Stories from Abroad

Since 2010, the Benton Foundation and the New America Foundation have partnered to highlight telecommunications debates from countries outside the U.S.

US withdrawal from UNESCO is blow for press freedom

The US government's decision to withdraw from the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has a mandate to promote "the free flow of ideas by word and image [and] to foster free, independent, and pluralistic media in print, broadcast and online," will make the world less safe for journalists.

As the lead UN agency responsible for implementing the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, support for UNESCO is intrinsically linked to ensuring that journalists can work without fear of reprisal. The joint statement called for the U.S. government to reverse its decision and instead commit to increasing UNESCO's effectiveness and impact.

Twitter deleted data potentially crucial to Russia probes

Twitter has deleted tweets and other user data of potentially irreplaceable value to investigators probing Russia’s suspected manipulation of the social media platform during the 2016 election, according to current and former government cybersecurity officials. Federal investigators now believe Twitter was one of Russia’s most potent weapons in its efforts to promote Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, the officials say, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

By creating and deploying armies of automated bots, fake users, catchy hashtags and bogus ad campaigns, unidentified operatives launched recurring waves of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton story lines via Twitter that were either false or greatly exaggerated, the officials said. Many U.S. investigators believe that their best hope for identifying who was behind these operations, how they collaborated with each other and their suspected links to the Kremlin lies buried within the mountains of data accumulated in recent years by Twitter. By analyzing Twitter data over time, investigators could establish what one U.S. government cybersecurity consultant described as “pattern of life behavior,” determining when Russian influence operations began, and how they “were trying to nudge the narrative in a certain direction.”

US withdraws from UNESCO, the UN’s cultural organization, citing anti-Israel bias

The United States will withdraw from UNESCO at the end of 2018, the State Department said Oct 12, to stop accumulating unpaid dues and make a stand on what it said is anti-Israel bias at the U.N.’s educational, science and cultural organization. In notifying UNESCO of the decision, the State Department said it would like to remain involved as a nonmember observer state. That will allow the United States to engage in debates and activities, though it will lose its right to vote on issues.

The withdrawal follows longstanding issues the U.S. has had with UNESCO and does not necessarily foreshadow a further retrenchment of U.S. engagement with the United Nations, which the Trump administration has been pushing to bring about structural and financial reforms.

How Russian content ended up on Pinterest

Image-bookmarking site Pinterest is known as a place where people go to get ideas about home décor, fashion, and recipes. Few would associate it with politics – let alone Russian trolls. But in the run-up to the 2016 election, the site became a repository for thousands of political posts created by Russian operatives seeking to shape public opinion and foment discord in US society, the company acknowledged Oct 11.

Russian operatives don’t appear to have posted directly on Pinterest, but their influence spread to the site through users who came across Russian content elsewhere and unwittingly “pinned” it onto their Pinterest scrap boards. “We believe the fake Facebook content was so sophisticated that it tricked real Americans into saving it to Pinterest,” said Pinterest head of public policy Charlie Hale. “We’ve removed the content brought to our attention and continue to investigate.”

President Trump’s often compared to Putin, but his comments on the media once again evoke Erdogan

Framing the freedom of the press to cover what it deems important as “disgusting” is remarkable coming from any American politician, much less the president while sitting in the Oval Office. But it serves as a reminder that, for all of the focus placed on President Donald Trump’s relationship with and emulation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, there’s another autocrat with whom he has had a friendly relationship and interests in common: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan, perhaps more directly than Putin, moved early to line up allies in the Trump administration. In August of 2016, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s consulting firm entered into a business arrangement with Inovo BV, a Dutch consulting firm owned by a Turkish businessman with ties to Erdogan. At the same time, Flynn was a key aide to Trump. On the day of the election itself, Nov. 8, an opinion piece written by Flynn ran at The Hill. It was titled, “Our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support.” “The U.S. media is doing a bang-up job of reporting the Erdogan government’s crackdown on dissidents,” Flynn wrote, “but it’s not putting it into perspective.”

