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From The Editors Health

Russian Election Trolls Responsible for Spreading Vaccine Safety Disinformation

A study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, has revealed that the Russian propaganda machine was not only responsible for meddling in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, it was also behind the vaccine-related tweets that fuelled a raging vaccine debate on social media at the time, creating doubts about the efficacy of vaccines in people’s minds.

The main purpose of the researchers at the George Washington University, in Wash DC, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, and the University of Maryland, in College Park, MD, was to study the impact of social media on people’s thought processes when making vaccine-related decisions.

However, what they did find in their scrutiny of social media and survey data was that Twitter accounts run by Russian trolls, programmed bots, and, what the study authors call “content polluters,” masqueraded as genuine accounts on Twitter to influence public opinion on vaccination.

They systematically disseminated both pro- and anti-vaccine tweets, maliciously intended to cause discord and debates, their efforts not really going in vain as they did manage to “[erode] public consensus on vaccination.”

While content polluters (accounts that spread malware and unsolicited commercial content) disseminated 75 percent more anti-vaccine messages than the average Twitter user, Russian trolls were fanning the fire with supportive as well ant-vaccine tweets.

Meanwhile, unidentifiable accounts continued their polarization campaign, promoting anti-vaccine sentiments among users.

“The vast majority of Americans believe vaccines are safe and effective, but looking at Twitter gives the impression that there is a lot of debate,” said David Broniatowski – an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University and the lead author of the study.

“It turns out that many anti-vaccine tweets come from accounts whose provenance is unclear. These might be bots, human users or ‘cyborgs’—hacked accounts that are sometimes taken over by bots. Although it’s impossible to know exactly how many tweets were generated by bots and trolls, our findings suggest that a significant portion of the online discourse about vaccines may be generated by malicious actors with a range of hidden agendas,” he added.

What became immediately apparent to the researchers was that the tweets seemed to be an attempt to “relate vaccines to issues in American discourse, like racial disparities or class disparities that are not traditionally associated with vaccination” – something which the researchers found “kind of weird,” says Broniatowski.

To emphasize his point, Broniatowski cited a particularly “weird” tweet, which, according to him said “something like ‘Only the elite get clean vaccines,’ which on its own seemed strange.”

And, weird it does sound, because anti-vaccine tweets should ideally portray vaccines as risky for everyone alike, rather than targeting a specific socioeconomic class, which the tweet seemed to be doing.

“These trolls seem to be using vaccination as a wedge issue, promoting discord in American society,” says Mark Dredze, one of the study co-authors from the Department of Computer Science, Whiting School of Engineering, John Hopkins University.

The study comes at a time when Europe is faced with one of the largest measles outbreak in decades, with 41,000 cases reported across the continent in only the first half of 2018.

24,000 cases of measles with 1,500 serious complications and 10 related deaths were reported in France between 2008 and 2016 – easy availability of the vaccine notwithstanding.

Declining vaccination rates fuelled by anti-vaccine movements is one of the major reasons for the loss of faith in vaccination among people, resulting in low immunity against communicable diseases.

To give you an idea of the kind of distrust of vaccines that exist among the French people, a survey involving 65,819 individuals across 67 countries revealed that 41% of the French people surveyed did not agree that “vaccines are safe,” when the global average is only 13 percent.

We are astonished to see that 41 percent of the French say they are wary of vaccinations,” said Dr. François Chast – Head of Pharmacology at Paris Hospital.

“It is urgent to fight the speeches of anti-science and anti-vaccination lobbies that play on fear, they show nothing and rely on a few very rare side effects to discredit vaccines that save millions of lives,” he added.

Professor Alain Fischer – president of a body that advises on vaccinations – said that the moment the subject of “vaccination obligation” comes up, it triggers a massive debate.

“Unfortunately there are no other solutions to combat the upsurge in childhood diseases. It is a short-term evil for a long-term good,” Fischer said.

Another major contributor to the apprehensions about vaccine safety has been the fake study by the disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield who has been barred from practicing medicine in the UK.

His study, linking the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine to autism and bowel disease, published in the journal “The Lancet,” in 1998, was officially struck off the journal in light of a “fatal conflict of interest.”

