back to article When it comes to hacking societies, Russia remains the master at sowing discord and disinformation online

While China is the bête noire du jour of the US government, Russia is the master of spreading disinformation, fostering conflict, and derailing discourse online, the Black Hat security conference was told today. At her Thursday keynote, Stanford Internet Observatory's research manager Renee DiResta explained how Russian …

  1. PhilipN

    Take your eyes off Russia for an instant

    ... and you will regret it.

    Unless of course you have something there you do not want anyone else to notice, eh Donny?

    1. David Shaw

      Re: Take your eyes off Russia for an instant

      And this El’Reg article mentions UK based Integrity Initiative journalistic nudge clusters exactly where?

      Answering my own question, I presume it is legal for the foreign office to fund integrity & the other home/world ‘attack’ disinformation groups that we run. After all, our agencies are allowed to break our own laws, when they need to. So, how is the GRU different? I presume corrupt Putie has granted his agencies their local-legality to do what they want...

      Back to “Donnie”, I still haven’t seen any evidence that he is Putin oriented, I’m looking for it, in accurate news analysis stateside, for example by Chuck Ross, but there is still zero evidence - but we’ve had several years of nudge attack disinfo- and I don’t think it is all from the GRU. Enjoy.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Putin not Russia

      1) If Russia was the problem, Putin would be able to run real elections. *Putin* is the problem here. There needs to be regime change in Russia, he's a threat to most of the world now, including the day to day threat most Russians face.

      2) Notice this:

      "Russia is ready to contribute to the peace process in Afghanistan by taking part in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project" [Says Vladimir Putin]

      “We presume that the Afghan people will still be able to agree among themselves, all political forces, ethnic groups will be able to come to a consensus,” he said. “As far as we can, we will contribute to this process, including by developing economic cooperation with Afghanistan, by taking part in various international projects, such as, for example, the TAPI,” said the president's message."

      "He said that negotiations are underway with the Taliban movement in Afghanistan."

      This is why he's paying the Taliban to kill US troops. TAPI is a pipeline that competes with Russian control of middle Asia's gas supply. Russia has nothing to do with TAPI, it does not run over Russian territory, it is not the customer of the gas, if anything it competes with TAPI. TAPI is a threat to Russia. He wants to kill it.

      So here Putin is back in 2018 trying to disrupt it, by injecting the Taliban into the project.

      Putin wants US out of Afghanistan, so he pays and arms the Taliban, they kill US troops, body bags go back to USA, Trump does a speech about how these brave men and women are killed by terrorists and he needs to save them, so he withdraws the troops. Afghanistan is destabilized, TAPI fails.

      A nice little double act between Trump and Putin that fools nobody, but that Fox News and Republicans can get behind the lie knowing it a lie but one they can sell to their viewers as true.

      And Trump gets a quid-pro-quo in the form of help staying in power. You see that yesterday, when we got details of Rudy Giuliani / Devin Nunes / Chuck Grassley discussions with Russians on an attack package against Biden.

      And also help in sustaining the Corona Virus, they need to be active for the upcoming election. If they want to close polling stations in Democrat leaning districts, the virus needs to be raging, and the second wave needs to be killing hundreds of thousands. That's a hard sell, Carlson/Ingraham/Hannity and the rest alone need help with Russian trolls pushing lies.

      "Russian intelligence services are using a trio of English-language websites to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to exploit a crisis that America is struggling to contain ahead of the presidential election in November, US officials said on Tuesday."

      The quid-pro-quo.

      As ever, check everything, verify everything, including everything I say above. Trust nothing.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @AC - Re: Putin not Russia

        Can you please remind us who was selling AK-47 to Afghan talibans during the soviet occupation ?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We are not us

    So basically, the Western public is so ignorant and gullible (not Ms. DiResta, of course), that they can be manipulated by a bunch of online trolls into pretty much anything. And yet they're allowed to do their voting and all that good and valuable stuff. Got it.

    1. HildyJ Silver badge

      Re: We are not us

      And the British public wasn't gullible at all about Brexit. Riiiiiight.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: We are not us

        Nah, come on. Some Brits are better than the British public. Not all of them are ignorant unwashed proles. The Russian trolls have already fractured the society separating the good ones from the bad ones. It's all the trolls, don't you know?

