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俄罗斯水军肆虐美国网络?这只是传说

《财富》杂志仔细研究了相关网文,发现它们都是以传统新闻文章的格式撰写的,没有任何迹象表明它们是出自俄罗斯宣传人员的手笔。

传说在2016年的美国总统大选中,俄罗斯人利用两样“神技”——假新闻和社交媒体宣传,深度干预了美国的选举政治。现在,据说俄罗斯人把这项业务扩展到了私营部门。企业只需要支付少量费用,就可以雇佣俄罗斯特工给自己当水军,或者替他们抹黑竞争对手。

为了证实这一点,美国马萨诸塞州有一家名叫Recorded Future的公司亲自做了一个试验。它成立了一家虚假的英国公司,然后雇佣两家俄罗斯公关公司代表它发动信息战。其中一家公司的任务,是通过生成貌似合法的软文,对该公司进行推广。另一家公司的任务,则是用同样的手段摧毁这家公司的声誉。

根据Recorded Future公司向《财富》杂志分享的数据,这两家公司成功发表了四篇文章,其中一篇文章出现在了一家拥有近百年历史的报纸上。这几篇水军软文现在仍然能够在网上找到。

这两家俄罗斯公关公司的服务范围令人相当吃惊。他们不仅在Facebook和领英(LinkedIn)上创建了假账户,甚至还能够在英文媒体上植入新闻报道。

根据《财富》杂志看到的一份报价表显示,在CheapAutoInsurance.com这种网站上发一篇软文,收费180美元;在北爱尔兰的《Love Belfast》这种地区性新闻出版物上发一篇文章,需要600美元。但它还不止于此。只要你给得起钱,一些知名新闻媒体也能安排:

路透社:8,360美元

Wallpaper*:8,404美元

Mashable:13,370美元

《金融时报》:49,440美元

由于Recorded Future公司只打算测试一下这些假新闻服务公司是否能够“收钱办事”,所以它只要求这两家俄罗斯公关公司将软文植入到级别比较低的媒体中。Recorded Future公司不要求《财富》杂志不得透露相关出版物的名字,以免暴露与这两家俄罗斯公司接触的卧底分析师的身份。

《财富》杂志仔细研究了这些植入软文,发现它们都是以传统新闻文章的格式撰写的,没有任何迹象表明它们是出自俄罗斯宣传人员的手笔。其中有一篇文章并非记实性的新闻报道,而是属于“赞助性”文章,这表明它是通过该出版物的招商人员放进刊物里的。

目前,我们还不清楚这些公关公司到底如何植入了这些文章。据Recorded Future公司的分析主管罗曼·萨尼科夫介绍,这些俄罗斯公关公司雇佣了记者、编辑、翻译、搜索引擎优化专家以及黑客等形形色色的人员为其服务。通过与这些公关公司的交流,萨尼科夫相信,他们是通过向腐败记者或撰稿人付钱,来实现软文的植入的。

Recorded Future公司还表示,它的卧底分析师是在所谓的“暗网”的非法营销网站上发现这些公关公司的。

萨尼科夫还表示,至于这两家俄罗斯公关公司是否真的可以在一些国际知名媒体上植入软文,Recorded Future公司并没有证据能够证明。这两家俄罗斯公司宣称他们确实有这个能力,不过为了给客户保密,他们拒绝向Recorded Future的代表出示相关证据。

路透社在发给《财富》杂志的一份声明中表示,路透社已经采取了严格措施,确保其报道不存在虚假信息。《Wallpaper*》也发表声明称,它没有理由相信俄罗斯公司在它的出版物中植入了内容,并表示它正在就此事寻求法律指导。Mashable和《金融时报》则没有回应《财富》杂志的询问。

即使这些俄罗斯公司只能渗透进一些知名度较低的出版物,但是只要有企业被他们盯上,后果还是相当严重的。不少读者主要依赖地区性的媒体获取信息,他们根本想不到这些地区小报也会像全国性媒体一样,成为不法分子利用的目标。

