NATO Expert Says Morgan Freeman May Be Russian Troll Target After Calling Out Putin
A top NATO expert on Russian Internet propaganda and disinformation campaigns says U.S. actor Morgan Freeman appears to have been targeted by “coordinated, pro-Kremlin social-media attacks” after charging that Russia “attacked” the United States last year and criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin in an online video.
Rols Fredheim, a data analyst at NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga, says the online attacks against Freeman follow a “classic pattern” seen in previous, anti-NATO, social-media campaigns out of Russia that were aimed at manipulating Western public opinion and influencing public debate.
Fredheim told RFE/RL on September 21 that he could not say whether the avalanche of recent English-language attacks against Freeman on Twitter, YouTube, and other social media were directly coordinated by the Kremlin.
But he said the timing and similarity of many of the initial attacks suggest an army of pro-Kremlin, online trolls may have taken a cue from the criticism of Freeman by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on September 20, one day after the Freeman video’s release.
“It does look very highly coordinated, because you’re seeing something on multiple platforms at the same time communicating the same message,” Fredheim said. “It’s more than just a teenager in the basement. It could be many teenagers in many basements. But it could also be something more sophisticated than that…the St. Petersburg troll factories, for instance. It could be an example of some kind of Russian troll-farm output.”
He added: “We do know there are organizations, sort of public-relations management companies, et cetera, that seem to be fulfilling a large range of services for many clients, including, presumably, organizations tied to the Kremlin.”
Putin’s spokesman lashed out at the Academy Award-winning actor after Freeman appeared in a video released on September 19 by a nonprofit, nonpartisan U.S. organization called the Committee to Investigate Russia, which describes itself as a “resource provided to help Americans recognize and understand the gravity of Russia’s continuing attacks on our democracy.”
Freeman said the United States had been “attacked” and is “at war” with Russia.
He said Putin, “like the true KGB spy he is…secretly uses cyberwarfare to attack democracies around the world. Using social media to spread propaganda and false information, he convinces people in democratic societies to distrust their media, their political processes, even their neighbors. And he wins.”
Peskov said the Kremlin does not take Freeman’s video seriously and called Freeman “a victim of emotionally charged, self-exalted status” who succumbed to “emotional strain with no real information about the real state of things.”
Peskov also accused Freeman of suffering from “an extension of some sort of McCarthyism” — a reference to U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy’s 1950s fear mongering campaign about the influence of communist agents in American institutions.
Shortly after Peskov’s criticism, videos and memes with hundreds of comments began to appear on YouTube and Twitter mocking Freeman that echoed Peskov’s Kremlin remarks — dismissing Freeman as an eccentric, uninformed Hollywood celebrity who suffers from a new form of McCarthyism.
The Twitter feed of the Committee to Investigate Russia was also flooded with pro-Kremlin and anti-Freeman posts, effectively drowning out critics of the Kremlin and its suspected meddling in the 2016 U.S. election or its alleged public-opinion-manipulation campaigns in Western Europe.
Fredheim says the phenomenon resembles the kind of coordinated efforts seen from Kremlin-linked Internet troll factories, where paid employees coordinate their messages and actions against targets identified as anti-Kremlin.
“In practice, this works by human operators handling multiple, probably fake [social-media] accounts that have weak but arguably believable identities,” Fredheim said. “This is used to create an effect — that of faking public opinion. They are creating a wave [of opinions] targeting a particular message or individual with the hope of shaping the conversation around it.”
“In this case, it looks like perhaps Peskov’s statement acted as a signal of some sort that provoked a particular group, probably of human actors, into some sort of coordinated response,” Fredheim said.
Fredheim said such coordinated social-media campaigns can have multiple aims and effects.
On the one hand, those involved in a coordinated response might be trying to “mask somebody else’s message.”
“If you’re flooding the space with your own message, then you’re pushing out what other people might be trying to talk about,” Fredheim said. “So that means the story now becomes about Freeman, about the source, rather than about the message he is trying to communicate.”
Another aim of troll armies is to manipulate public discourse by creating a “chilling effect,” Fredheim said.
“You could see a motivation to create a chilling effect here, that is, trying to discourage other people from contributing to this conversation,” he said. “It looks like a very hostile space, so if you were thinking of making a statement, you change your mind.”
At other times, Fredheim said, troll armies might be trying to manipulate public debate by promoting a message of their own and creating a “herd effect.”
“If people are seeing a lot of these messages then it looks like it’s an acceptable type of response, and you might get it unleashing similar genuine sentiments as well,” Freheim said.
Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Prague-based Institute of International Relations, said it is natural that Freeman is now “in the firing line” because he has made himself a public spokesman on a contentious issue.
Galeotti told RFE/RL he sees the Committee to Investigate Russia as a “stupid initiative” that may prove to be a distraction and that doesn’t have anything new to offer on the issue of Russia’s alleged election meddling “other than hawkish hyperbole.”
Galeotti said the Kremlin “absolutely” runs “state coordinated campaigns” of disinformation and public-opinion manipulation “when it feels it is useful and important.”
But he said there also are cases of “genuine groundswells” of people responding on the Internet to stories and events that annoy them.
“What is most interesting is what is in the middle,” Galeotti said. “We shouldn’t assume that everything that comes out of Russia is carefully coordinated from the Kremlin, because it’s not.”
Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have repeatedly dismissed accusations by U.S. intelligence officials and others that Russian state organs tried to interfere in the U.S. elections.
“The Kremlin tends to set broad guidelines and lots of other institutions and individuals scramble to basically follow those guidelines and do something thing think the Kremlin would like,” he said.
“Clearly, what the Kremlin wants is for us to be discrediting Morgan Freeman personally rather than this initiative,” Galeotti said. “Of course, you try to discredit the messenger if you also want to attack the message.”