I’ve spent 3 years researching Russian active cyber measures. Ask Me Anything.

Where is the center of Russki cyber attacks? What city?

The propaganda arm of the 2016 election interference was run out of a company called the Internet Research Agency which is based in St. Petersburg Russia. The company is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman, with ties to Putin. The actual hacking of the DNC was conducted by FSB agents, most likely based out of Romania. In recent years, the Internet Research Agency has been expanding to other English speaking countries with cheap labor, such as Ghana and Nigeria.

Do you think Russia will try to take us over if our country starts falling apart?

Russia doesn’t appear to be interested in that kind of overhead. In a PBS interview, one Russian propagandist said that the goal was influence, “Its better to persuade than to kill.”

In the Russian invasions of the last 15 years (Crimea and Georgia) Russian troops were utilized because it was a small amount of land that needed to be controlled. I would expect a Russian approach against the United States to be more like Ukraine: destabilize; back separatists; cut deals with the home grown wealthy and powerful; and control by proxy (watch Netflix’s Winter On Fire for more).

Did Vladimir Putin know about the operation?

Yes, it has been confirmed by multiple intelligence reports that Vladimir Putin had direct knowledge, and approval of the activities.

Do you think Putin has kompromat [compromising information] on Trump, e.g. about money laundering thru DeutscheBank?

Based on multiple reports, including the Steele Dossier, yes, I think Putin has kompromat on Trump. I think he has the infamous peepee tape, as well as financial leverage, including the promise that he will get to build a Trump Tower in Moscow if he plays along.

The truth is, for some reason, Trump has a blatant disregard for the law and ethics, so he feels he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. For example, according to an interview with Pulitzer prize winner, Ronan Farrow, the National Enquirer has been using their finances and power to collect negative stories about Trump, and then squashing them. They did that with Stormy Daniels, and according to Ronan Farrow, they have a list of at least 60 other stories about Trump that they’ve squashed.

Now, not all of those 60 stories are true or legitimate. However, kompromat doesn’t have to be true to be damaging. Rumors, whisper campaigns, and even manufactured items are well within the FSB portfolio. I think Putin and the FSB have A LOT of kompromat on Trump.

Do you think Putin put him up to running for president from the beginning? Because 45 never thought he’d win. What was the rationale behind running and not winning?

Trump has been talking about running for President since the 1980’s, and his views have remained remarkably consistent (America first, get out of foreign alliances, etc., all the things that Putin and Russia love to hear).

I don’t know what finally sparked Trump to officially run in 2015. What we do know is that when Trump entered, the Russian bots and hackers were supporting his campaign, including spreading rumors in the Republican primary that Ted Cruz (his chief opponent) had a father who was somehow involved in JFK’s assassination.

As far as Trump’s rationale, he admitted that he thought his campaign would be done by January, and even the Russian bots on the eve of the election were promoting things about Hillary stealing the election, to try and make her administration ungovernable. Nobody thought he would win, but somehow he did.

One of the main strategies of propaganda is NOT to blackmail or coerce someone into believing what you believe, but find someone who already agrees with you, and give them a bigger microphone.

How does the California Separatist movement fit in to Russian influence?

Excellent question! AND I also have some extra insight into this, because I was a paid consultant for CALEXIT for about a month.

So, first, how does it fit into the overall strategy: Casey Michel of Politico synopsizes it best, “People who know the Russian political playbook say winking at these fringe movements—and even giving them a boost—is a part of a very real strategy,… Not only is this a way of puffing Russia’s domestic claims at turmoil in the U.S., but it fits firmly within the Kremlin’s modus operandi of cultivating fringe groups in the West—most especially those who would fracture the United States in a reprise of the Soviet Union’s demise, over a quarter-century later.” (Politico

And this is more than just financial support. If you go to Russia Today’s English website, and search CalExit, the topic comes up in 17 different articles, compared with CNN which only has 6 articles, almost 3 times as many.

In addition, Russia is pushing more than just CALEXIT. In 2015, Russia hosted a conference of separatist groups, including Texas, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, as well as provinces of Catalan (Spain), Ireland, Italian separatists, Western Sahara, and Ukraine (we’ll get back to Ukraine). I happen to know that Russia paid for airplane tickets and hotel rooms for the attendees, including the Calexit people, and fronted some cash which allowed them to create presentation materials. The Calexit people used it to publish copies of a book that the founders had written, and distributed for free when they got to the conference.

Now, with CALEXIT, you can kind of laugh at that, and the idea of the US fracturing, but some of these groups that Russia supported are really doing some severe damage. In 2017, Catalan, Spain pushed for a referendum on independence, and the Spanish government called it a violation of the constitution, and there was violence in the streets over it. (Wikipedia)

In Ukraine, Russia has been wading a deadly separatist war after their hand-picked, pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted. Part of this is for control of Ukraine’s mineral resources (diamonds, etc.), and part of it is to reclaim Soviet glory.