而社交媒体的使用,又进一步放大了虚假信息的威胁。这两家俄罗斯公司都使用了Facebook和另一个热门社交媒体的账户来分享假新闻,有的账户还积累了几百上千个粉丝。还有一家公司使用了领英来分享假新闻。

Recorded Future公司表示,这两家俄罗斯公关公司还提出,他们可以将服务扩展到包括Instagram和TripAdvisor在内的其他社交媒体平台上。

领英在一份声明中表示,公司严格执行禁止虚假账户和欺诈活动的政策。TripAdvisor公司也表示,他们也采取了类似的政策,而且他们很清楚,这种宣传活动“绝大部分来自俄罗斯”。Instagram的东家Facebook则并未回复我们的置评请求。

尽管在2016年美国总统大选后,各大社交媒体公司纷纷采取措施,使普通人更加难以创建虚假账户网络,但是萨尼科夫表示,像这两家俄罗斯公司雇佣的职业黑客,还是能够绕过社交媒体公司的控制。

这两家俄罗斯公关公司的手段(我们可以称之为“虚假信息即服务”)并不仅仅局限于媒体宣传。其中一家公司还编造了这家不存在的公司虐待员工的故事,该公司还向Recorded Future表示,他们甚至可以向执法部门和税务部门提出虚假指控。(不过Recorded Future公司没有接受他们的建议。)

Recorded Future公司委托两家俄罗斯公关公司搞的这次虚假宣传,总共只花了6,050美元。这个数字对于那些想打击竞争对手的餐馆、零售商店等小企业来说是完全负担得起的。

萨尼科夫还表示,这两家俄罗斯公司的代表很善于沟通,注重以客户为中心,这一点和其他合法的公关公司没有什么不同。

萨尼科夫指出:“如果你有一个竞争对手,而且你想搞垮它,10年前的时候,你可能会雇个人搞掉它的网站。而现在,你可以雇这些公司发表它的负面评价,或者是在媒体上发表文章抹黑它。”

Recorded Future公司于9月26日发表了一篇名为《影响力的代价:私营部门的虚假信息》的报告,其中披露了关于这次虚假宣传试验的更多细节。

一个“变异和扩散”的问题

当然,在传统的公关手段中,通过媒体平台相互攻讦,也是屡见不鲜的事。比如《华尔街日报》在9月末报道称,最近的一场反对亚马逊的所谓“草根运动”,实际上就是由亚马逊的竞争对手沃尔玛与甲骨文发起和资助的。

但这些俄罗斯公关公司的服务却不能同等视之,因为他们公然漠视了媒体道德。(既然舆论可以捏造,何必还要去去引导舆论?)任何人只要银行账户里还有几千美元,都可以去找他们,炮制一次虚假宣传。另一方面,谷歌、Facebook、推特等社交媒体公司早就被“假新闻”事件搞得焦头烂额,美国国会已经要求他们解释其在防止社交媒体“武器化”问题上采取了哪些措施。而这些俄罗斯公司的做法则又给他们带来了新的挑战。

纽约大学的法学教授保罗·巴雷特最近发表了一篇报告,详细说明了以盈利为目的的虚假宣传服务的危害,并敦促科技公司加大对平台的监管力度。这篇报告近来也被广泛引用。

巴雷特对《财富》杂志表示:“困难在于,这些威胁正在变异和扩散。我的感觉是,这些科技公司也在努力保护它们的用户,但这些新威胁即便对于像Facebook这样拥有雄厚技术实力的公司,都是一种挑战。”

虚假宣传服务已经成了一个越来越严重的问题。据《连线》杂志今年6月报道,科技孵化器Jigsaw(它也是谷歌母公司Alphabet旗下的一个部门)曾经雇佣了一支俄罗斯水军,让他们去攻击该公司虚构出来的一个民主活动团体。这个活动旨在研究政府资助的虚假宣传活动的影响,整个活动是在推特上进行的,最终Jigsaw公司一共只花了250美元。

