THIRTEEN Russian nationals and three Russian companies have been indicted by the US Department of Justice for allegedly conducting information warfare in the United States to influence the results of the last US presidential election in favor of President Donald Trump. But they are beyond the reach of American courts and will never have to face trial either at home or abroad. We will never know for sure whether they are innocent, as presumed by law, or guilty as charged. Or, more importantly, whether the alleged crimes of these individuals and companies are attributable to the Russian government.
As reported in The New York Times, the Russians stole the identities of American citizens, posed as political activists and used the divisive issues of immigration, religion and race to wage their online campaign against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and the US political system. Special counsel Robert Mueller 3rd found that the Russians might have made contact “with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” but he made no accusation that Trump or his associates were knowingly part of their cybercrime.
Russian bot in our space?
Even as I follow this case with bated breath, I read an online report that a “Twitter bot used by Russian propaganda is now tweeting exclusively about the Philippines.” At the same time, a highly informed diplomatic source informs me that last December a visiting German cybersecurity expert told a select group of diplomats and cybersecurity analysts at the University of the Philippines that the “voters list” of the Commission on Elections was “hacked” before the 2016 presidential elections, and there was not a whiff of smoke about this monstrous scandal. Neither has anything surfaced from this explosive revelation, despite the reported presence of some government officials at the forum, including an ambassador from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Who hacked the Comelec and who benefited?
Who hacked the Comelec data? Who knew of this hacking, and concealed from the public this vital information? How did it affect the integrity of our presidential elections? Did President Duterte, Vice President Robredo, and the 12 “winning” senators benefit from this hacking? Who else did? Shouldn’t we open a public inquiry to determine whether we did have a legitimate presidential election, rather than one that was manipulated by the hackers?
This is the most urgent question for the moment. This is far more grave than the reported Twitter bot tweeting exclusively about the Philippines—for all its unknown implications. DU30, Robredo and the 12 senators should confront this issue forthwith, and should try not to continue in office until the nation has been assured that in May 2016 we had a legitimate voting and counting of the votes.
Public inquiry a must
Perhaps it is time to review our earlier proposal in the National Transformation Council to create a nonpartisan transition committee to take temporary charge of government to institute fundamental reforms and conduct truly transparent national elections. In the meantime, this committee should preside over a full public inquiry into the effects of this hacking on the legitimacy of the past election.
Since October, we lost four pillars of the NTC—Father Romeo Intengan, S.J., Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, and lay leader Jerry Ocampo, all of happy memory—but the NTC remains determined to carry on the moral and political transformation of the society.
Cyber attack on PH
That said, we must now pay attention to foreign bots now focused exclusively on the Philippines. For those who lack our grandchildren’s basic knowledge in information technology, a “bot” is a machine-driven program, written to release an automatic response to posts on social media, in multiple quantities, to create the impression of an apparent avalanche of public opinion where none exists. Social media warriors could use bots to achieve their meanest propaganda objectives. In the last election, the former Mayor of Davao used social media more than any other presidential candidate; it is generally accepted that he was helped by bots and trolls more than all of his rivals.
In an eye-popping article on October 3, 2016 (“Weaponizing the Internet”), Rappler’s Maria Ressa reports that four days after DU30 declared his candidacy, on November 25, 2015, more than 30,000 tweets mentioning his name were posted, at times reaching 700 tweets per minute. This was more than all the tweets posted when he declared he would run, and more than all the tweets about any presidential candidate over the previous 29 days, says the article.
Was this the work of bots? If so, were any foreign players involved? The article does not suggest any Russian or Chinese involvement. But given the hypothesis that has fueled the ongoing US investigation into alleged Russian intervention to elect Trump, those who believe that what happens in the US will axiomatically happen in the Philippines will not hesitate to test the same hypothesis.
If Russians, why not Chinese?
The Chinese are lucky not to have been drawn into the controversy, but they may not be able to remain uninvolved for long. China fakes nearly 450 million social media comments every year, says Ressa, quoting the Washington Post. They may soon join the Russians who are perceived as the first cyber warriors. In almost every forum Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are grilled by the foreign media about the alleged Russian intervention not only in the US, but in Spain, France, Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Britain as well.
Unfortunately, the interrogators have not always been equal to Mr. Putin and Lavrov, as shown in the Russian President’s celebrated exchange with NBC’s top anchor in “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” in St. Petersburg last June.
Smarter than the media
In that encounter, in answer to Kelly’s aggressive questioning, Putin declared that he had not seen one direct evidence of the alleged Russian interference despite the reported consensus of America’s 16 intelligence agencies. Then he turned the tables on his American interrogator by asking how people were supposed to react to unsubstantiated allegations that the US intelligence services had been involved in the assassination of President John Kennedy.
In the recently concluded Munich Security Conference, where many leaders, including the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tanim bin Hamad Al-Thani, spoke of the need for greater European unity and cooperation, Lavrov regretted the fact that some people were trying to find traces of a so-called “omnipotent Russia threat” everywhere, from Brexit to the Catalan referendum. The following question was put to Lavrov:
“What can you say about the information published in the US media yesterday that $1.25 million of the Russian taxpayers’ money was used on a monthly basis to try to influence the outcome of elections in the US? Do you think the investment paid off?”
To which he answered: “I have nothing to say about this, because one can publish just about anything. We can see growing numbers of accusations, allegations and statements. However, I also had the chance to read the statements by Assistant Secretary Jeanette Manfra, who dismissed reports with allegations that any particular country influenced the election results. As I understand US Vice President Mike Pence said the same thing either here or in one of the neighboring capitals. So, until we have all the facts, everything else is bunk, pardon my not too diplomatic turn of phrase.”
An online article by one Natashiya Gutierrez suggests that Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, who had tweeted earlier about DU30 on Rappler, may have something to do with recent tweets on the Philippines.
At the height of the Catalan independence movement, according to this article, Twitter account @Ivan 226622 tweeted 139 news items in support of Catalonia. From September 29 to October 9, 2017, @Ivan 226622, together with @rickrick 888 and @bobbit 2266, tweeted articles in support, all created by Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, both Russian government websites. They tweeted the same articles at the same time, 24 hours a day, the report said, as noted by Spanish newspapers.
Preparing for 2022?
Because of this, Russian outlets became the fourth most influential in the digital conversations about Catalonia, the report said. Since February, however, the focus has shifted to the Philippines. From February 13 to 20, @Ivan has tweeted 1,518 times retweets of news reports from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The tweets were reported to have reached 43,337 accounts and had 1.9 million impressions, according to TweetReach, a social media analytics tool that measures reach and engagement.
The veracity of this report can be easily verified, but what it means, if true, is not easy to ascertain. If this is election-related, the next presidential election is still four years away, and some people fear that if DU30 gets what he wants, we may not even have such an election. Mueller’s finding in the US though is that the alleged Russian cyber warriors started planning their operations years before the US presidential election. This means that if the cyber warriors’ target is the 2022 presidential election, they have decided to start early, and we have not yet seen anything.