Now, specifically about the Calexit people. As I said, I was a paid consultant for them. They didn’t pay me much, but I did get to talk with one of the leaders of the movement. I asked him if he was getting funded from Russia, and his honest answer was, he didn’t know. He told me about the separatist conference and the funding from that, but beyond that, they didn’t get any money directly from the Russian government. However, he could not be sure about whether or not some Russian oligarch opened up their wallet and donated a bunch of money to their group online; he had no way of knowing that.

How would our internal audits go about verifying whether or not there has been interference, whether it be direct hacks or passive social engineering, to the democratic primary race?

First, in regards to direct hacks of the election process, there are several methods that the hackers could take. They could directly change votes in the machine. This could be remedied by always ensuring that paper ballots are retained, which most states do (but not all).

Second, hackers could act by removing people from the rolls, or changing their address, which would change their polling place. This could be remedied by tracking the number of provisional ballots filed at polling places, while simultaneously tracking the numbers of registered voters who have had their polling places changed within the last 18 months. This could be done via a simple SQL comparison function.

However, many Republican legislatures, and Republican secretaries of state have pushed for removing voters from the rolls, and actively making it more difficult for “certain groups” to vote by employing voter ID laws, and closing polling places. If neighborhood A has 12 polling precincts, and neighborhood B has 4 polling precincts, and the population is the same, then lines to vote will be 3 times longer in Neighborhood B, causing people to not want to wait around to vote, couching something evil in something that is just inconvenient.

Effectively, Republican legislatures and Republican Secretaries of State are helping the Russian hackers do their job for them.

Now, passive social engineering is managed through propaganda. Kathleen Jamieson wrote a great book on this called Cyberwar, about how framing and propaganda was used in the 2016 election.  (CyberWar)

In it, she highlights several graphs of spending by the campaigns, and how the votes would have likely played out without Russian interference. There are a variety of internal audit factors that could be used to evaluate these items including spending, volunteering, past polling, social media tagging, etc.

Now, as it relates to the Democratic primary race specifically, you saw a lot of swings in the Democratic leaders over the past several months. Take for example Pete Buttigieg. Mayor Pete won the Iowa caucuses, but after his victory, his numbers declined. At the same time, there was a sharp increase of false accusations about Mayor Pete, including that he and the DNC used CIA tactics to beat out Bernie Sanders. (Iowa Caucus, Fact vs. Fiction)  

Now, we don’t have the detailed social media data on the Democratic primary, but we also saw several swings for candidates like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, followed by declines. To this day, if you do a search for Kamala Harris, one of the top results is an article in the Republican outlet, “The Federalist” about Kamala Harris’ record on marijuana prosecutions, which is intentionally designed to slander her. Most people saw the accusatory headline “Kamala Harris Laughs At Marijuana Use Despite Putting 1,560 People Away For It“, but did not read the article or watch the actual video that falsely claimed she laughed at sending 1,500+ people to jail for marijuana. I use this as an example of how propaganda is spread through social media, and impacts a candidacy without being true.

What steps can average citizens take right now to ensure their vote counts?

Average citizens can do a lot.

1. Call your legislatures every day to demand election security reforms (and fully funding those reforms), including secure vote by mail in every state. Call your Representative in the House, call both Senators, call your State Assembly member, and State Senator, hell, call your county commissioners/registrars, because it’s the counties that administer the elections.

2. Realize that this is an information war, and there are bad actors online, both in the form of false news outlets, and people pretending to be Americans, putting out information to make you angry, because once they can make you angry, then the logic centers of your brain shut down, and they can get you to believe anything.

So be vigilant, fact check headlines via Google Searching, and make sure you follow reputable online news sources on social media, like these Top 10 News Brands to Trust. 

3. If you see someone in your social media posting an article that may be bogus, comment on the post with facts, and a link if available. We’re all in this together, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

4. Recognize the patterns of Russian propaganda. According to foreign policy fellow, Clint Watts, Russian propaganda comes in 4 forms:

Political Messages – Designed to tarnish democratic leaders and undermine democratic institutions [ex. your vote won’t be counted]

Financial Propaganda – Created to weaken confidence in financial markets, capitalist economies and Western companies [ex. America and the EU are driving the economy of the world down with their colonialist policies; Biden takes huge donations from oil companies, so he can’t be trusted to fix climate change]

Social Unrest – Crafted to amplify divisions amongst democratic populaces to undermine citizen trust and the fabric of society [ex. Bernie was robbed of the nomination so we have to have a #DemExit; that Demo-Rat Senator doesn’t know what he’s talking about and needs to be taken out, and other calls to violence]

Global Calamity – Pushed to incite fear of global demise such as nuclear war or catastrophic climate change [ex. America is going to start a fake war with Syria, which will lead to WW3]

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