Just in case you’re not feeling paranoid enough these days, Newsweek brings us a story suggesting Russia has extended its online operations beyond the interwebs, using the social networking site LinkedIn not just as a place for spreading disinformation, but also, it seems, harassing and possibly attacking some of its more vocal critics out here in meatspace. Or maybe none of this happened and we’re all just brains in jars — it’s getting hard to tell.
The unsettling piece begins with an incident in March of this year: Alan Malcher, a veteran of British military intelligence who had worked in information warfare and had recently taken a job with an American think tank to work against Russian social media operations, had just sat down in a pub in London. A stranger came in a few minutes later, sat down next to him, and began chatting, eventually mentioning what a terrific leader Vladimir Putin was. This seemed more than a little odd to Macher:
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.
The article paints a picture of a hot and heavy disinformation war being fought on LinkedIn, which besides being a place where professionals do online networking and send you friend requests you never answer, also has discussion forums where Russians (and Russian bot accounts) try to disrupt discussions of Russian foreign policy and cyber operations. In addition, several western users with connections to intelligence and cybersecurity have been the targets of smear campaigns; some have even been booted from LinkedIn after persistent campaigns claiming they were breaking the site’s rules.
Newsweek’s Jeff Stein explains why LinkedIn is an especially rich target for Russian online dirty tricks:
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 officials—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.
Instead of posting cat memes (or maybe in addition to cat memes — we can’t imagine any online forum doesn’t have kitties saying LOL), a lot of LinkedIn users have in-depth discussions of news and developments in their fields. Experts who keep track of Russia’s online campaigns say these forums have been increasingly targeted by Russian trolls using multiple identities (a violation of LinkedIn’s terms of service; since it’s supposed to be for professionals, real identities are required). One of Newsweek’s few anonymous sources in the piece, described only as a “Kremlin watcher at a university in a former Soviet satellite state,” says
The Russian special services are for sure exploiting LinkedIn to gather personal information on certain targets and possibly recruit and blackmail them […] They operate under fabricated identities and credentials, while the Russian propaganda and trolling campaigns are widely applied on the platform.
Then there are what certainly look like the extension of online flame wars into actual attacks. In France, Giles Raymond DeMourot, a former official with U.S. national security, was also assaulted in March:
“I was shopping at the local supermarket when I was stung on my lower-right thigh by something, probably with an umbrella” […] 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.
Newsweek notes that DeMourot had given them a hospital document which confirmed his wound resulted from “wooden splinters” and said “only an outside intervention [event] can explain the infection.” Yikes again — shades of the assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978; Markov died in London after a ricin-laced pellet was shot into his leg by a KGB-rigged umbrella.
DeMourot is certain he was attacked because of his posts to LinkedIn forums in which he wrote about Russian intelligence operations — and operatives — in France and Belgium, “with names, places and dates[.]” He also says that after an online argument about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, he “received many…phone calls with death threats.”
There’s a lot more, and you should go read the full article. It details how Russia has targeted Americans who expose cyber propaganda for harassment and efforts to smear them, like claiming they’re “suspected pedophiles” or “pornography addicts” — not just on LinkedIn, but also on Russian-sponsored English language websites like Russia Insider, where sarcastic articles mock their credentials and qualifications, and suggest the very idea of Russian propaganda operations is nothing but outdated Cold War paranoia. It’s decidedly odd to see a Russian article claiming that all this talk of disinformation and fake news is merely a return to McCarthyism. We are in a very strange virtual place.
Dang Russians. They just better not fuck with Grindr, or there’ll be hell to pay.
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