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Sept. 20, 2018
Notes from the Pentagon

NATO on fake news and post-truth
A report by the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence highlights the growing use of “fake news” in the era of “post-truth” politics.

Fake news has become a rallying cry of both the political left and right. The phrase rose to prominence as a favorite epithet of President Trump in his frequent denunciations of false and misleading news stories on CNN and in The New York Times about him and his administration.

Fake news is defined in the report as “the dissemination of false information via media channels (print, broadcast, online). This can be deliberate (disinformation), but can also be the result of an honest mistake or negligence (misinformation).”

The 129-page study, produced together with the King’s Center for Strategic Communications in London, defines the post-truth world as one where facts do not matter if they do not support someone’s opinions or ideas. The report warns that the combination of fake news and post-truth politics in public debate will undercut the influence of facts in determining national policies.

“What is at stake is the risk that only a limited set of information and evidence is considered in political discourse and policy development,” the report says.

The report argues that the massive proliferation of information and news outlets has made it much easier to lie through spreading misinformation as false news.

“Echo chambers and filter bubbles now dominate our social media newsfeeds through the use of sophisticated algorithms,” the report said. “The destructive effects of these filter bubbles can be seen in the political culture of the U.S. [presidential election] and the U.K. [Brexit vote] in 2016, while similar events can be seen to have occurred in Ukraine, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela and beyond.”

Russia remains a leader in information warfare and the use of fake news. “Russia’s goal, as seen from the West, is to deprive audiences of the ability to distinguish between truth and lies by creating as many competing narratives as possible in the global media space,” the report said.

The aftermath of the 2016 hack-and-release influence operation showed Moscow’s use of troll farms, state-controlled media like Sputnik and RT and GRU intelligence to steal documents and publicize them.

The Islamic State terrorist group “instrumentalizes the truth to suit its strategic objectives,” the report’s authors say, while North Korea is using its nuclear program along with its xenophobic nationalist propaganda to demonize and coerce the United States and Japan.

The report says it is unlikely Pyongyang will give up its nuclear arms or its anti-American posture.

“Abandoning nuclear weapons or the state’s confrontational anti-Americanism would contradict the state’s entire mythology: the absolute truth that acts as the state’s genesis,” the report says. “To do so would fundamentally undermine the credibility of the regime, uprooting the foundations for the version of the truth that it espouses, thus causing the regime to forfeit its legitimacy.”

Recommendations in the report for countering fake news include government legislation and legal regulations and greater news media fact-checking.

However, the report notes that China’s use of legislation to stop what the government regards as fake news has led to tighter controls on information and greater restrictions on freedom of expression.

For social media, a major platform for fake news, tech companies need to increase the use of editors and adopt crowdsourcing methods to identify and stop fake news and the use of technological or algorithmic solutions.

The problem of countering fake news is compounded by the prospect that repeating false stories in order to correct them can make the problem worse. In some cases, no response to fake news might be better than direct intervention.

The FBI is conducting a counterespionage investigation in New Mexico that remains tightly under wraps after the temporary evacuation of a solar observatory near two key military facilities.

FBI spokesman Frank A. Fisher in the Albuquerque FBI office declined to comment on the probe and referred Inside the Ring to the Sunspot Solar Observatory. The observatory, located on a mountain in Sacramento Peak, New Mexico, about 100 miles north of El Paso, and a nearby post office were ordered evacuated earlier this month for unspecified “criminal activity,” according to a statement by the Associations of Universities for Research in Astronomy, the organization that runs the observatory.

The mysterious evacuation took place Sept. 6 and shut down the observatory until Monday, triggering wild speculation about aliens in New Mexico, where local lore about UFOs has a rich history.

The statement by AURA and the National Science Foundation said the action was taken in order to address “a security issue.”

“AURA has been cooperating with an ongoing law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak,” the statement said.

“During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents,” the statement said.

The decision to evacuate was the result of the difficulties of protecting staff and people at the remote location and “the need for expeditious response to the potential threat.” A small number of people were thus temporarily moved off the mountain.

The secrecy surrounding the evacuation was the result of worries that if the information were disclosed, “the news would alert the suspect and impede the law enforcement investigation.”

The suspect may have been a foreign intelligence officer engaged in surveillance of nearby Holloman Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Testing Range.

Another theory is that the suspect may have been servicing electronic equipment used to monitor missile tests at White Sands. White Sands is a major missile and missile defense testing facility, weapons known to be of high interest to foreign intelligence services.

The ant-secrecy organization WikiLeaks got a taste of its own medicine this week after The Associated Press reported on a large leak of internal documents from the group and its founder, Julian Assange.

One of the more interesting disclosures among the documents, some of which are posted online, is a 2010 letter from Mr. Assange to the Russian Consulate in London, along with a copy of his Australian passport, applying for a visa to travel to Russia.

“I, Julian Assange, hereby grant full authority to my friend, Israel Shamir, to both drop off and collect my passport, in order to get a visa, at the Russian Consulate, London,” the letter states. It was signed “yours faithfully” and highlights WikiLeaks ties to Moscow.

The letter appears to be part of a plan by Mr. Assange to flee to Russia. The letter was written shortly after Mr. Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, was charged with sexual assault in Sweden and shortly before the major disclosure of thousands of secret U.S. documents provide to WikiLeaks by U.S. Pvt. Bradley Manning.

A 2016 U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that Russia meddled in the presidential campaign that year.

“We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and to release U.S. victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks,” the assessment stated.

WikiLeaks said on Twitter that “Mr. Assange did not apply for such a visa at any time or author the document.”

The group said the documents were fabricated.

Then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now President Trump’s secretary of state, said WikiLeaks was an example of a nonstate hostile intelligence agency.

The leak of a large cache of internal WikiLeaks documents has all the trappings of a retaliatory cyberattack.

But a source in the know said there was no U.S. government involvement in the cache provided to the news agency.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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