As social platforms continue to be threatened by state-sponsored disinformation operations, Google’s parent company Alphabet has kicked things up a notch.
Jigsaw, its side-arm devoted to fighting extremism, censorship, and other forms of cyberattacks, has revealed it bought a Russian troll campaign as an experiment. It assigned it to attack a political activism website the company had specifically created for this purpose, something it did for as cheap as $250.
The details, revealed by Wired’s Andy Greenberg, shows it’s not just cheap to fund such campaigns, but that it’s super easy for private individuals to buy one in order to engage in organized, online disinformation.
In early 2018, Jigsaw worked with a security firm (name withheld) to search Russian-language black-market and gray-market web forums like Exploit, Club2Crd, WWH, and Zloy for paid disinformation services.
While they did find companies offering fake followers and paid retweets, they eventually settled on a company called SEOTweet, which also offered a two-week propaganda campaign for just $250.
To carry out the attack, it created a fake website called “Down With Stalin.” This contained blog posts discussing an intentionally provocative issue: whether Stalin should be remembered as a hero or a villain.
“The idea was to create a tempest in a teacup,” the report said.
And SEOTweet’s work? According to Wired, the company “posted 730 Russian-language tweets attacking the anti-Stalin site from 25 different Twitter accounts, as well as 100 posts to forums and blog comment sections of seemingly random sites, from regional news organisations, to automotive blogs, and arts-and-crafts forums.”
As a result, Jigsaw says it saw a significant number of tweets and comments that appeared to be original posts written by humans, rather than your usual copy-paste bots.
Critics, though, aren’t pleased. They say that the company’s trolling research, no matter how limited in scope, is risky.
Also, while some have supported the research, they have found fault with the methodology. The lack of any concrete records — the fake accounts have been suspended by Twitter — coupled with the fact that Jigsaw hasn’t published its own findings has been criticized by researchers.
While Jigsaw’s methods may have been controversial, it’s indubitably proven that anyone with a few hundred dollars to spare can buy such cheap, easily accessible social media propaganda campaigns online — something that can have potentially devastating consequences.
And this low barrier to entry can only mean one thing: disinformation campaigns are only going to become more prominent.