Subsequent scientific studies were successful in disproving the mythical theory of Wakefield the quack.

The January and February records of 2017 show that out of the 79 cases of measles reported in France during the period, 50 cases were reported in the north-eastern region of Lorraine only, as confirmed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Italian expert on infectious diseases Alberto Giubilini believes that there is justification in holding the parents liable for not vaccinating their children.

“The benefits of vaccination in terms of protection from infectious disease outweigh the costs and risks of vaccination,” he observed. “For instance, the World Health Organisation estimates that between 2000 and 2015, measles vaccination prevented more than 20 million deaths.”

Broniatowski and his study co-authors are of the opinion that “directly confronting vaccine skeptics enables bots to legitimize the vaccine debate” and that further research is imperative to “determine how best to combat bot-driven content.”

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From The Editors Politics

NYT Says Trump Aides Had Repeated Contacts With the Russian Intelligence

The New York Times has reported that four American officials, former as well as current, say that Donald Trump’s campaign officials had “repeated contacts” with Russian Intelligence officers in the year before the 2016 presidential election on the evidence of “phone records and intercepted calls.”

Three of the four officials said that the United States law enforcement and intelligence agencies were able to intercept the calls at about the time they were getting evidence of Russian meddling in the election by “hacking into the Democratic National Committee,” revealed the New York Times.

However, NYT says that “The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.”

The intercepted evidence caused alarm among the law enforcement and intelligence agencies partly because of the volume of contact that was happening while Donald Trump was showering praise on Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Mr. Trump is known to have said at a campaign event that he hoped that Russian Intelligence hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails and made them public, said the NYT report.

The NYT goes on to say that according to the officials, who did not want to be named because the ongoing investigation was classified, the intercepts were not only that of Trump’s campaign aides but of his other “associates” as well. As for the Russian involvement, the contacts “included members of the government outside of the intelligence services.”

The only name revealed by the officials to NYT is Paul Manafort, “Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine,” while they refused to name other Trump associates in contact with Russian officials.

U.S. President Donald Trump, joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. Jan. 28, 2017. Source: Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump, joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, speaks with Russia’s President in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington: Reuters

According to the officials, the intercepted communications and call logs add to a larger collection of intelligence being investigated by the FBI in regards to the “links between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russian government,” in addition to investigating the DNC hacking, reports NYT.

“This is absurd,” Manafort said. “I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today,” as reported by the NYT.

Manafort went on to say, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,” says NYT.

The NYT explains that it is not uncommon for businessmen to inadvertently come in contact with intelligence officials in countries like Russia and Ukraine where the intelligence community is “deeply embedded in society,” and, like Manafort, this may have been the case with “several of Mr. Trump’s associates.” The law enforcement officials did not volunteer information on “what extent the contacts might have been about business,” said NYT.

Information on the details such as the nature of discussion on the intercepted calls, the identity of the participating Russian officials and the number of “Trump advisers” in contact with the Russians were not given by the officials to NYT. “It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself,” said the New York Times.

The intercepts are different from “the wiretapped conversations last year between Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, and Sergey I. Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States,” says the NYT report. In the calls, which resulted in Flynn resigning on Monday night, the discussions were about the Obama administration’s sanctions “imposed on Russia in December,” NYT added.

While the FBI and White House refrained from commenting, Sean Spicer, press secretary, supported Trump’s “previous comments that nobody from his campaign had contact with Russian officials before the election,” said the NYT report.

“There’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period,” Mr. Spicer said answering a question posed to him, reports NYT.

“The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable incidents is what led the president to ask General Flynn for his resignation,” Spicer also said in reference to Flynn’s resignation.

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From The Editors Politics

Asylum Extension Granted to Edward Snowden by Russia

Edward Snowden, a computer professional and former employee of CIA, also an ex-contractor for the NSA, United States, was granted asylum in Russia in June 2013, following the exposure of his involvement in the leaks of NSA’s thousands of sensitive and classified information to the media.

Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s legal representative in Russia since July 2013 revealed in a statement that his temporary residence permit had been extended until 2020. He also spoke about Snowden’s eligibility to apply for Russian citizenship.

