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US teams up with NATO to seize control of Kremlin-backed bot farm

Published: 13:12 BST, 10 July 2024 | Updated: 14:46 BST, 10 July 2024

The Justice Department is claiming a win after announcing the shutting down of a Kremlin-backed bot farm that was set up in order to spread discord across the US regarding Russia‘s foreign policy. 

According to a press release from the DOJ, the bot farm ran close 1,000 accounts on Elon Musk‘s X social media platform. 

The South African billionaire has made dozens of posts in recent days regarding election integrity but has not so far mentioned the presence of politically active bot accounts on X.  

‘Today’s actions represent a first in disrupting a Russian-sponsored Generative AI-enhanced social media bot farm,’ FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. 

‘Russia intended to use this bot farm to disseminate AI-generated foreign disinformation, scaling their work with the assistance of AI to undermine our partners in Ukraine and influence geopolitical narratives favorable to the Russian government.’

The person behind the scheme is believed to be a Russian national who is registered a foreign agent with the State Department. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of the state-controlled Russia Today.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long maintained that his government does not meddle in other country’s affairs 

An example of a fake social media post that was created by the bot farm, according to the DOJ 

An example of a fake account that the Justice Department says was created to post pro-Russia content

‘Since at least 2022, RT leadership sought the development of alternative means for distributing information beyond RT’s standard television news broadcasts,’ the DOJ’s statement read. 

‘In response, Individual A led the development of software that was able to create and to operate a social media bot farm.’

Russia’s FSB security service agents also accessed the bot farm which saw accounts posing as Americans posting pro-Kremlin content. 

The advisory said that as of last June, the software – known as Meliorator – only worked on X but that its functionality probably could be expanded to other social media networks. 

A joint cybersecurity advisory from the countries involved in the operation, including Canada and Israel, is calling on the tech giants behind social media sites to do better in terms of security against nefarious foreign agents. 

‘We support all civic engagement, civil dialogue, and a robust exchange of ideas. But those ideas should be generated by Americans, for Americans. The disruption announced today protects us from those who use unlawful means to seek to mislead our citizens and our communities,’ prosecutor Gary Restaino said Tuesday. 

The disruption of the bot farm comes as U.S. officials have raised alarms about the potential for AI technology to impact this year’s elections and amid ongoing concerns that foreign influence campaigns by adversaries.

Another fake account in which the ‘user’ encouraged followers to ‘question everything’

Russia’s FSB security service agents also accessed the bot farm which saw accounts posing as Americans posting pro-Kremlin content

Officials said that the Russian operatives intended for the bot farm to spread beyond X and on to other platforms

 Officials are concerned that bot farms could sway opinions of unsuspecting voters, as happened during the 2016 presidential campaign when Russians launched a huge but hidden social media trolling campaign aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Among the fake posts, according to the Justice Department, was a video that was posted by a purported Minneapolis, Minnesota resident that showed Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that areas of Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania were ‘gifts’ to those countries from liberating Russian forces during World War II.

In another instance, the Justice Department said, someone posing as a U.S. constituent responded to a federal candidate’s social media posts about the war in Ukraine with a video of Putin justifying Russia’s actions.

At the same time the farm was taken down, security officials in the US said they had not seen Russia shift on its preference from previous presidential elections on who it prefers to win this year, a U.S. intelligence official said on Tuesday, indicating that Moscow again favors Trump.

The official, briefing reporters on U.S. election security, did not name the former president and presumptive Republican nominee when asked who Moscow wants as the next U.S. president. 

But he indicated that Russia favored Trump, saying the U.S. intelligence community had not changed its assessments from previous elections.

Those assessments had found that Moscow tried through influence campaigns to help Trump win in 2016, opens new tab against Hillary Clinton and in 2020 against President Joe Biden.

This week, security officials in the US said that the Kremlin still wants Donald Trump in the Oval Office 

‘We have not observed a shift in Russia’s preferences for the presidential race from past elections, given the role the U.S. is playing with regard to Ukraine and broader policy toward Russia,’ said the official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The Trump campaign responded to this allegation by saying Biden was weak on Russia, as evidenced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

‘When President Trump was in the Oval Office, Russia and all of America’s adversaries were deterred, because they feared how the United States would respond,’ Karoline Leavitt, the Trump campaign’s press secretary, said in a statement. 

Trump frequently has criticized the scale of U.S. military support for Ukraine – some $60 billion since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 – and called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy ‘the greatest salesman ever.’

Two of Trump’s national security advisers have presented him with a plan to end U.S. military aid to Ukraine unless it opened talks with Russia to end the conflict.

On policy toward NATO, Trump has said he would ‘encourage’ Russia to do ‘whatever the hell they want’ to any alliance member that did not spend enough on defense and he would not defend them. 

The NATO charter obliges members to come to the defense of members that are attacked.

The ODNI official conducted the briefing on condition of anonymity with ODNI colleagues and officials from the FBI and the National Coordinator for Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience, an agency that conducts cyber defense for the government and works with private industry.

Russian-run bot farms were behind Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election, experts believe 

He defined election influence as efforts to shape the outcome of polls or undermine democratic processes, while interference constitutes efforts to disrupt the ability of the U.S. to hold a free and fair vote.

The U.S. has not monitored plans by any country to “degrade or disrupt” the country’s ability to hold the November elections, he said.

But Russia, he continued, through social media and other means has begun trying to influence specific groups of U.S. voters in battleground states, “promote divisive narratives and denigrate specific politicians,” whom he did not identify.

“Russia is undertaking a whole of government approach to influence the election, including the presidential, Congress, and public opinion,” he said.

Moscow “determines which candidates they’re willing to support or oppose largely based on their stance toward further U.S. aid to Ukraine and related issues,” said the official. “It’s all the tactics we’ve seen before, primarily through social media efforts” and “using U.S. voices to amplify their narratives.”

A new intelligence community assessment published this week on the ODNI website said Russia “remains the primary threat to our elections” and that unidentified “Russian influence actors” secretly plan to “sway public opinion” in swing states and “diminish U.S. support for Ukraine.”

Russia recently has been seeking to influence U.S. audiences through “encrypted direct messaging channels,” said the official. He did not elaborate.

China is assessed as currently not planning “to influence the outcome of the presidential race,” the official said.

The U.S. views China as its leading geostrategic rival. Beijing and Washington have been working to ease strains. The Chinese embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Beijing is trying to expand its ability to collect and monitor data from social media platforms “probably to better understand and eventually manipulate public opinion,” the official said.

The official called generative artificial intelligence a “malign influence accelerant” being increasingly used to “more convincingly tailor” video and other content ahead of the November vote.

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