    2. jake Silver badge

      Re: We are not us

      Basically, yes and yes.

      The Western World has been cutting education for decades, in order to keep the public as ignorant and manipulable as possible. Russia has noticed that it works well, eh comrade?

      1. Lars Silver badge

        Re: We are not us

        "The Western World",

        You are talking only about the English speaking world.

        Education for profit and for the few and fraud like the late Trump "University".

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: We are not us

          Well, seeing as "English" (for various values thereof) is the lingua franca of TehIntraWebTubes, that "only" is a rather large value these days.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    El Reg is my only news source now. Gave up on all news and media during Corona. I'm so much happier in the company of well educated and critical thinking commentards along with mostly cynical reporting of events.

    Long live The Register.

    1. Michael Hoffmann
      Black Helicopters

      Darth Simon Sharwood: Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen it.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      "El Reg is my only news source now".

      That's unrealistic, as every source has its biasses and weaknesses. I recommend at least half a dozen well varied sources. Every day you should notice things that some sources get right, while others are wrong or prejudiced. That is good mental exercise, too.

      This very article is a fine example. I too consider The Reg a useful and generally accurate source. But the headline of this article "When it comes to hacking societies, Russia remains the master at sowing discord and disinformation online" is simply a quotation from one woman's speech. Yet it looks as if The Reg is offering that as its own considered opinion. At the very least, a competent editor would put the headline in quotation marks.

      Surely if one's society is showing serious signs of cracking up, with many groups angrily attacking other groups, it might suit some people's purpose to blame it all on Russia.

      To reduce matters to the absurd, maybe the GRU and ITA were responsible for the racial tension between Whites and Blacks in the USA - which was seething centuries before the GRU or its earliest predecessor came into existence.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Unwise

        Maybe unrealistic but I'm just simply not interested in the world anymore.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Unwise

          "Maybe unrealistic but I'm just simply not interested in the world anymore".

          Well, in that case of course you don't need any news sources at all. And a very creditable decision.

          If you read The Reg purely for entertainment, that is a good choice.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Long live

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward is dead. Long live!

  4. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Pot Kettle Blackhat .... and a Foretaste of A.N.Other Shade of Foreshadow* to Favour ....

    and Flavour and Savour** ‽

    "They really didn't do a very good job at getting people to pick up their content and amplify it," DiResta explained. "These are barely agents of influence, this is shockingly poor."

    Which is to be the fate and deserved destiny of your own excursion into the realms of shockingly poor influence, Renee? It is both virtually and practically guaranteed to be so here, and also much further afield in the live interests of the many who register their thoughts here for onward transport and vital critical transparent peer review.

    * ...the computer science world has misunderstood the microarchitectural flaw that enables Foreshadow, which can be exploited by SMARTRware Agents in/of any system to extract data from supposedly protected areas of memory – such as Intel SGX enclaves, and operating-system kernel and hypervisor addresses. Zero systems are invulnerable and immune from debilitating overwhelming attacks/crushing systemic crashes/flash 0day events.

    ** Or be terrified of and/or terrorised by?

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Pot Kettle Blackhat .... and a Foretaste of A.N.Other Shade of Foreshadow* to Favour ....

      "Zero systems are invulnerable"


      ::posted from my PDP-11 running BSD::

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Re: Pot Kettle Blackhat .... and a Foretaste of A.N.Other Shade of Foreshadow* to Favour ....

        Yes, .... Zero, jake. And it be a constant and consistent mistake which can be exceedingly costly to think otherwise.

        And the abiding systemic weakness aid for relentless vulnerability exploitation when and where in every SCADA Command and Control Situation? The Gift that just keeps on Giving ...... PEBKAC.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Pot Kettle Blackhat .... and a Foretaste of A.N.Other Shade of Foreshadow* to Favour ....

          You were clearly talking about the Foreshadow vulnerability in the paragraph I was replying to, amfM. Last time I checked, DEC kit doesn't have that particular problem. Nor does anything else non-Intel.

