Following a recent and somewhat bizarre block over a list addition by the FSB’s online Bulgarian team, this abstract experienced another bizarre blocking from an account which would otherwise be described as ‘friendly’. IFF – Identify Friend or Foe – appears to be difficult in the virtual wilderness of mirrors that is social media.
Firstly, the account: @GorseFires
The account is worth following as it generally provides a time line of useful re-tweets on matters related to the Ukraine conflict and NATO matters in the European theater. Indeed, this abstract has the account listed in one of its news feeds and regards it as a good source.
On Feb 26th, after some interaction with two unrelated accounts on the matter of the recent Jihadi John / MI5 revelations, the following tweet came in from nowhere:
The accounts of the other folk involved in the conversation are disclosed as they initiated the conversation with this abstract. Until this point @GorseFires was not involved or included in the tweeting. The total Twitter interaction between this abstract and @GorseFires may be seen here.
Twitter is a social media platform and is designed in part for facilitating idle conversation. Most of this is banal / harmless. The conversation involving this abstract and two others above is available on my time line and took place on Feb 26 2015.
Following this tweet, upon checking the status of @Gorsefires this abstract did indeed find the following:
A bit heavy handed, but it is every users right to block whoever they want for any reason, however with the initial accusation there was a clear motivation in this case.
At this point another account interjected and suggested that ‘mute’ would perhaps be better than a block for accounts that may be ‘distracting’. The following reply was sent through to that account with further accusations:
The issue raised relating to the other accounts and @PMBreedlove appears to relate to interactions on February 26 which can be found easily with an advanced Twitter search.
NB: If searching for a specific day, Twitter’s advance search fails if the start and end dates are specified the same. Set the end date to T+1 Day.
Ok, so at this point all of this seems to be a storm in a teacup over some tweets, but there are some relatively serious points brought up which relate to information warfare strategy.
Firstly: What is the best strategy for dealing with suspected or known ‘Trolls’, or even identifying them?
i) Private Lists and Observation
This is discussed by @webradius briefly on the Kremlin Trolls blog here.
The strategy can be broadly expanded thus:
a) Add a suspected (or known) disinformation source to a private list and keep an eye on them.
NB: More subtly you could create a public list with an innocuous name such as ‘News Info’ and place them there. In the latter case ensure that some non-disinformation sources are included to prevent suspicions being aroused. They will be watching.
b) For those you do not wish cluttering your timeline – mute them if you find annoying, block and report in extreme circumstances, TOS violations or outright credible threats being received.
It is a good idea not to completely ignore them – excepting of course those which cross personal red lines etc. in their broadcast content – as there is much that can be learned from reading the enemy’s disinformation provided it is identified as such and is not too time consuming.
c) It may be an idea not to step in on behalf of other twitter users. Direct Messaging is good for sharing concerns. A notable exception is when it is observed that an innocent account is being unfairly targeted to force it off of the service by making fraudulent claims of breaking terms of service. Twitter appears to be dealing with these strategies better now. Drawing attention could have an unwarranted Streisand effect for the account being ‘protected’.
ii) Try to avoid public denouncements.
Denouncing accounts is very hazardous.
Except in situations where the timelines of accounts are very clearly and consistently broadcasting deliberately provocative and offensive material, or are advertising they are essentially based in the Kremlin itself (eg. @MarkSleboda1), or a Russian Embassy, the practice should be avoided. Even in those cases it should be considered carefully.
One recent nonsensical denouncement was of @20committee which came across more as borderline comedy than a serious attempt to discredit. However, for anyone not aware of the game being played the denouncing tweet(s) will set the opinion of a percentage of folk whose prejudices the message confirms. They may also have a negative effect on the recipient if the claim is false, provoking a response.
Genuine Russian Trolls are known to do this in order to engage their targets in order to waste their time in sometimes heated but always pointless exchanges.
Another problem with public denouncements absent any decisive evidence is that this can work against you. Firstly, if proven wrong the denouncement may undermine your own credibility as a source. Secondly, if a false allegation is made against a specific individual that can have legal consequence in the ‘real world’.
A recent controversial example of the latter case was the infamous ‘** innocent face **’ tweet of Sally Bercow when commenting about the fact that since deceased Lord MacAlpine was trending on Twitter. That proved to be a rather expensive tweet.
The former case is easily avoided by not making accusations without having prepared a case with clear objective evidence.
The real world case of Katya Zatuliveter is an example of a situation that straddles the two.
Kremlin disinformation that is disseminated online and through other media sources largely relies on making accusations that appeal to prejudice absent any real evidence. There is quite a large corpus of ‘conspiracy theories’ out there which exploit this technique, ranging on subjects as diverse as the health effects and philosophy of municipal water fluoridation through to the incredible notion that Ukraine was forcibly taken over by gay Nazis just prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
There is nothing new about the techniques or their intent. Social media and the internet is just a new broadcast medium.
The real problem with a denouncement is if it is disproved, or a climb down occurs. At that point your reputation will be diminished slightly – sometimes that can be lasting.
On February 27th this abstract received the following more friendly and very much welcomed tweet from its accuser:
This should not discredit the information that @GorseFires broadcasts, but the account’s counter-intelligence credibility is questionable.
Future discretion is advisable, as is perhaps following advice and examples set by others with more experience. This abstract bears no ‘grudge’ and does not consider the episode an attack on its own Twitter following.
A positive result
On a positive note, this bizarre episode did expose what appears to be one genuine pro-Russian Troll – @PostEuropian:
The entities profile certainly does raise suspicions:
This excellent article explains why it should. The entity’s time-line content adds further support.
The reader is left to check the entities timeline, if interested, and form their own opinion.
This abstract has added it to its private collection. A public denouncement beyond a concern raised in a blog post is not appropriate in this abstract’s opinion.