September 19, 2017

Editor's note: More reporting on Hamilton 68 has emerged since this publication and we want to highlight it here.

With the German election less than a week away, it’s clear that fake news — while frequently targeting Chancellor Angela Merkel — isn’t really influencing the campaign. But that hasn’t stopped Russian trolls and media outlets from trying.

A new project launched last week by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) is tracking those attempts, which are increasingly aimed at bolstering right-wing populist groups like the Alternative for Germany party (AfD). Artikel 38 — named after Article 38 of the German constitution, which says the Bundestag shall be elected freely and fairly — is an online dashboard that pulls from more than 600 Twitter accounts affiliated with the Kremlin, either directly or indirectly, to determine how influential they are in conversations about the German elections. 

Think an audience engagement tool like CrowdTangle, but for Russian trolls.

“The overall goal is to expose the online influence networks and the content created and promoted to German-language audiences,” said Bret Schafer, communications, social media and digital content coordinator for the ASD.

The dashboard was created by ex-FBI counterterrorism official Clint Watts, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism Associate Fellow J.M. Berger, Center for Cyber & Homeland Security Fellow Andrew Weisburd and New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan. The project is based on Hamilton 68 — another ASD dashboard that launched last month in order to track ongoing Russian influence in American politics (and named after Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers No. 68, which stressed the importance of protecting American elections from foreign intervention).

ASD, a self-described “bipartisan, transatlantic initiative” housed by The German Marshall Fund, opened its doors earlier this summer to counter Kremlin-affiliated disinformation, which became a central concern during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The immediate goal of Artikel 38, which is supported by the Marshall Fund and individual donations, is to keep tabs on Russian disinformation going into the German election this Sunday (h/t to Vice’s Motherboard, which is keeping tabs on sources of fake news and disinformation about the election). However, the methodology of the dashboard could help inform people around the world about ongoing Kremlin-linked efforts to meddle in foreign affairs over the next several years.

“These Russian influence operations, while they intensify around elections, are present on a daily basis,” Schafer said.

And Tom Nichols, a national security affairs professor at the United States Naval War College, agreed.

“I’m really glad somebody is doing this. The Russians have been getting a free ride for years now,” he said. “I think it arms other people who can participate in the public debate.”

While it doesn’t reveal all of the accounts it pulls from (Schafer said that’s not the point of the project), Artikel 38 displays top tweets of the day, which are often dominated by outlets such as RT and Sputnik — two Kremlin-funded news networks. Artikel 38 was built by analyzing followers of @de_sputnik, the German version of the news outlet. Since not all the followers are directly involved in Russian disinformation campaigns, the dashboard’s creators identified 500 accounts with the most interactions, engagements and contact with other @de_sputnik followers to determine the most relevant users. Among those, Schafer said there are three general tiers: accounts tied directly to the Kremlin, bots and trolls, and people who routinely share those messages.

While rigorous, the methodology isn’t a catch-all.

“Some you can say with certainty are run by the Kremlin. Some are bots and trolls amplifying those messages,” Schafer said. “There’s just a consistent application of the Kremlin’s main narratives.”

Artikel 38 also examines weekly trends online, which last week dealt with themes of amplifying right-wing, populist messages characterized as “anti-Merkel, anti-refugee, anti-Islam or pro-AfD,” according to Schafer. Major topics in the articles listed among the top URLs on the dashboard since its launch were Angela Merkel, the AfD and alleged crimes by refugees and asylum seekers.

In addition to weekly roundups, Artikel 38 displays trending hashtags and topics from the accounts, with everything from Qatar and Syria, to Stephen Colbert and golf making the list. When looked at collectively, Schafer said this data reveals what voters and politicians have been saying for months about the persistence of Russia to meddle in foreign elections.

“You’re seeing this open handshake between their network and right-wing populists,” he said. “We’re seeing disinformation on a daily basis and attempts to kind of divide society.”

Nichols said he sees Artikel 38’s importance to the upcoming German election and is supportive of the dashboard in general. However, he remains pessimistic about the dashboards’ ability to go beyond Europe and change politics in the U.S., where a federal investigation into Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election slogs on.

“I think Europeans are far more savvy about this, and I think the French election showed that,” he said. “The problem is the people who need this kind of guide the most are going to be the least likely to use it … when you talk about Russian intervention, the Democrats immediately want to claim it’s the reason Hillary Clinton lost, and the Republicans become instantly offensive because they see it as undermining the legitimacy of Trump’s win.”

While determining how effective Artikel 38 would be in the U.S. — where even the favorability of Putin himself has become politicized — is murky, the dashboard’s audience problem is obvious. 

Schafer said the platform is currently more geared to policymakers and journalists than average citizens because of the analysis it takes to stitch together the messages into a larger narrative. The New York Times’ Peter Baker cited the ASD’s work tracking Russian propaganda in a story about the #FireMcMaster campaign, which called for the firing of U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and trended on social media accounts tied to the Kremlin. Schafer said the recognition is great, but the ASD is looking to expand and simplify its dashboards over the coming months in an effort to empower normal citizens around the world. It’s also looking to expand them to cover other countries that could potentially interfere in foreign elections, such as China.

After the German election is over, Russian disinformation and propaganda almost certainly won’t cease — especially not just because people call it out using tools like Artikel 38. But Nichols said that, over time, it just might.

“It’s almost like a squirt gun against a forest fire,” he said. “But with enough squirt guns, you can put out a forest fire.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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