      2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        Re: Pot Kettle Blackhat .... and a Foretaste of A.N.Other Shade of Foreshadow* to Favour ....


        Were you serious about the PDP-11? What browser are you using? I would have thought that even an 11/93 or 94 would struggle with the most lightweight of browsers, unless you're still keeping Lynx or Lyx going, and if so, do may websites still provide text only rendering of web pages? Does X11 even work?

        Or do you have one of the Mentec upgrades or the ASIC re-implementations? But still, the memory restrictions inherent in the architecture would provide serious problems for modern browsers even with 22-bit separate I&D systems.

        Maybe I'll give it a go, but it would have to be in emulation for me.

        Of course, to counter the people who wonder why it is not vulnerable, the PDP-11 never included any speculative prefetch features, so by definition cannot suffer from any of these issues.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Pot Kettle Blackhat .... and a Foretaste of A.N.Other Shade of Foreshadow* to Favour ....

          She's a much hacked (in the hardware sense) /70 with pretensions of /73 and /74. The OS is 2.11BSD, with up to date official patches, and more than a few of my own.

          Many websites give text-only browsers trouble (ask our ElReg friend Shadow Systems). I generally write and bitch to the admins of GUI-only WWW stuff. Sometimes I get a reply, and sometimes they even upgrade to reflect the need for a text-only web presence. My vision is fine, it's the principle of the thing.

          Yes, she can run X, but I rarely bother ... this thing wasn't really built for graphics.

          Why do I keep this project going? Because I can, primarily. It's a form of meditation for me. But research, maintenance of old scientific systems (somebody's got to do it!) and a misguided sense of tradition are other reasons.

          If you want to play with an emulator, SIMH is the way to go. For the 11/70, you could do a lot worse than acquiring and building a PiDP-11 kit ... especially if you have kids in your life who are interested in the way that computers actually work. My granddaughter & I completed one a couple months ago (Covid-19 project), and she's still playing with it. 9 year olds are SUPPOSED to learn Fortran and PDP-11 assembler, right?

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: Pot Kettle Blackhat .... and a Foretaste of A.N.Other Shade of Foreshadow* to Favour ....

            Sorry, I forgot to mention the browser I use: It's Lynx ... There are other, arguably better, text-only browsers, but my fingers know lynx. That'll happen to a guy when he's been using software for a couple decades or so ... Why a text only browser? Well, think about it. 99% of everything useful that you browse is text[0], right? So it only stands to reason. I even use it in a terminal session on my more modern Slackware based GUI systems.

            [0] And would probably be perfectly readable in 7-bit ASCII, at that!

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Pot Kettle Blackhat .... and a Foretaste of A.N.Other Shade of Foreshadow* to Favour ....

        Zero. I was doing all kinds of nasty stuff to BSD on PDP-11 at least 30 years back.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Pot Kettle Blackhat .... and a Foretaste of A.N.Other Shade of Foreshadow* to Favour ....

          Things have changed a trifle in 30 years. You can try on this one. It's online, if you know where to look. Enjoy :-)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pot Kettle Blackhat... Favour ....

      "...pushes a certificate of its own existence ahead of its own body.."

      somewhere @#65, comments section (erased by Staff).

  5. Potemkine! Silver badge

    Jamal Khashoggi killings

    Was there any consequence of Saudi Arabia to kill and cut in pieces a US resident? Nope, none.

    Trying to manipulate opinion was useless. Giving big checks to the ones in power is much more effective.

    dezinformatsiya was a program implemented by Stalin in 1923

    In Russian tactic and strategy, there's always a part called Maskirovka. It's a long, long tradition.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Not really

      Maskirovka is a set of techniques for misleading the enemy about what one is going to do oneself. It is not essentially anything to do with introducing dissension into enemy ranks.

      Besides, nothing could be more redundant than to try to set Americans against one another. It's like teaching fish to swim.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      So… Did the Germans make soap from corpses during WWI (that is World War One)?

