In the fall of 2019, the long-awaited and bipartisan volume 2 of the Senate Intelligence Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 US Election was released to the public. This extensive study was primarily focused on Russia’s use of social media to influence both the Trump campaign and the election. The findings were ominous and highlighted three main techniques used:
Use of Automated Accounts and Bots. The use of automated accounts on social media has allowed social media users to artificially amplify and increase the spread, or “virulence,” of online content. Russia-backed operatives,exploited this automated accounts feature and worked to develop and refine their own bot capabilities for spreading disinformation faster and further across the social media landscape. In January 2018, Twitter disclosed its security personnel assess that over 50,000 automated accounts linked to Russia were tweeting election-related content during the U.S. presidential campaign.
Russian actors are prolific users of automated accounts and bots. Phil Howard, citing the findings of a study done by the Oxford Internet Institute, concluded that Russian Twitter networks “are almost completely bounded by highly automated accounts, with a high degree of overall automation.” His study assessed that “some 45 percent of Twitter activity in Russia is managed by highly automated accounts,” and that Ukraine remains “the frontline of experimentation in computational propaganda with active campaigns of engagement” between Russian and Ukrainian botnets. Early automation was fairly primitive and easier to detect and disrupt, but malicious bot activity has continued to grow in sophistication.
Use of Paid Internet “Trolls.” The act of “trolling” online has been a feature of the internet ecosystem since the development of online chat rooms, blogs, internet forums, and other early communications platforms. An internet “troll” is a real person sitting behind a keyboard who posts inflammatory, aggressive, harassing, or misleading messages online in an attempt to provoke a response from other users of social media. Kremlin-backed entities have spent years professionalizing a cadre of paid trolls, investing in large-scale, industrialized “troll farms,” in order to obscure Moscow’s hand and advance the aims of Russia’s information operations both domestically and abroad.
The types of AI used to power these bots, and the mentality of paid and hobbyist trolls who purposely spread disinformation, isn’t always reserved for elections, but it’s always political. Case, or cases, in point: Trolls and bots that auto-post negative reviews en masse of games, movies, and TV shows that usually feature women and people of color in empowered roles. When Larry Johnson of Entrepreneur Magazine wrote about this in December of 2019, he was already late to the game because Captain Marvel (here and here), Starwars, Batwoman, and others had already fallen victim to the practice.
Julia Alexander of Polygon argues it’s difficult to tell if the negative reviews, often posted by the thousands before a particular game, movie, or TV show is released, are genuine or bots as some outlets have reported. But she agrees the evidence for automated reviews is compelling. She points to a post on a 4-chan affiliated Facebook group that seemingly confesses to tanking the Rotten Tomato ratings of Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “Thanks to friends of mine who taught me a thing or two about Bot Accounts, I used them to create this audience score through Facebook accounts created that subsequently logged into Rotten Tomatoes who rigged this score and still keep it dropping.”
But it goes much deeper than that. In his research paper Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation, Morten Bay of the University of Southern California found “evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments (against the Star Wars film.) The likely objective of these measures is increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict, thereby adding to and further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society. Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the U.S. alt-right movement, as well as the Russian Federation. The results of the study show that among those who address(ed) The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson directly on Twitter to express their dissatisfaction, more than half were bots, trolls/sock puppets or political activists using the debate to propagate political messages supporting extreme right-wing causes and the discrimination of gender, race or sexuality. A number of these users appear(ed) to be Russian trolls. The paper concludes that… organized attempts at politicizing the pop culture discourse on social media for strategic purposes are significant enough that users should be made aware of these measures, so they can act accordingly.”
(See also: Surprise, Surprise: The ‘Alt-Right’ Claims Credit For ‘Last Jedi’ Backlash – An angry fanboy told HuffPost he used bots to flood Rotten Tomatoes with negative reviews of the new “Star Wars” movie)
Russia? REALLY?? COME ON!
If you’ve read the five volumes of the US Senate’s investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election, you know the name. If not, he just may be the richest man you’ve never heard of. With an estimated worth of $6.2 billion, Oleg Deripaska is a Russian billionaire and Kremlin insider. In a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2017, he was described as one of “2-3 oligarchs Vladmi Putin turns to on a regular basis.” He’s been denied U.S visas for his suspected connections to Russian organized crime.
