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In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, the team are joined by Bill Goodwin to discuss the role of disinformation in the 2016 Democratic National Committee emails leak
In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Computer Weekly investigations editor Bill Goodwin joins Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna to discuss the role of disinformation in the 2016 US Democratic National Committee emails leak.
The story at the heart of the episode was by Duncan Campbell, a well-known and, as Bill says, a brilliant investigative journalist.
On the podcast, Bill recalls highlights of Campbell’s career before the team get into the bulk of the discussion. (Campbell was the C in the famous ABC trial in 1978 and presented and researched a path-breaking BBC Scotland series, Secret Society, in 1987).
Bill says the big-picture topic discussed in this episode of the podcast is disinformation on the internet – what does and does not characterise it. Also, how social media should be regulated, and how the Russian foreign intelligence service has been, according to US intelligence sources, intervening in it.
On the podcast, Bill explains disinformation as not being so much about telling big lies, but about creating distraction and spreading confusion. So, publishing an article that contains facts, but typically irrelevant ones, and then “building a whole edifice of suggestion on top of that”.
The background to the original, real-world story discussed on the podcast runs like this. In 2016, the US Democratic Party’s National Committee (the DNC) suffered a theft of emails that were published by WikiLeaks just before the party’s national convention. The emails seemed to reveal bias against Bernie Sanders and for Hillary Clinton among the Democratic National Committee, an avowedly neutral body.
The emails were stolen by a hacker or hackers, who were alleged to be Russian foreign intelligence (GRU) officers, according to the 2019 Robert Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, and a Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee report.
(For those unfamiliar with the bureaucracy of the Russian security services, the Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije [GRU] is the foreign military intelligence agency of the Russian federation’s armed forces. Its focus is external, whereas the FSB, as successor to the KGB, is internally focused).
Seth Rich, a DNC employee murdered in July 2016, became the posthumous target for an alternative and false theory for the origin of the theft and leak that became popular with right-wing conspiracy theorists. According to the conspiracy theory, he was killed in retribution for the leak.
Bill relates on the podcast how lies about Seth Rich continued to circulate until January 2020.
And, as Duncan Campbell wrote in his story: “The Rich family has now received a stream of full retractions, as well as millions of dollars in compensation for intentional emotional harm, for what court documents described as ‘death threats and vicious online harassment’.”
Bill recounts, on the podcast, how some British people became involved online with the controversy surrounding the DNC leaks, often using pseudonyms and fake profile pictures in an attempt to disguise their identities.
There is another twist to this online activity, which is that an unknown anonymous informant called “Forensicator” has publicised claims and detailed hacking information concerning the DNC files published by WikiLeaks. That came to the attention, says Bill, of former US president Donald Trump, who was allegedly interested in a possible exculpation of the Russian intelligence service from the charge of hacking the DNC – in contradiction to the abovementioned Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
Another aspect of the DNC leaked emails controversy is, says Bill, the ostensible emergence of a Romanian-based hacker who claimed to be the real infiltrator of the DNC, Guccifer 2.0. The Mueller report and the Senate Intelligence Committee came to describe this persona as a front for the Russian foreign intelligence service.
“Nothing is as it seems in this world of smoke and mirrors,” concludes Bill of this world of conspiracy theories and disinformation. But at least the Rich family have been vindicated.