- A company owned by a Google affiliate engaged in a small misinformation campaign in 2018 targeting Russian-language websites.
- The CEO of the company that engaged in the disinformation ploy is also a former Obama-era official who reportedly attempted to use Twitter in 2009 to disrupt Iranian political elections.
- Analysts warned the Google-affiliated company that not publicizing the campaign could create major blowback for company officials.
A Google-linked company called Jigsaw purchased a troll outfit and used it to engage in a small-scale misinformation campaign inside Russia, according to a WIRED report Wednesday.
Jigsaw engaged in the misinformation operation in March 2018 after hiring underground vendors and assigning a paid troll to attack a political activism website Jigsaw itself created as a target. The company’s CEO, Jared Cohen, is a former federal official who reportedly has some experience in using social media platforms to meddle in other countries’ affairs.
“Let’s say I want to wage a disinformation campaign to attack a political opponent or a company, but I don’t have the infrastructure to create my own Internet Research Agency,” Andrew Gully, a research manager at Jigsaw, told WIRED, referring to the Russian internet troll firm responsible for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
He added: “We wanted to see if we could engage with someone who was willing to provide this kind of assistance to a political actor … to buy services that directly discredit their political opponent for very low cost and with no tooling or resources required.” (RELATED: Did Russian Facebook Ads Actually Have Any Effect On The 2016 Presidential Election)
The operation was small and inexpensive — it cost $250 — but had a big goal: determine how easily and cheaply such a campaign could be distributed across dark corners of the Russian-speaking internet. Jigsaw created a website with a firm (not named) it hired and seeded the site with blog posts and comments for a political initiative called “Down With Stalin.” WIRED’s report does not mention the salary of employees who created the website or the cost of the software used to construct it.
The “Down With Stalin” operation engaged with an ongoing argument inside Russia about whether former Russian dictator Joseph Stalin should be remembered as a hero or a villain. Jigsaw chose a service called SEOTweet, a fake follower and retweet seller, to target the site. SEOTweet did the work for the rock-bottom price of $250.
SEOTweet ultimately posted 730 Russian-language tweets attacking the anti-Stalin site from 25 Twitter accounts, as well as 100 posts to blog comment sections of random websites. Jigsaw said several of the tweets appeared to be human-generated content. SEOTweet did not respond to reporter’s request for comments.
“These aren’t large numbers, and that’s intentional,” Gully told WIRED. “We weren’t trying to create a worldwide disinformation campaign about this. We just wanted to see if threat actors could provide a proof of concept.” Some experts worry about the secret-nature of the campaign given that Jigsaw never published its results or publicized its intention.
“I don’t think policymakers or your average citizen gets how dangerous this is, that the cost of entry is so low,” Alina Polyakova, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, told WIRED. “As an experiment, I don’t think this is a problem. What I do think is a problem is not actually publicizing it.” The disinformation campaign also notable given that its CEO, Cohen, attempted to interfere in Iran’s political institutions during the Obama-era.
Cohen, a former adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, contacted officials at Twitter in 2009 and asked the company not to shut down their services temporarily in Iran, where activists were using the platform to get information to the international media.
His decision roiled then-President Barack Obama, who had previously operated under a promise not to interfere in other countries’ affairs. A former Obama administration official told journalist Ryan Lizza in 2011 that the stunt almost cost Cohen his staffer job. But Clinton seemed proud of the move, according to Lizza, who at the time worked at The New Yorker.
“It’s easy to stand up if you don’t worry about the consequences. Now, we were very clear in saying, ‘We are supporting those who are protesting peacefully,’ and we put our social-media gurus at work in trying to keep connections going, so that we helped to provide that base for communicating that was necessary for the demonstrations,” Clinton told Lizza, who is now a CNN political analyst.
Google has not responded to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment about what Cohen’s role was in the caper.
Jigsaw is not the only U.S.-based outfit to employ a disinformation campaign. The CEO of cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, Jonathon Morgan, was one of the operatives on a self-described “false flag” operation designed to link Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore to Russian bots to boost his Democratic opponent, now-Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama.
New Knowledge’s caper had immediate blowback. Tech billionaire Reid Hoffman, for one, apologized for funding the group that had hired New Knowledge, and Jones called on the Federal Election Commission to investigate the operation, which managed to garner a significant amount of media fanfare while it was operating before the 2018 midterm elections.
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