Mr Kucherena told the RIA Novosti news agency:

“In effect, he now has all grounds to receive citizenship in the future, over the course of a certain period, since under the law we have a period of residence on Russia soil of not less than 5 years.”

“Now he has already been living on Russian territory for nearly four years, he does not violate the law, there are no complaints about him. That’s one of the reasons his residency permit was extended,” Kucherena added.

Snowden left his last job as an NSA contractor, having worked for Dell and the CIA before, and flew to Hong Kong on May 20, 2013. In June 2013, he made public thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill.

The story gathered international momentum when the details of the leaks were reported in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel, an English Language international edition of the German news source.

He had provided details of covert global surveillance operations conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the “Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance” between Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States to the media.

The same month, on the 21st, the U.S. Department of Justice found him guilty on two counts: breach of the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property following which Snowden fled to Moscow, Russia, to seek political asylum on June 23, 2013. Ever since he has been residing in Russia but his whereabouts in the country has remained a secret thus far.

According to a report in late August of 2013, published by the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Snowden had been living at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong before he flew to Russia for seeking asylum.

The Kommersant report was rejected in January 2014 by Snowden’s legal adviser, Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer saying it was fake news, “every news organization in the world has been trying to confirm that story. They haven’t been able to because it’s false.”

Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s legal representative in Russia, also rubbished the Kommersant report stating that Snowden “did not enter into any communication with our diplomats when he was in Hong Kong.”

Ironically, the asylum extension announcement came the day after President Barack Obama granted clemency to Chelsea Manning who has been serving a 35-year imprisonment sentence for a similar offense – leaking thousands of classified information and documents to Wikileaks in 2010. The clemency will allow her freedom effective May this year.

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From The Editors Politics

Malicious Hacking Software Discovered in an Electric Department, Vermont

After an alert sent out by the United States Department of Homeland Security about the malicious code to companies related to vital infrastructure, utility company, Burlington Electric’s IT department scanned their network and found the hacking code in one of their laptops; all credit to the utility company’s prompt and appropriate reaction to the situation.

“We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding,” said the company’s spokesman, Mike Kanarick.

According to the statement, the Burlington team were working with federal agents and officials to ensure that the offending malware was traced and eliminated.

‘Our team is working with federal officials to trace this malware and prevent any other attempts to infiltrate utility systems. We have briefed state officials and will support the investigation fully,” the spokesman added in his statement on behalf of Burlington Electric.

The only solace one can take from this whole episode is that the laptop in question was not connected to the power grid.

Just days before President Barack Obama calls it a day as the President of the United States, his administration’s conviction about the hacking seems to be coming true with the finding of this malware, allegedly, pointing a finger toward Russia.

This is a matter of huge concern for the United States because a successful hacking of a power utility, especially during the winter season, would prove to be catastrophic as correctly observed by the senior Vermont Senator Patrick Leah.

“This is beyond hackers having electronic joy rides — this is now about trying to access utilities to potentially manipulate the grid and shut it down in the middle of winter” is what the senator had to say about the severity of the issue. “That is a direct threat to Vermont and we do not take it lightly,” he added.

The Russian hacking mission has been dubbed “Grizzly Steppe,” by the United States Intelligence agencies, and if they are to be believed, the purpose of the hack was to interfere and affect the outcome of the United States Presidential election – whether the intention was to favour Trump or spite Hillary or both is still contentious.

On December 26, last year, President Barack Obama, in a bold attempt to show his contempt of the Russian hacking, imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies and expelled 35 Russian spies in response to the Vermont hacking code.

Although the Russian hacking incursion hardly caused any damage, it is indeed a matter which the U.S. Intelligence community will take extremely seriously because of the potential threats such cyber intrusions are likely to cause.

It has, embarrassingly, exposed America’s vulnerability to such cyber-attacks on the country’s power grid and has raised questions and trepidations in the United States administration that the Russian hackers are actively involved in penetrating and attacking our vital utilities.

President-elect Donald Trump, however, is still obstinate in his observations and continues to express his doubts about Russian involvement in the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s emails with the intent of damaging her electoral campaign.

“I just want them to be sure because it’s a pretty serious charge,” Trump said on New Year’s Eve. “When you look at the weapons of mass destruction — that was a disaster and they were wrong, and so I want them to be sure. I think it’s unfair if they don’t know.”

