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How One Group Is Monitoring Cyber Trolls Potentially Tied To The Kremlin


Lots of Russian-linked accounts are trying to grab Americans' attention right now. And one reason we know that is that a group in Washington has created an online dashboard to keep track of those accounts. The group is called the Alliance for Securing Democracy. It's part of the German Marshall Fund in Washington.

And here to tell us what is trending this week among Russian bots and trolls is director Laura Rosenberger. Hi, Laura.

LAURA ROSENBERGER: Great to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Before we dig into this dashboard, tell us how the project actually works.

ROSENBERGER: We have this dashboard. It's called the Hamilton 68 dashboard. And the dashboard is tracking about 600 accounts that are a network or really derived from a few different networks that are promoting messaging that is furthering the Kremlin's interests. It's trying to get the Americans to talk about things that the Russians would like us to be talking about.

SHAPIRO: So let's actually pull up the dashboard right now and see what these Russian-affiliated accounts are talking about right now. And I see that the No. 1 trending hashtag is #PodestaGroup. This is referring to the Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta. The top URLs, the first one is Justice Department document unsealed yesterday related to the indictments, and the second one is a story, "Tony Podesta Stepping Down From Lobbying Giant Amid Mueller Probe." Why would this be of such interest to these Russian-affiliated accounts?

ROSENBERGER: Of course the big news of the week is actually the indictment of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates - you know, both former Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort the former chairman of the campaign - and the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser.

SHAPIRO: And their names are below Podesta on this list.

ROSENBERGER: Mmm hmm (ph). What we see here is a classic Russian tactic called whataboutism. It's basically trying to muddy the waters, to obfuscate truth, to create the idea that everything is relative, that, oh, look; both the Democrats and the Republicans are in trouble for Russia stuff when the reality is, you know, Tony Podesta hasn't been indicted for anything at this point. To think about sort of what they're doing here is a lot of times they're simply amplifying stories that they believe is useful to them, trying to basically...

SHAPIRO: Well, fake news is the wrong term.

ROSENBERGER: Fake news is completely the wrong term. I mean, disinformation is sort of what we use most generally. But, I mean, these are information operations that span a scale. They're trying to use the social media platforms to distort the information curve, to make certain things trend, to make certain things more popular, to influence certain segments of the conversation in order to basically shape the overarching narrative and conversation that we see happening.

SHAPIRO: Should the tech companies be doing this work that you're doing here?

ROSENBERGER: I think that the tech companies have certainly been evolving in how they think about their responsibilities on these issues. I certainly hope that they are all doing this internally. The fact that every week they continue to uncover additional ways that their platforms were exploited by the Russian networks indicates to me that whatever they're doing internally, it's still not quite enough.

SHAPIRO: That's Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Thanks for coming into our studio.

ROSENBERGER: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.