在此三个月前,Facebook宣布将清除数百个原属于以色列阿基米德集团的虚假账户。这家公司就是以盈利性为目的,通过虚假宣传,影响非洲、南美、东南亚等几十个国家的政治情绪。9月末,牛津大学的研究人员指出,在过去两年中,进行过虚假政治宣传的国家的数量翻了一番,达到70多个。

萨尼科夫表示,具有讽刺意味的是,Recorded Future公司雇佣的这两家俄罗斯公关公司,貌似充分利用了俄罗斯人在2016年美国大选期间建立起来的“知名度”,来为他们的商业行为开拓市场。他表示,虽然这些年来,这些公司也在俄罗斯提供类似服务,但美国大选给他们的带来的“名声”却也启发了他们:为什么不去西方开拓新的市场呢?

Recorded Future公司的首席执行官克里斯托弗·阿尔伯格表示,目前看来,这些虚假宣传公司已经具有了损害私营企业或个人利益的潜力,这一点尤为值得关注。“我们不能低估这些威胁的潜在影响。”(财富中文网)

译者:朴成奎

The staples of Russian misinformation campaigns—fake news and social media propaganda—are turning up in a new place: the private sector. For a small fee, companies can pay Russian operatives to boost their image or smear their competitors, employing some of the same tactics used by the Kremlin to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

To prove it, a young cyber-security company in Massachusetts called Recorded Future created a fake U.K. company, then hired two Russian public relations firms to wage information warfare on the company’s behalf. One firm was tasked with promoting the company through the generation of seemingly legitimate news articles; another was ordered to tear down its reputation in the same manner.

The firms successfully placed a total of four articles, including one that appeared in a newspaper that has been published for nearly a century, according to evidence that Recorded Future shared with Fortune. The disinformation campaigns can still be found online.

The range of services offered by the Russian PR firms is startling. Not only do the firms deploy fake accounts on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, but they offer a service to plant news articles in English-language media outlets.

According to a rate card reviewed by Fortune, fees begin at $180 to plant an article on a website such as CheapAutoInsurance.com and rise to $600 to plant an article in a regional news publication like Northern Ireland's Love Belfast. But it doesn’t stop there. Well-known, prestigious journalism outlets also feature on the list, with hefty prices to match:

Reuters: $8,360

Wallpaper*: $8,404

Mashable: $13,370

Financial Times: $49,440

Since Recorded Future intended only to test the efficacy of the fake news service, it paid the two Russian PR firms to plant articles about its fictitious company in lower-tier publications. Recorded Future asked Fortune not to name the compromised publications in order to avoid compromising the identity of its undercover analysts who engaged the Russian firms.

Fortune, however, reviewed the planted articles and found that all were written in the manner of conventional news articles and contain no hints that they were published on behalf of Russian propagandists. In one case, the planted article was not journalistic but “sponsored,” suggesting the firm placed the story through the publication's commercial staff.

It is not clear how the PR firms actually planted the articles. According to Roman Sannikov, director of analysts at Recorded Future, the Russian firms employ journalists, editors, translators, search engine optimization (SEO) specialists, and hackers. Based on conversations with the firms, he believes they pay corrupt journalists or writers to place the stories.

Recorded Future says its undercover analysts discovered the firms on criminal marketing sites on the so-called dark web.

Recorded Future did not obtain evidence that the Russian PR firms are actually able to infiltrate the pricier publications listed on the rate card. The PR firms claim they possess this capability but refused to provide proof to Recorded Future’s agents, citing client confidentiality, says Sannikov.

In a statement to Fortune, Reuters said it has stringent practices in place to ensure its coverage is free of misinformation. Wallpaper* stated it has no reason to believe the Russian firms have planted content with the publication, and that it is seeking legal counsel on the matter. Mashable and the Financial Times did not respond to Fortune inquiry.

