mercenary army the Wagner Group — was fake — totally made up.
That the Russians were complaining of this is what you might charitably call — ironic. After all it's the Russians themselves who are among the masters of the false narrative. There is, of course, another word for this insidious craft: Disinformation.
I'm Paul Brandus, and that's the name of this series, it's called simply, Disinformation.
And I'm Meredith Wilson, founder and CEO of Emergent Risk International, and I'll be providing analysis throughout each episode.
And welcome again to season two episode two of our award-winning series. You know, we’ve talked about Russian influence operations many times. There’s no question that Moscow’s disinformation efforts — and by the way the organization responsible for an awful lot of it is called the Internet Research Agency which — was started by none other than the above-mentioned Pre-gozhin.
We’ve mentioned it largely within the context of efforts to influence elections in the U.S. and the West and to widen divisions here on already divisive social and cultural issues like race relations, immigration, and abortion.
But Moscow’s efforts don’t stop there. Thea Gioe of Emergent Risk International, Evergreen’s partner in this podcast, says the private sector and business community are hardly immune:
I think it's really important for business leaders to begin to come to terms with the fact that actually Russian disinformation is everybody's problem and that it has very specific impacts for the Western business community. Both direct and indirect impacts.
Just what are these direct and indirect impacts? The direct impacts largely fall into three areas. First — brand and reputational damage. Second — loss of customer trust. And third actual financial damage — a hit to a company’s stock price perhaps, loss of market share and so forth.
In fact sometimes we help the Russians by giving them things they can latch onto such as the hyperpartisanship and dysfunction we often see here in Washington. Like the recent standoff over the U-S debt ceiling.
So they take things that are happening in the world and they spin them out of proportion and they put them within a certain narrative and it creates a lot of questions in the minds of would-be US or Western trade partners — European trade partners as well — about whether or not it's a good investment to continue to work with Western firms. So in the process of spinning out these narratives — and this is not the primary objective of these narratives, but it is certainly an ancillary benefit that they're happy to exploit — they begin to create environments in which governments and other local partners question whether or not Western firms are who they should be doing business with. Because are those firms going to be looking out for their best interest or are those firms exploitative?
This is no small matter. Around half of all publicly-traded firms in the United States are multinationals. The average one, estimates the Brookings Institution, gets about 40-percent of its aggregate income from offshore. So when disinformation about an American company or sector is spread it could have an impact.
Chobani Oat: tastes like milk without the dairy
One example involves the New York-based yogurt company Chobani. Now why would a yogurt company be the target of a vicious disinformation campaign? Who would do such a thing?
Alex Jones [CLIP]
...And he's suing me for that (laughs) I've talked to my lawyers. This is a dream.
Why, it’s our old friend Alex Jones — the well-known conspiracy peddler — last heard on this series putting the families of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre through hell by insisting that the murders of their children never took place. He previously said that the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington were orchestrated by the U.S. government.
In 2017 Jones turned his sights on Chobani. Why? Because, he said, the company’s plant in Idaho — which employs immigrants — was connected to a sexual assault case and an outbreak of tuberculosis. The claims were posted on Twitter under the headline quote “Idaho Yogurt Maker Caught Importing Migrant Rapists” and from there it was off to the races, with other disreputable outlets spreading the claim.
Chobani sued, accusing Jones, his platform InfoWars, and its corporate parent Free Speech Systems of making false and defamatory statements. Chobani got the last laugh forcing Jones to issue this public retraction:
Alex Jones [CLIP]
During the week of April 10th, 2017 certain statements were made on the InfoWars Twitter feed and YouTube channel regarding Chobani LLC that I now understand to be wrong. The tweets and video have now been retracted and will not be reposted. On behalf of InfoWars I regret that we characterized Chobani, it's employees, and the people of Twin Falls, Idaho, the way we did.
Certain statements were made? That I now understand to be wrong? And that I regret making them? When people in a position like that say they “regret” something what it often means is they regret getting caught or regret being held accountable.
Jones falls into one of three categories of actors who peddle disinformation. He’s an opportunistic actor. There are also corporate actors and then state actors, like Russia, China and others.
That’s an example of a direct impact on a company. Meredith Wilson says indirect impacts on a company are harder to nail down.
That's where these long-standing narratives come in. Where you start to build this narrative that "All Republicans are this" or "All Democrats are this" or "All Americans are this." And in overseas markets what we see oftentimes is — and I think Thea has talked about this quite a bit — the way that Russia in particular sort of prepares the ground for their military operations or whatever they may be doing. In the case of West Africa they have seen several times these large-scale disinformation campaigns about the West and about Americans coming into Africa and creating Colonialism 2.0
She makes an interesting point here; Disinformation campaigns against the West, which can wind up damaging western companies, aren’t necessarily deployed in the West but in other parts of the world — like Africa — where the U.S. and other western nations are competing with Russia and China for not only influence but raw materials that are crucial to our 21st-century economies. Any corporation with a footprint there should always practice what I’ll call “information vigilance.”
