• Fake news kicks into high gear in Czech presidential runoff

    Jiri Drahos, the pro-West, pro-EU challenger of incumbent Czech president Milos Zeman, came in second in the first round of the Czech presidential election, held 12-13 January. Zeman is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strongest allies in central Europe, and the Russian government’s disinformation specialists have been ordered to help him win the runoff election, which will be held 27-28 January. These specialists have been successful in their social media efforts to boost the political strength of Marine Le Pen and her National Front in France; Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom in the Netherlands; the Alternative für Deutschalnd (AfD) in Germany; Beppe Grillo and his Five Star movement in Italy; and increase the influence of other populist, ethno-nationalist movements such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria, and Jobbik in Hungary. They have also helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election. In the last two weeks, these disinformation experts have been targeting Drahos and his pro-West supporters.

  • Step-by-step horsepox study intensifies dual-use research debate

    The publication last week of a research paper offering a manual for re-creating an orthopoxvirus has been harshly criticized by both scientists and biosecurity experts as reckless and dangerous. The research demonstrates the potential to recreate the virus that causes smallpox—one of the greatest scourges the world has ever faced and eradicated. “The risks posed by the publication of methods that could ease the pathway for synthesizing smallpox should have been carefully weighed from the outset,” says one expert. Analysts say that the publication further accentuates the need for urgent global dialogue to develop clear norms and actions for reducing biological risks posed by advances in technology. “As governmental oversight continues to lag behind biotechnology breakthroughs, academic and private stakeholders conducting, funding, and publishing research - as well as those developing new technologies – also must take responsibility for mitigating risk,” says the expert.

  • The synthesis of horsepox virus and the failure of dual-use research oversight

    On 19 January 2018, the open access scientific journal PLOS One published an article that describes the de novo synthesis of horsepox virus, the first ever synthesis of a member of the orthopoxvirus family of viruses that includes the variola virus that causes smallpox. This research crosses a red line in the field of biosecurity. Given the high degree of homology between orthopoxviruses, the techniques described in this article are directly applicable to the recreation of variola virus. The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. The reemergence of smallpox would be a global health disaster. Prior to its eradication, smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people, more people than all the wars of the twentieth century combined. Based on these considerations, the horsepox synthesis research is all risk and no reward. Given the known risks of this research for pioneering a technique that can be used to recreate variola virus and its questionable benefits, the publication of this article represents a failure of PLOS One to exercise its responsibility to carefully consider the biosecurity implications of the research it publishes.

  • So what did we learn? Looking back on four years of Russia’s cyber-enabled “Active Measures”

    Americans continue to investigate, deliberate, and wallow in the aftermath of Russia’s rebirth of “Active Measures” designed to defeat their adversaries through the “force of politics rather than the politics of force.” Kremlin interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election represents not only the greatest Active Measures success in Russian history, but the swiftest and most pervasive influence effort in world history. Never has a country, in such a short period of time, disrupted the international order through the use of information as quickly and with such sustained effect as Russia has in the last four years. Russia achieved this victory by investing in capabilities where its adversaries have vulnerabilities — cyberspace and social media. Putin’s greatest success through the employment of cyber-enabled Active Measures comes not from winning any single election, but through the winning of sympathetic audiences around the world he can now push, pull, and cajole from within the borders of his adversaries. Much has been learned about Russia’s hackers and troll farms in the year since the 2016 presidential election, but there remain greater insights worth exploring from a strategic perspective when looking at the Kremlin’s pursuit of information warfare holistically.

  • Climate change will displace millions in coming decades. Nations should prepare now to help them

    By the middle of this century, experts estimate that climate change is likely to displace between 150 and 300 million people. If this group formed a country, it would be the fourth-largest in the world, with a population nearly as large as that of the United States. Yet neither individual countries nor the global community are completely prepared to support a whole new class of “climate migrants.” The scale of this challenge is unlike anything humanity has ever faced. By midcentury, climate change is likely to uproot far more people than the Second World War, which displaced some 60 million across Europe, or the Partition of India, which affected approximately 15 million. The migration crisis that has gripped Europe since 2015 has involved something over one million refugees and migrants. It is daunting to envision much larger flows of people, but that is why the global community should start doing so now.

  • Climate change will displace millions of people. Where will they go?

    The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a protected refugee as someone who leaves his or her home country due to racial, religious, or social persecution, or reasonable fear of such persecution. These refugees have the right to seek asylum and protection from participating members of the United Nations (though these countries are not obligated to take them in). However, people displaced by climate change do not fit this definition. At the international level, there is no legal mechanism in place to protect climate migrants’ rights and to ensure assistance from other countries. For climate relocation to work, governments need to care and commit to international responsibility and burden-sharing. However, in the current global political context of fear of terrorism, an increased refugee influx into Europe, and an overall rise of xenophobia, countries are more likely to opt for stricter policies on cross-border migration.