Even if the Russian firms are only able to penetrate lesser-known publications, the effect on companies targeted by fake articles could be significant. Many readers rely on regional news outlets for information and wouldn’t expect them to be targeted by malicious actors as aggressively as a national news outlet.

The disinformation threat is amplified by the use of social media. Both propaganda campaigns purchased by Recorded Future involved the use of accounts on Facebook and another popular social network, some with hundreds of followers, to share the commissioned fake stories. One campaign also shared the stories on LinkedIn.

Recorded Future says the Russian PR firms also offered to extend the campaigns to other social media platforms, including Instagram and TripAdvisor.

In a statement, LinkedIn said it enforces its policies that ban fake accounts and fraudulent activities. TripAdvisor said that it takes similar actions, and that it is well aware such propaganda activity is “disproportionately coming out of Russia.” Facebook, which owns Instagram, did not respond to requests for comment.

While social media companies have made it much harder for average people to create networks of fake accounts in the wake of the 2016 election, Sannikov says professional hackers like those employed at the Russian PR companies are able to circumvent the companies’ controls.

The Russian PR firms’ tactics—call it “disinformation as a service”—are not limited to media propaganda. One of the firms hired by Recorded Future, which spread stories that the fictitious company had mistreated its employees, offered a further service for filing false accusations with law enforcement and tax authorities. (Recorded Future declined to engage it.)

The total cost of the misinformation campaigns that Recorded Future engaged with amounted to just $6,050, a figure well within reach of small businesses like restaurants or retail stores looking to harm their competitors.

According to Sannikov, the Russian firms’ representatives are communicative and customer-focused, not unlike those of a legitimate PR agency.

“If you have a competitor down the block and you want to damage them, 10 years ago you hired someone to knock their website offline. Now, these services can post negative reviews and write articles in media about them,” says Sannikov, adding that both campaigns took only weeks to carry out.

The company on September 26 published a report titled “The Price of Influence: Disinformation in the Private Sector” that provides more details about its campaign.

A Problem That Is “Morphing and Proliferating”

Companies spreading dirt about each other in the media is hardly a new tactic in the world of conventional public relations, of course. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported at the end of September that a recent grassroots campaign to oppose Amazon was funded and run by rivals Wal-Mart and Oracle.

But the Russian PR firms’ services are set apart by their blatant disregard for media ethics. (Why shape public opinion when you can fabricate it?) Their ready access to anyone with a few thousand dollars in their bank account could present a new challenge to companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, from which Congress has already demanded explanation for what they are doing to address the “weaponization” of social networks.

Paul Barrett, a New York University law professor who recently published a widely-cited report urging technology companies to do more to police their platforms, describes for-profit disinformation services as troubling.

“The difficulty is these threats are morphing and proliferating,” Barrett tells Fortune. “My impression is that the tech companies are trying in good faith to protect their users, but the new threats are challenging even for someone with Facebook’s technological prowess.”

Disinformation services appear to be a growing problem. In June, Wired magazine reported how tech incubator Jigsaw—a division of Google parent company Alphabet—purchased a Russian troll-for-hire campaign to harass a fictitious pro-democracy activist group it had created. The campaign, which took place on Twitter and was part of broader research into state-sponsored disinformation, cost only $250.

Three months before that, Facebook announced it would purge hundreds of fake accounts belonging to an Israeli company called the Archimedes Group. The group ran disinformation-for-profit campaigns that sought to affect political sentiment in dozens of countries in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. And at the end of September, Oxford University researchers reported that the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns had doubled in the last two years to more than 70.

Ironically, says Sannikov, the Russian PR firms contracted by Recorded Future appear to have leveraged the enormous publicity surrounding the Kremlin’s 2016 disinformation campaigns in order to build out for-profit ventures. While the firms have offered similar services in Russia for years, he says, the publicity surrounding the U.S. election inspired them to expand to new markets in the West.

That such efforts now have the potential to harm private businesses or individuals is of particular concern, says Christopher Ahlberg, Recorded Future’s chief executive: “The perceived impact of these threats cannot be understated.”

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