I think one of the most important things is the consistent monitoring of the information environment in any place you're working. So whether that be West Africa or West L.A. you need to be aware of the communities where your people are working and where your products are being sold and where you as a company have a presence. Because that is where the issues are going to surface in real life. That said, it is also consistent monitoring of what's happening in the cyber world and the cyber sphere. Both on cyber security side, but especially on the information side. Those influence campaigns that sort of are bigger than borders. They cross all kinds of borders. Those kinds of disinformation campaigns that are being amplified by the Chinese, by the Russians, by people who simply don't like you.
Thea also chimes in on the indirect impacts of disinformation on companies and organizations often around the theme that the victim is Russia. It’s a theme, she says, which can find traction.
These narratives focus around a sense that Russia has been set up by the West. That Russia is the victim of the West actually undertaking a war against it using Ukraine as the justification. That they are attempting to undermine Russian democracy and the Russian economy and that it is all about the West attempting to exert it's influence hegemonically across the globe. And of course this has a number of follow-line narratives that, again, they can script very closely depending on the region or the country or the specific location. So if they've already established in the minds of some that the West is responsible for this war then it follows that the West is also responsible for food inflation and fuel inflation and global food insecurity and the limitation of countries to be able to effectively acquire fertilizers and things that they need to boost their own agricultural output. And so you can see that they've built this whole narrative around how the West is really damaging the whole world in it's effort to basically make Russia submissive.
Thus the message that folks in Africa — and also Latin America and Asia — often hear is one that they perhaps can relate to; A legacy of Western colonialism. Thea says this makes it easier for Moscow and Beijing’s messages to take root.
We see this a lot in Africa and South America where the narrative evolves from those ones that we just talked about to one in which there's sort of this anti-colonialism or neo-colonialism tinge to it all. And there's these accusations that Western companies are just going to come in, take the resources, exploit the local populations, leave the environment in ruin, all for corporate profit. That they're not there to invest back in the communities. And so when they work those narratives what that does is effectively denies Western businesses market access in some cases. It denies them access to necessary resources. We're looking at things like increased competitions for minerals and hydrocarbons and it can make that competition much more challenging. It can increase ESG scrutiny for compliance issues for companies who are operating in some of these areas. And in so doing it can also increase the physical security risks that Western firms are facing in a lot of places overseas.
The Russians also use another clever tactic to get their false narratives out. One that’s particularly difficult to combat. More on that after this short break.
This series on disinformation is a co-production of Evergreen Podcasts and Emergent Risk International: a global risk advisory firm.
Emergent Risk International: We build intelligent solutions that find opportunities in a world of risk.
Welcome back. That’s the opening to RT; a Russian TV network that for many years was a Kremlin platform used to spread Moscow’s messages. It’s largely gone on the West now, dropped by cable providers and other distributors. But that hasn’t stopped the Russians — and other malicious actors — from adapting.
One such way of adapting is called “web spoofing." Also known as “typo squatting” or sometimes “URL hijacking.” This relies on mistakes that we sometimes make when typing a website address into a web browser.
For example, by changing one letter in the address or by adding a different suffix — for example dot-co instead ofdot-com — some unsuspecting users could be drawn into a site that looks exactly like the real thing. Except for one or two stories that have been planted or tweaked to subtly get one message across.
For some reason this is a particularly big problem in Germany. Beatriz Saab of Democracy Reporting International tracks this stuff from Berlin. She calls such spoofed sites doppelgänger sites.
So they mimic German websites and the just change the final. Instead of "dot-de" they will do "dot-something else" and people will just not see that and they will consume that content thinking they were example the newspaper Bild in Germany.
Can’t this be stamped out? It’s sort of like playing whack-a-mole. A few years ago a group of companies in Sweden got together and established a central fact-checking platform to monitor disinformation. Guess what? That site was quickly spoofed itself made to look like the real thing.
Governments and companies, at least in the West, have stepped up their efforts to combat all this. But are we just scratching the surface? A Russian document leaked just a few weeks ago claims that only one percent of its efforts to spread disinformation have been detected. Though some Western experts question whether that boast itself is disinformation.
Thanks to Thea Gioe and Beatriz Saab for their insights.
Our sound designer and editor: Noah Foutz.
Audio engineer: Nathan Corson.
Executive producers: Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando.
And on behalf of Meredith Wilson I’m Paul Brandus. Thanks so much for listening.