  • Draft U.S. document confirms Russian plans for “Doomsday” weapon

    Some two years ago, Western intelligence and military experts scrambled to make sense of a strange new Russian weapon whose designs were glimpsed briefly in a mysterious report on Russian state TV. The weapon was a nuclear-capable underwater drone that would be launched from a submarine. The description accompanying a picture of the drone said such vehicles or weapons would be pilotless and capable of attacking enemies and creating “zones of extensive radioactive contamination unfit for military, economic or other activity for a long period of time.” Now, for the first time there are public indications that U.S. intelligence have not only confirmed Russian intentions for the weapon, but are also trying to figure out how to respond to it.

  • Early Trump support increased in areas with recent Latino population growth: Study

    Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy in June 2015 with a bold, double-edged promise: that he would build a “great wall” on the border separating the United States and Mexico, and that he would make Mexico pay for it. That polarizing statement, since repeated ad nauseam by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum, quickly went on to become one of the defining hallmarks of Trump’s presidential campaign. According to three political scientists from the University of California, Riverside, Trump’s remarks also galvanized his voter base in the initial stages of his campaign, particularly in areas that had experienced considerable Latino population growth in recent years.

  • Thorium reactors could dispose of large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium

    Scientists are developing a technology enabling the construction of high-temperature, gas-cool, low-power reactors with thorium fuel. The scientists propose to burn weapons-grade plutonium in these units, converting it into power and thermal energy. Thermal energy generated at thorium reactors may be used in hydrogen industrial production. The technology also makes it possible to desalinate water. 

  • What we didn’t learn from Twitter’s news dump on Russiagate

    On Friday evening, amid a pending U.S. government shutdown and a presidential porn payoff scandal, Twitter released its long-awaited report on Russian uses of its platform to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The numbers were striking. Twitter officials said, they had found a cluster of 3,814 accounts that were “a propaganda effort by a Russian government-linked organization known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).” These were supplemented by a broader project of 50,258 automated accounts — bots — which spread the messaging further. In total, 677,775 people in the United States followed one of these accounts or retweeted or liked a Tweet from these accounts during the election period. Peter Singer writes that social media is about scale and networking, and this combination means that, in actuality, the numbers released by Twitter are far worse than they seem.

  • Militant attacks caused fewer fatalities in 2017

    In 2017, militants conducted 22,487 attacks worldwide, down 7.1 percent from 24,202 in 2016, according to the annual Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC) Global Attack Index released Thursday. The 2017 attack figure decreased only slightly compared to 2016, but the resultant 18,475 non-militant fatalities represented a much more significant 33 percent decrease year on year, and an even larger 45 percent decrease from the average fatality total over the preceding five years. More than 700 suicide attacks were conducted in 2017, causing almost 4,000 fatalities – a slight increase in attacks from 2016 but a more than one-third decline in fatalities. The upcoming World Cup in Russia in June likely presents a particularly attractive target for the Islamic State, given Russia’s role in the group’s territorial defeat in addition to the participation of the Saudi and Iranian national teams.

  • Rubio, Van Hollen introduce legislation to deter foreign interference in American elections

    U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) on Tuesday introduced the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act. The senators said it sends a powerful message to any foreign actor seeking to disrupt our elections: if you attack American candidates, campaigns, or voting infrastructure, you will face severe consequences. “We cannot be a country where foreign intelligence agencies attempt to influence our political process without consequences,” said Senator Rubio. “This bill will help to ensure the integrity of our electoral process by using key national security tools to dissuade foreign powers from meddling in our elections.”

     

  • EU issues call to action to combat Russian “propaganda”

    The European Commission and lawmakers have accused Russia of orchestrating a “disinformation campaign” aimed at destabilizing the bloc and called for increased measures to combat the threat. “There seems frankly little doubt that the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign is an orchestrated strategy, delivering the same disinformation stories in as many languages as possible, through as many channels as possible, as often as possible,” EU Security Commissioner Julian King told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 17 January.

  • Declining trust in facts, institutions imposes real costs on U.S. society

    Americans’ reliance on facts to discuss public issues has declined significantly in the past two decades, leading to political paralysis and collapse of civil discourse, according to a RAND report. This phenomenon, referred to as “Truth Decay,” is defined by increasing disagreement about facts, a blurring between opinion and fact, an increase in the relative volume of opinion and personal experience over fact, and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

  • Responding to Truth Decay: Q&A with RAND’s Michael Rich and Jennifer Kavanagh

    Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” Experts say it is worse now. With social media, false or misleading information is disseminated all over the world nearly instantaneously. Another thing that’s new about Truth Decay is the confluence of factors that are interacting in ways we do not fully understand yet. It is not clear that key drivers like our cognitive biases, polarization, changes in the information space, and the education system’s struggle to respond to this sort of challenge have ever coincided at such intensive and extreme levels as they do now. Russian disinformation and hacking campaigns against the United States and other Western democracies are the most obvious examples of the amplification – and exploitation – of Truth Decay. Garry Kasparov, the chess master and Russian dissident, said about Russian disinformation efforts: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking … to annihilate truth.”