  6. Charlie Clark Silver badge


    Russia needs the rest of the world for investment and trade (including food), China doesn't China's priorities have always been with the Middle Kingdom, which is why it has such sophisticated social and electronic controls within the country. By and large it doesn't care about international public opinion except when it reflects back to China: invite the Dalai Lama officially and you can expect a response designed to stoke Han nationalism in China. When it wants favourable legislation, it just gets the cheque book out, which Russia can't do to same scale: compare energy deals in Eastern Europe with the "belt and road" initiative.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Priorities


      You forgot the HUGELY successful appeal by China to western greed! Over the past forty years, the Chinese appeal to the western taste for "the cheapest source" has had spectatcular results (and not just for Apple Corp):

      - hollowing out of western manufacturing

      - hollowing out of western technical knowledge and skill

      - increased reliance by western educational institutions on Chinese money


      You are right about one thing -- as long as China is making lots of money for western corporations, the Chinese do not need to care about OPINIONS in the west!

      1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        Re: Priorities

        That was just a continuation of the outsourcing of manufacturing to Asia: Japan, Taiwan, Korea, etc.

        For some products manual labour in China has become too expensive so it's now either replacing people with robots or moving production to cheaper places like Laos and Cambodia. Or labour camps in Xinjiang or North Korea, difficult to get cheaper than those, largely because the real costs is borne by the state.Good

        Economics since Adam Smith has a reasonable history that trade, specialiation and investment tend to offset each other over time. The bigger problem tends to be failing to continue to invest in skills leaving you with less to trade in the future. Hence, Germany and Japan have a much better trading relationship with China than the US does because they still produce capital goods that it wants. But America does well by exporting education and importing investment. This is largely down to the dominance of the US dollar, so you need US assets in order to trade interntionally, but the capital markets are also more liquid and reliable than China's own. Though that my change if exchange in Shanghai becomes less of a casino and they don't fuck up Hong Kong any more.

    2. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: Priorities

      By and large it doesn't care about international public opinion except when it reflects back to China: ...... Charlie Clark

      Now, you're not gonna be right charlie, Charlie Clark, are you .... and tell us, by and large, that any Western countries care much at all about international public opinion ? That would be risible and no less and nothing more than blatant disinformation akin to nonsensical propaganda.

  7. _LC_ Silver badge

    Can we have more...

    Can we have more on Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, please?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So Ms. DiResta is criticising the Chinese for their poor skills at sowing discord on social media

    Yet if they were world class successful, she'd be complaining about that as well.

    News at 11.

    On a scale of 1 - 10, how does she rate the USA's ability to sow division, dissent, discord and mistrust in every country on the planet? Rhetorical - the answer is 11. But they're the good guys. /s

  9. poohbear

    Not a word about CIA embedded journalists at assorted main stream media?

    Shoddy research.

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Because they're aren't any. US media is divided enough that it doesn't need any help. Not that the spooks are any good at that sort of thing, but they're normally too busy trying to manufacture terrorist threats: see the background to the film The Day Shall Come for more information.

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        @Charlie Clarke ... who thinks there are no CIA embedded journalists in media?

        Oh yes there are, CC. Although I would not disagree with you whenever you say the spooks are not very good at that sort of thing.

        It's that old "Pay Peanuts, get Monkeys" thing, methinks.

        And ..... should that be wrong, whatever is Uncle Sam playing at, for they certainly should be playing that Great Game? Do you think that is why everything is going TITSUP* over there?

        *Total Inability To Support Usual Performance.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      You're probably confused what website you're on - this is not

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        A Flit, and Not a Dirty Deed, Done in the Dead of Night :-)


        You're probably confused what website you're on - this is not .... Anonymous Coward

        The probable confusion is likely caused because on or around 30th May 2020 El Reg moved from its former aged home to its current new address.

        Enjoy .... Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap ..... and celebrate what was, obviously because hardly anyone at all noticed, a very successful rehousing. :-)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: A Flit, and Not a Dirty Deed, Done in the Dead of Night :-)

          @amanfromMars 1

          I facetiously meant that with the .com domain, the reporter has to show allegiance to the US rather than to the UK any more, so he can't be seen to criticise the CIA.

      2. jake Silver badge

        A rose, by any other meme ... The Bard himself might have put it. Allegedly.

