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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 25th August 2017 > Bad News Bots

Bad News Bots

O ne night in mid-March, Alan Malcher, a British military veteran, dropped into the Queen’s Arms, a working-class pub in north London. He took a seat at the bar and ordered his customary pint of Foster’s. Within a few minutes, a stranger sidled up, ordered a drink and started a conversation. He soon brought up Russian President Vladimir Putin and began saying positive things about the Moscow-backed separatist civil war in Ukraine.

HAS THE KREMLIN’S CAMPAIGN TO HARASS PUTIN’S CRITICS ON LINKEDIN MOVED BEYOND THE RELATIVE SAFETY OF THE INTERNET AND INTO THE STREETS?

“He was going on about Putin being a strong leader,” Malcher recalls. “Somebody to admire.” The stranger’s comments, delivered with a thick Slavic accent, made Malcher’s security antennae vibrate: He had recently joined a Washington, D.C.–based think tank involved in combatting Russia’s stealthy infiltration of American social media. So when the stranger made passing reference to Malcher’s army service, he felt a twinge of apprehension. “There’s no way he could have known that except via LinkedIn,” Malcher says, referencing the professional online networking site where he and other critics of Moscow had been active in international affairs discussion groups. An expert in information warfare, Malcher reasoned that the Kremlin had dispatched the stranger to the Queen’s Arms with a message: We know everything about you. Watch your step.

Experts have increasingly called attention to Russia’s use of covert “propaganda factories” to subvert democracy, flooding Twitter and Facebook with millions of computer-generated bots posting under false names (often unwittingly picked up and amplified by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump). But its battle on LinkedIn to neutralize enemies has gone largely unnoticed. There, however, Newsweek has found that pro-Moscow forces have put constant pressure on the company to suspend or evict adversaries, many with long, distinguished careers in the U.S. military or its intelligence agencies. Not only has this muzzled credentialed critics and damaged professional reputations, but if Malcher’s suspicions are right, the Kremlin’s campaign to combat its adversaries on social media may have moved beyond cyberspace and into the streets.

LinkedIn provides a rich hunting ground for Russian agents. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, most of its estimated 500 million, predominantly white-collar subscribers use it to advertise their expertise, seek employment or engage with peers in expert-based discussion groups. To bolster their credentials, most—even current and former U.S. national security offcials—post detailed résumés and recommendations from their colleagues. That provides fodder for Russian intelligence to gather detailed information on its most formidable critics and cast doubt on the truth of those accomplishments.

“The Russian special services are for sure exploiting LinkedIn to gather personal information on certain targets and possibly recruit and blackmail them,” says a close Kremlin watcher at a university in a former Soviet satellite state, asking for anonymity to protect himself. “They operate under fabricated identities and credentials, while the Russian propaganda and trolling campaigns are widely applied on the platform.”

The pro-Moscow campaign has recently expanded—and, in some cases, gone ofline— allege some American LinkedIn members who have been criticizing Russia’s covert attacks on the West. A few days before Malcher was approached in a London pub in March, a former U.S. national security offcial who had been contesting Kremlin propaganda on LinkedIn says he was assaulted near his retirement home in France. “I was shopping at the local supermarket when I was stung on my lower-right thigh by something, probably with an umbrella,” Giles Raymond DeMourot tells Newsweek. An hour later, he says, a doctor extracted bits of “what seemed like a wooden needle” from the wound. Lab tests determined it was “impregnated with carbapenem-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa,” a potentially lethal “superbug,” he says, and he’s had to make several visits to his doctor for treatments. “I am still not out of the woods,” he adds. (DeMourot supplied a hospital document confirming the wound was caused by “wooden splinters” and that “only an outside intervention [event] can explain the infection.”)

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READY FOR WAR? CAN TRUMP'S GENERALS SAVE AMERICA FROM TRUMP? Trump calls them “my generals,” a title their colleagues say makes them a bit uncomfortable. And now, six months into a chaotic administration, under an unpredictable president who many fear isn’t fit for the job, the skepticism that many of their friends initially evinced has been replaced by something else: “relief,” says Johns Hopkins military historian Eliot Cohen. “These are grown-ups in grown-up jobs. God knows this administration needs them.”
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