During the 2016 election, US intelligence uncovered numerous | bots | of Russian origin infesting American social media channels spreading disinformation about Donald Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. At the height of this operation, Russian-linked automated Twitter accounts, or bots, retweeted Donald Trump almost half a million times in the final weeks before the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, according to testimony given by Twitter to the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating.
It was also during this time that then- Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, who is reportedly deep in debt to Deripaska, offered to provide private campaign briefings to him. Manafort also tried to influence high-ranking U.S. politicians in favor of Deripaska before working for Trump.
Manafort began working for Derapaska in 2005. According to Volume 1 of the Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election, the work Manafort did for Deripaska was “political risk insurance,” helping the Russian oligarch influence or elect friendly political officials in countries where Russians in general, and Deripaska specifically, had business interests. A memorandum describing work that Manafort performed for Deripaska in 2005 regarding the post-Soviet republics referenced the need to brief the Kremlin and the benefits that the work could confer on “the Putin Government.”
Deripaska is also linked to the decision by Russian authorities to arrest the Belarusian model Anastasia Vashukevich in a Moscow airport. Vashukevich claimed to have information about Deripaska and Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Some theorize she may be on the rumored video of sex workers urinating on Donald Trump that’s part of the infamous Steele Dossier.)
According to the New York Times, Deripaska offered to cooperate with congressional committees that were investigating the Russian hacking of the 2016 election in exchange for full immunity which would have given him complete protection from future prosecution for any matter mentioned in the immunized testimony. The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is Deripaska was either involved in this hacking operation or knew who was. This offer was declined but he was ultimately rewarded for something. In 2019, The Trump Administration lifted sanctions on three Russian firms tied to Deripaska. Congressional Democrats attempted to keep the sanctions in place. Senate Republicans, however, blocked the measure.
In April 2018, Deripaska was one of 24 Russians sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for the alleged actions of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegal wiretapping, extortion, and racketeering.
During the Senate’s Russian probe, FOX News reported Senator Mark Warner exchanged texts with a US lobbyist who was working for Deripaska. Warner was attempting to make contact with Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who authored the now-famous dossier detailing allegations of misconduct, conspiracy, and co-operation between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the government of Russia during the 2016 election.
This is where events begin to read like a spy novel, involving revelations this US lobbyist was not only working for Deripaska, but also for the Russian Foreign Ministry and Juilian Assange. Assange, already in exile to avoid prosecution for hacking US government systems and publishing classified documents to Wikileaks, claimed he had damaging information on the CIA and other government officials and this lobbyist was trying to broker a deal with the US government in which Assange wouldn’t release that info in exchange for Assange being allowed to return to the United States, possibly with full immunity.
That US lobbyist was Adam Waldman, who is now the legal representative of actor Johnny Depp, who is embroiled in two bitter libel suits involving his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard. Waldman could be due a hefty payday pending the outcomes of these trials.
Blind Gossip, Research, and Lawsuits, Oh My!
As this source wrote on July 25th, the well-respected Times of London reported NY Law Firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink employed Bot Sentinel, a group that uses artificial intelligence to detect and track troll bots & suspect Twitter accounts, to assess anti-Amber Heard tweets and to investigate if the actress “had been a victim of an ongoing targeted harassment and smear campaign.” The company achieved widespread attention in January of 2020 when they revealed on ongoing troll campaign against Lisa Page—the former FBI lawyer targeted by Donald Trump for text messages critical of him during the 2016 election. Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes first noticed a pattern among the almost 4,000 replies to a rather benign tweet from Page. Multiple accounts used the misogynistic term ‘homewrecker.’ Bot Sentinel’s compete analysis revealed “more than one in four of the replies to Page’s tweet come from accounts likely to be trollbots… a staggering 28.42 percent of them received Bot Sentinel “Trollbot rating” of 75 percent—the threshold for accounts that we classify as ‘alarming.'”
The concluding report in regard to Amber Heard claims to have identified active inauthentic accounts created specifically to target the Twitter account of Ms Heard and to push traffic to two anti-Amber Heard change.org petitions asking she be fired from two high profile projects. The report says “we noted the suspicious timing and strange activity associated with the petitions, and… investigate[d] further.”