  10. A_Melbourne

    Fake "China Experts"

    The "China Experts" are a select club of "Yes Men" who keep on being rotated. The only thing they have in common is the vilification of everything Chinese.

    "How Western Media Fabricate The “China Experts”"

    All their predictions have been failures. I doubt if any of them can speak Mandarin or read and write it.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Precious And Fragile Things...

    ...Need special handling

  12. EnviableOne Silver badge

    who knew

    Its easier to sow hate and discord than love

  13. Uncle Ron

    Is it Time?

    I'd really like an opinion on whether it's time to cordon off these evil state actors like China and Russia from the world wide internet. Russia has taken steps to cut it's own people off, and China has been filtering the web from it's people for years. I feel China and Russia (and Iran, and well known scammer domains) need to be cut off. Huh?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is it Time?

      If you're advocating that the western way of life should be a role model for these "backward" societies, cutting them off would have exactly the opposite effect.

      And there is nothing their leaders would like better.

      The sooner the politicians start adopting a win-win approach rather than win-lose on every topic, the better off everyone will be.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @AC - Re: Is it Time?

        If Russia would adopt US way of life they will have to put in prison a hell lot of people to reach parity. And I strongly doubt they will have enough handguns to give to the people in order to align with the US way of life.

  14. martinusher Silver badge

    All Part of the Routine de-Humanization Process

    If you deconstruct what our officials are saying -- and many sem to be parroting -- it appears that anything that differs from the current Party Line is 'disinformatoin' planted by the Russian state to sow dissent and discord among our prosperous, freedom loving societies. Its difficult to know where to start with this, its so preposterous. First of all, let's assume that in a society like ours, especially one where inequality is now rife and poverty is now endemic, is going to have its share of malcontents. They're not going to need a Russian or anyone else to stoke their dissatisfaction, their own government's doing a great job of this altready. Then, let's assume that "Russia" might just be a country of 150 million or so, some of which have ties to "the West" and might actually be living among us. (PANIC!!!!) They might like to stick their oar into any debate or other online thread, just as I, a Californian, might like to weigh in on things going on in the UK.

    Its all just a rather crude attempt to get the Reds back under the Bed by a government that knows that comfortable majority or not the economic Doomsday clock is ticking. So now its all "Oceana is now at war with Eurasia, comrades! Big victories are about to be reported! The chocolate ration has been increased!" Swalow that lot and you're a fool indeed.

  15. c1ue

    It would be nice if some of Ms. DiResta's other initiatives (and potential conflicts of interest) were more clear.

    Among them:

    1) Part of a cyber security company: New Knowledge name changed to Yonder. Past or still present?

    2) Multiple online mentions of her doing research into the Internet Research Agency - self licking cone action going on here?

    3) Director at Data for Democracy. Incredibly intrusive web site. How is it funded? Freedom House/BBG action?

    Perhaps this was covered in Ms. DiResta's talk, but failure to differentiate between pure profit motive/attention trolling vs. nation state actors and motivations is a serious oversight. It has been documented since 2016 that there is a world of people out there who don't even speak English well, but understand internet attention/advertising economics well enough to pull outrageous memes from fringe sites to provoke anger and attention and to then monetize via advertising. See the Wired article about the Macedonian Fake News Complex.

    And most importantly: it is the Western, for profit social media companies and their algorithms which underpin this activity.

    It is their algorithms which are choosing for "high emotion" = "high divisiveness"/"high anger".

    How incredibly convenient to blame negative social media outcomes on Russia - as opposed to the people and institutions without which this type of activity is literally impossible.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Social media is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a GRU."

    ("pitch black" being the opposite of transparent)

  17. Claptrap314 Silver badge

    Why not both?

    Okay, so China's attempts at internet influence have (to date) failed. So? Are they not pouring billions into universities that are friendly? Are they not buying AI researchers with generous grants? Have they stopped their expansionism in the South China Sea? Is their Belt and Road initialize just so many talking points? They've never even bothered to play nice. Just because the threat you chose to focus on is relatively weak does not imply that the threat is negligible overall. Looks like Pooh bear has a new Honey.

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