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Russia Struggled to Promote Stolen DNC Emails; WikiLeaks Took Care of That

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Russia Struggled to Promote Stolen DNC Emails; WikiLeaks Took Care of That

2019-11-14 12:42:26

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Julian Assange (Image source: David G Silvers via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s been much talk for three years over the culpability of Russia in their efforts to interfere with the 2016 United States presidential election. There have been questions regarding whether they were aligned with the Trump campaign, whether they were trying to hurt Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, who stole the documents and emails, etc. 

But one of the biggest questions has revolved around how the documents and emails that were stolen by Russian military hackers ended up on WikiLeaks. Former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone is currently on trial for being that go-between. A new report, “Potemkin Pages & Personas: Assessing GRU Online Operations 2014-2019,” shows the effort wouldn’t have even done near the damage if not for the help of WikiLeaks.

The report was created by analyzing data the Senate Intelligence Committee received from Facebook. It showed that the Russian military hackers (GRU) tried to publicize stolen documents as early as June 14. This effort was through a Facebook post that read, “Check restricted documents leaked from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign staff,” that was accompanied by a link. But all it was about to garner was 11 “likes” and 17 shares. There were zero comments.

Guccifer 2.0, a fake Twitter persona sent direct messages to American journalists, and that brought news coverage. But once WikiLeaks published the documents five weeks later and tweeted a link to its 3.2 million followers, it was a whole other story. 

The fallout led to the Democratic chairwoman resigning the night before the Democratic National Convention that was set to officially nominate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The emails that were released showed the party officials preferred her over fellow candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

It’s thought that the report prepared by disinformation researchers from the Stanford Internet Observatory with lead author Renee DiResta using the Senate Intelligence data provides the most complete picture to date of the social media work of the GRU.  

While it was known that the Russians had been working on a disinformation campaign that led to fake news on social networks, the report showed that the GRU set up fake online personas and pushed racial messages through Facebook. Former special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 GRU officers last year for their role in interfering with the U.S.election.

“One thing this report shows is that what happens on social media doesn’t stay isolated to social media,” said Sen Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel. 

“Platforms like Facebook can also serve as the launching pad for narratives that spread throughout the information ecosystem. These big platforms need to do a better job of making sure they don’t become tools for Russia manipulation of American voters, and responsible actors need to take serious stock of how they interact with, rely on, and amplify the information found on those platforms.”

Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) opined, “This report helps us better understand how the GRU conducts its information warfare operations. It’s clear that the foreign influence threat is persistent and evolving, and we cannot flag in our collective effort to combat it.” 

Researchers who have studied Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election have noted how publishing the DNC documents were effective in disrupting the election, and that the outcome was Donald Trump narrowly winning the electoral college and losing the popular vote by 3 million votes.

It is especially poignant now in the midst of the impeachment inquiry. This centers on Donald Trump asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to conduct investigations of former President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s work with the Burisma energy company as well as the 2016 election. 

With the investigations of the election, Trump is trying to show that it was Ukraine who was responsible for the theft of the DNC emails and documents and wants to prove that they’re residing on a Ukrainian server. That’s already been proven false, and the information in this report makes it clear that it was Russia who stole the documents and not Ukraine.

“We were stunned by what a failure it was,” said DiResta of the GRU’s operation to spread the documents. “Maybe that’s why the IRA (Internet Research Agency created by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin) exists. ... Maybe there’s a recognition that this is a different form of propaganda.” 

The document publication in July wasn’t the only Democratic information published by WikiLeaks. They also published stolen emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

The IRA pushed the emails as well as the documents from the previous release through its Twitter accounts, according to previous research by two Clemson University professors. They found 18,000 tweets over one 24-hour period from IRA accounts the day before WikiLeaks published the Podesta emails. Because of that timing, it’s suggested that there is a definite tie between the GRU and IRA. 

Camille Francois, a disinformation researcher who studied the materials Facebook gave to the Senate Intelligence Committee, believes the data shows that the GRU and IRA may have worked together.

While it’s still not clear if the Trump campaign worked with Russia or the GRU specifically, it’s not hard to see how different things could have turned out if Russia’s unsuccessful attempt to spread the documents would have stood, and WikiLeaks was never brought in. It was known that there were many voters who were undecided through much of 2016. 

There were many Sanders voters who didn’t want to vote for Clinton. Did the glut of published DNC information convince them to vote for Trump instead of Clinton? Would it have been different without that influence? It’s something we will never know.

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