The Year’s Stories in Review
2017 was — to say the least — an eventful year across the world and at the @DFRLab. Humans are more connected than at any time in human history. Whereas the power to communicate at scale was historically in the hands of a few, it is now in the hands of many. We set out with a simple mission to identify, expose, and explain disinformation where and when it occurs; to promote objective truth as a foundation of government for and by people; to protect democratic institutions and norms from those who would seek to undermine them online. Our power is in the proof.
Our team was in constant motion throughout the year. We investigated events on five continents. We continued to build a global network of #DigitalSherlocks. We’re engineering a new kind of resilience:
As we look to the future, @DFRLab was especially thankful for your support in 2017.
To celebrate, we took a brief pause and looked back at all of the events we tracked in governance, technology, security, and where each intersect this year.
Here are our top ten from 2017.
Some tricks to identify fake Twitter accounts.
“Bots” — automated social media accounts which pose as real people — have a huge presence on platforms such as Twitter. They number in the millions; individual networks can number half a million linked accounts.
A closer look into official Russia’s military claims about bombings in eastern Syria.
As Russia continues to back the Assad regime fighting across Syria, a series of bombing raids in the eastern part of the country did not fall exclusively into their stated mission of fighting ISIS. The Russian military was accused by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (@syriahr) of killing at least 53 civilians in an air strike on November 26. Russia publicly denied the claim of civilian casualties.
In this instance, we found open source evidence that shows Russia was, in fact, operating in the area in which they denied any activity that led to 53 civilian casualties in the village of Ash Sha’Fah.
What did we see in anticipation of the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises?
Zapad 2017 was a planned bilateral military strategic exercise with the Russian and Belarusian militaries took place in various locations throughout Belarus and western Russia. This highly anticipated event is held quadrennially, as military exercises remain significant in that they offer an opportunity to not only train but reposition or reallocate resources. One concern prior to Zapad 2017, was it may have served as the perfect chance for Russians to leave troops behind in Belarus and expand their presence in the region.
There is no overwhelming evidence, from miltary or civilian open sources, that a large number of Russian regulars remained in Belarus in the aftermath Zapad 2017.
Alt-right attacked Macron in last ditch effort to sway French Election.
A few days before the final round of the French Elections, an emerging hashtag campaign, #MacronLeaks, was amplified throughout multiple social media platforms. #MacronLeaks reached 47,000 tweets in just over three hours after the initial tweet.
This hashtag guided users to an alleged, possibly 9 gigabyte (GB), leak of Emmanuel Macron’s “campaign emails,” reportedly showing evidence of offshore accounts, tax evasion, and a slew of other nefarious activities.
Bots and trolls pushed vote-rigging claim ahead of German election.
Ahead of Germany’s parliamentary election, online supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party began warning their voter base of possible election fraud and calling for observers. On Saturday, the eve of the election, their efforts increased, driven by anonymous troll accounts and boosted by a Russian-language botnet.
Donetsk separatists sent troops to Luhansk amidst proxy dispute in eastern Ukraine.
Open source evidence suggested troops from the Donetsk People’s Republic occupied administrative buildings in the center of Luhansk, the seat of the neighboring Luhansk People’s Republic.
The power struggle appeared to be a proxy war for struggles between the Russian intelligence services (FSB) and Kremlin actors. The internal strife between the separatist strongmen in Luhansk and Donetsk and among their Kremlin backers showed that while Russia is clearly a guiding influence and active participant in the creation and management of the separatist republics, it does not have complete control over their patrons in the Donbas.
We took a closer look at the unexpected situation on November 21 in our #MinskMonitor series.
A fake story about Angela Merkel led to a far-right cluster on Reddit.
Germany held elections in late 2017. Analysts reported at the outset of 2017 that Chancellor Angela Merkel was targeted with “fake news” and online attacks, especially from hyperpartisan and conspiracy sites.
In this “#FakeNews” report, the @DFRLab tracked one fake story about Merkel posted on Reddit, which revealed a cluster of sites supporting populist and far-right politicians in Europe. Read the story from February 9 here.
Hotels were requisitioned and repurposed in eastern Ukraine.
The control of private property in non-government-controlled areas remained an unresolved issue in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In particular, civilian homes are often destroyed or used as military positions and private industries and companies have lost control of their facilities.
One focal point for this challenge is the use of hotels in non-government-controlled areas, particularly the city of Donetsk, where some have been outright seized by the local Russian-led authorities.
Read all about it in our #MinskMonitor report from September 27.
Alt-right media and a handful of Twitter bots tried to get the United States National Security Advisor fired.
On August 3, a handful of Twitter accounts launched a media campaign under the hashtag #FireMcMaster.
The ensuing social media campaign to #FireMcMaster spread virally and, ultimately, forced President Trump to affirm support for his closest advisor on matters relating to national security and foreign policy, for now. Mobilization across alt-right social media platforms is commonplace, and this case showed another correlation between their mobilization and high-performing bot networks.
We traced the “false flag” claim back to a pro-Assad website.
United States President Donald Trump’s decision to launch strikes against Syria in the wake of a major chemical weapons attack provoked outrage from the far-right groups, who were among his most aggressive supporters.
As rumors of the impending strikes broke, they launched an online campaign claiming that the chemical attack had been a hoax. @DFRLab traced the origins of the story and found alt-right coverage was based on a report from a propaganda outlet linked to the Assad regime.
Read the feature from April 7 here.
THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT IN 2017.
LET US KNOW HOW WE CAN DO BETTER IN 2018 HERE.
WE LOOK FORWARD TO MORE IN THE NEW YEAR!
— THE #DIGITALSHERLOCKS
A @DFRLab staff report.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.