“While monitoring the Remove Amber Heard from Aquaman 2 petition, we observed a significant number of fraudulent signatures, and we estimate 1 out of every 3 signatures were conspicuously fake or highly suspicious.”
The report concludes the tweets are being automated and implies associates of Mr. Depp could have instructed bot specialists to do the job. And in another total Trump-like move, the report also says the “accounts that were targeting Ms Heard were also promoting and praising Adam Waldman… it was unusual that inauthentic accounts were tweeting about Mr. Waldman and using similar talking points.”
Blind gossip, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a news story in which the details of the matter are reported while the identities of the often famous people involved are not revealed because, as Ringer wrote in their piece on the topic, “writing sensitive things about powerful people has always been a risky business, riddled with legal and ethical concerns.” Blind Gossip sites post stories daily, usually salacious, sometimes disturbing, that are often later revealed as true in more mainstream news outlets. Blind gossip sites are credited with breaking stories like Allison Mack‘s and Kristin Kreuk‘s involvement with cult leader Keith Raniere, and the sexual harassment cases of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer.
After receiving multiple but unproven tips throughout the Spring and Summer of 2020 regarding Waldman’s use of organized internet harassment and bots to taint the reputation of actress Amber Heard for the benefit of Depp, BlindGossip.com finally ran with a related blind item on August 6, though it was hardly “blind” anymore after the Times of London piece two weeks prior:
Just when you thought that the drama between these two famous actors could not get any more inflamed, we have another log to throw on the fire! While the now-divorced couple is involved in in an ugly and public battle, there is actually even more drama going on behind the scenes. Actress and her lawyers have been investigating the origins of several specific online attacks and petitions against her. It seems that they may not have been the organic work of rabid fans of her movie star ex-husband. There may have actually been a professional, coordinated and deliberate campaign to prevent her from securing work and earning a living. If that is the case, who would have coordinated and paid for such a campaign? They suspect that it may have been The Actor and/or one of his attorneys!
Regarding the allegations that Depp and/or Waldman are specifically attempting to ruin the professional reputation of Heard, the writer points out further:
If you think about the Weinstein case, cases were filed against the disgraced producer not just for his physical attacks on women, but for his attacks on their reputations and careers as well.
On August 20, The Hollywood Reporter Senior Editor Eriq Gardner confirmed that Amber Heard’s legal team has, indeed, filed a lawsuit against Johnny Depp for targeting his ex-wife on social media, specifically through the alleged deployment of “bots” to smear her and interfere with her career opportunities.
They Deny It, Of Course
When accusations about Russian interference in the 2016 election began surfacing, Donald Trump ridiculed them and referred to the charges as ‘fake news’ and ‘a hoax’ even after the Mueller Report and the Senate Intelligence Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 US Election proved otherwise. To this day, alt.right-influenced racist and misogynistic toxic fans react with ridicule whenever the topic of review bombing through bots is mentioned, even though they’ve admitted the practice and sites such as Rotten Tomatoes have taken steps to thwart it.
Likewise, some fans of Johnny Depp, and Depp’s attorney Adam Waldman, are reacting with a sort of stunned and faux ridicule of the very idea. In reaction to the charges by Heard and her legal team, Waldman tweeted, “Ms Heard’s Counterclaim are the allegations of fake petitions and non-human bots and trolls and some kind of dastardly Cyrillic Russian involvement!! And the spiders from Mars…” Like the two prior examples, this is a textbook example of the logical fallacy Appeal to Extremes, erroneously attempting to make a reasonable argument into an absurd one, by taking the argument to the extremes. Dastardly Cyrillic Russian involvement? Spiders from Mars? It all sounds so funny until it’s proven. Just ask Donald Trump and a host of internet movie review sites.
UPDATE: Is Adam Waldman fighting giving a sworn deposition on his social media activity?
Amazing that this lawyer in the midst of a defamation fight tweets out something false about me even after being told it’s false. What’s more, stunning that he can’t help himself even as he’s apparently about to fight having to give a deposition about social media activity. https://t.co/ggIpQ3lI3N pic.twitter.com/EAOqhRqNG8
— Eriq Gardner (@eriqgardner) September 2, 2020