Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about Media

Criminals, Not Spies

Masha Gessen, in a piece for The New Yorker:

We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available — convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.

I think this is exactly right. So much of the coverage depicts the Russian hacking as “vast” and “sophisticated”. As a technologist working in information security, I find this framing irresponsible and naïve at best — complicit at worst. (Sadly, even the former director of the CIA uses this framing.) The techniques are those used for fraud, extortion, blackmail, and the like. They effectively advance a criminal conspiracy because they’re simple, exploit human vulnerabilities. A far cry from clandestine government surveillance or espionage, the point is disinformation for the benefit of a very few. Painting it as “massive” or “advanced” only increases its effectiveness.

That’s just one aspect of the problematic coverage. Gessen also brings a sociological perspective to bear: The Russian government and its cohort more closely approximates a “Mafia state” than a dictatorship. A press that understands the difference will cover these people not as heads of state, but as criminals who happen to control states. I hope some, at least, take it to heart.

(Via Lauren Bacon)