Learn how to recognize propaganda in public statements

There have been leaks of emails whose content is embarrassing. In response, U.S. intelligence agencies issued the following statement alleging that Russia is behind the hacking and release of the emails in order to influence the U.S. election:

“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.

Source: U.S. Intelligence Meddles In US Presidential Election: Backs Hillary Clinton | Zero Hedge

The above statement is written very cleverly, employing basic techniques of propaganda messaging. In the bottom line, no evidence is provided to support the claims shown. Numerous hackers, the world over, who are not part of government agencies, have amply demonstrated that the ordinary hacking community is capable of these security breaches.

Devoid of evidence, this is an “Appeal to Authority” claim: Believe us because we are intelligence agencies.

Update 1: Politico notes the same problem – no evidence provided.

Update 2: There is evidence, in a public report issued in June 2016, by a private IT security firm. It is odd that the intelligence agencies never cited this public report, though. Their report indicates a common phishing technique was used to harvest passwords, including from the Clinton campaign. They have “moderate confidence” the attack initiated in Russia from a group affiliated with the Russian government. “Moderate confidence” in their own definition, means they believe their sources are reliable but the data is insufficient to draw a conclusion. However, this public report was never mentioned by the intelligence agencies asserting that Russia is behind the infiltration of the information systems. Update March 2017: The private IT security firm has since had its credibility questioned after issuing questionable reports involving Ukraine, that contained clearly and provably false data and conclusions.

Update 3: The history of how the “Russians hacked the emails” meme was started. That story illustrates how a propaganda meme is launched, and then shared on social media tens of thousands of times, confirming this “false fact” upon which no evidence has been provided. Then, the very poor reporting of Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek spread another false meme that Putin and Trump were linked together in a conspiracy and Russia was confirmed behind this due to “fake emails” being released. Eichenwald’s conspiracy theory has since been shot down and demolished but now lives on as another “false fact” while Eichenwald continues to push his false conspiracy theory. The Intercept says the real evidence shows Eichenwald is lying and that Eichenwald is a liar.

Based on the links above, it appears that Kurt Eichenwald is a propagandist who has spread his false conspiracy theory via the social media sharing crowd.

As the link notes,

  • The statement presents no evidence, only an allegation
  • US intelligence is “confident” but not actually certain (“confident” is a weasel word)
  • The hacks are similar to methods potentially used by Russian hackers – but are not exclusive to Russian hackers. This is the “What You See is All There Is” argument, where you are intended to make a decision based only on what is presented to you. Update March 2017: Wikileakshas  released documents showing that U.S. intelligence agencies routinely use hacks disguised to look they came from Russian or Chinese or North Korean hackers or government agencies.
  • It’s similar to “tactics” used in Europe and Eurasia – except they provide no example to make that point
  • This statement fits a narrative put forth through “pre-propaganda”. Pre-propaganda is messaging intended to prepare the target for the actual propaganda messaging. In this case, there has been many accusations (all unsubstantiated) that Russia is responsible for all the hacks and leaks. This pre-propaganda conditions the target to believe the eventual propaganda message “US intelligence agencies say”… This is also effective in that it focuses one’s attention on a specific bogeyman (personalizes the opposition), leverages past Cold War era fears about the Russians, and attempts to distract attention from the content of the emails themselves.

As the linked story notes, the US intelligence agency statement of opinion lacks facts or evidence. The accusations could be true or they could be false. A Newsweek reporter claimed the emails were provably altered and a leak to his story has been widely distributed on Social media. The Intercept, however, dissembles that claim and demolishes Newsweek’s argument.

Certainly Russian government agencies, US intelligence agencies, agencies of other government and even a taxi driver in Romania (“Guccifer” 1.0) have done things like this and any could indeed be responsible for these hacks. The hacks could even be from a teenage kid in California. Lacking any evidence, all of these are potential sources of the leaks. Hacking is not nearly as difficult and mysterious as politicians, media and others wish you to believe. Hacking kits are readily available online and are relatively easy to use. (And for the Appeal to Authority that some will insist upon, I do have a B.S. in computer science and an M.S. in software engineering and know a little bit about information systems.)

Do signs that hacks came from Russia confirm that Russia was targeting these individuals or servers? Absolutely not. My own web sites experience near daily hack attempts from Russia – and China – and Poland and India and the EU and the U.S. … and so on. When everyone is being attacked all the time, the source of one set of possibly spoofed and disguised hackers means nothing.

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