Russia Has Turned Kaspersky Software Into Tool for Spying

The Russian government used a popular antivirus software to secretly scan computers around the world for classified US government documents and top-secret information, modifying the program to turn it into an espionage tool, apparently.

The software, made by the Moscow-based company Kaspersky Lab, routinely scans files of computers on which it is installed looking for viruses and other malicious software. But in an adjustment to its normal operations that the officials say could only have been made with the company’s knowledge, the program searched for terms as broad as “top secret,” which may be written on classified government documents, as well as the classified code names of US government programs, apparently.

How Facebook Rewards Polarizing Political Ads

As the debate intensifies around Russian ad buys in the US election, a fundamental aspect of Facebook’s platform has gone mostly overlooked. Facebook’s auction-based system rewards ads that draw engagement from users by making them cheaper, serving them to more users for less money. But the mechanics that apply to commercial ads apply to political ones as well.

Facebook has created a powerful system that dynamically, and unpredictably, changes the prices of political ads. The system also encourages polarization by incentivizing ads that users are predisposed to agree with. Unless Facebook makes its internal data public, it’s impossible to say which ads reach which audiences, or how much candidates spend to reach them.

Remarks of Commissioner Michael O'Rielly Before the International Institute of Communications' Annual Conference 2017

I will begin by suggesting that in order to properly determine and comment on the larger issue of how the world’s telecommunication regulators are adapting to the changing environment and technological explosion, it is critical to first recognize the differing levels of legal authority that respective governments bestow upon each regulatory agency. In other words, regulators can only regulate when they are authorized to do so.

In the United States, which has seen monumental technological advancements as the result of convergence and digitalization, we constantly struggle with these lines of authority. To act outside our bounds – however meritorious it may seem – can be harmful. It increases uncertainty and can paralyze entire industry segments for months or years with legal challenges and/or legislative responses, thereby depriving consumers of valuable services and opportunities in the meantime. This isn’t just my opinion, as there are numerous examples of Commission actions to highlight this.

How Israel Caught Russian Hackers Scouring the World for US Secrets

It was a case of spies watching spies watching spies: Israeli intelligence officers looked on in real time as Russian government hackers searched computers around the world for the code names of American intelligence programs. What gave the Russian hacking, detected more than two years ago, such global reach was its improvised search tool — antivirus software made by a Russian company, Kaspersky Lab, that is used by 400 million people worldwide, including by officials at some two dozen American government agencies.

The Israeli officials who had hacked into Kaspersky’s own network alerted the United States to the broad Russian intrusion, which has not been previously reported, leading to a decision in Sept to order Kaspersky software removed from government computers. The Russian operation, described by multiple people who have been briefed on the matter, is known to have stolen classified documents from a National Security Agency employee who had improperly stored them on his home computer, on which Kaspersky’s antivirus software was installed. What additional American secrets the Russian hackers may have gleaned from multiple agencies, by turning the Kaspersky software into a sort of Google search for sensitive information, is not yet publicly known.

How Russia Harvested American Rage to Reshape US Politics

YouTube videos of police beatings on American streets. A widely circulated internet hoax about Muslim men in Michigan collecting welfare for multiple wives. A local news story about two veterans brutally mugged on a freezing winter night. All of these were recorded, posted or written by Americans. Yet all ended up becoming grist for a network of Facebook pages linked to a shadowy Russian company that has carried out propaganda campaigns for the Kremlin, and which is now believed to be at the center of a far-reaching Russian program to influence the 2016 presidential election. A New York Times examination of hundreds of those posts shows that one of the most powerful weapons that Russian agents used to reshape American politics was the anger, passion and misinformation that real Americans were broadcasting across social media platforms.

“This is cultural hacking,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “They are using systems that were already set up by these platforms to increase engagement. They’re feeding outrage — and it’s easy to do, because outrage and emotion is how people share.”