It would be noteworthy to mention that the Russians have done this in the past when they hacked the computers of a utility facility in Ukraine in December 2014 that wreaked havoc among tens of thousands of residents who were left without power.

However, Russia continues to deny any such cyber manipulation or attack on U.S. facilities.

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From The Editors Politics

U.S. Will Take Action Against Russian Hacking: President Barack Obama

In his final presser of 2016 calling it “the most wonderful press conference of the year” President Barack Obama did not mince words when he charged Russian Hackers of influencing the U.S. Presidential elections and promised a befitting reprisal.

“I have got a list of who’s been naughty and nice, to call on,” Obama said at the very start of his address to the press speaking from the White House.

Earlier in an interview, Obama had made his intentions clear that America would not tolerate interference by foreign governments in its internal matters especially when a foreign regime (read Russia) tries to meddle in the country’s elections.

“I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections … we need to take action,” Obama said in a December 15 interview with NPR, “And we will – at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be.”

The U.S. intelligence agencies including the C.I.A have no misgivings about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in the hacking and are confident that the main purpose of Russian intervention was to ensure a Trump victory.

Donald trump, however, continues to rebuke and ridicule the reports of seventeen intelligence agencies which have concluded that Russia and, potentially, Putin himself had a direct hand in manipulating the election and the hacking of Democratic officials.

Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, by the way, has dismissed the accusation as “laughable nonsense.”

Adding insult to injury the president’s spokesperson, Josh Earnest, told reporters that Trump had prompted Russia to “hack his opponent,” and it was very much likely, in fact, a certainty, Trump was aware that Russia was helping his campaign.

At a press conference, back in July, Trump addressed Russia telling them to locate Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 missing emails which he later said was said in jest.

“I don’t think anybody at the White House thinks it’s funny that an adversary of the United States engaged in malicious cyber activity to destabilize our democracy,” Earnest said. “That’s not a joke.

Before President Obama was ready to take questions from the attending press representatives on December 16, he spoke about the years of work that America had put in to bring about an end to the civil war in Syria and “alleviate human suffering.”

He had no hesitation in admitting that it was one of the hardest issues that he had faced as President and spoke about the world being united against the “savage assault by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies in the city of Aleppo,” mentioning that it was a “deliberate strategy of surrounding, besieging, and starving innocent civilians.”

However, the crux of his address to the press was to highlight the Russian hacking of the DNC, its influence on the U.S. presidential election outcome, and to ensure that such cyber attacks did not happen in the future.

It was a clear warning by Obama to “Russia or others, not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you.”

White House officials believe that Russian hackers assisted Trump’s campaign against the Democratic nominee in the presidential race, Hillary Clinton.

However, it is noteworthy that, as yet, no proof has been offered or made public about the Russian factor in the election outcome.

Among a host of disagreements between Washington and Moscow including Syria and Ukraine, the hacking accusations have added fuel to fire and relation between the two nations has further deteriorated.

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From The Editors Politics

U.S. Intelligence Agencies Say Russian Hackers Acted to Aid Trump in Election

President-elect Donald Trump has apparently antagonized the U.S. Intelligence Agencies by his scornful denial of their assessment that President Vladimir Putin’s government had a hand in his victory over Hillary Clinton.

In a scathing statement issued by his transition team on Friday evening, they demeaned the U.S. Intelligence’s conclusion that Russian hackers had a role to play in Trump’s victory.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the statement said. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’

Not only has he rubbed the national security establishment the wrong way, he is at odds with the G.O.P. as well. Most Republicans have a different view as opposed to that of Trump and his transition team.They are of the opinion that Russia did interfere in the election; however, they recommend an in-depth investigation, hearings, and public reports to understand the extent and intent behind the Russian interference.

“To have the president-elect of the United States simply reject the fact-based narrative that the intelligence community puts together because it conflicts with his priori assumptions — wow,” said Michael V. Hayden, who was the director of the N.S.A. and later the C.I.A. under President George W. Bush.

Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who is the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee did not mince words when he said at the conservative Heritage Foundation, “We cannot allow foreign governments to interfere in our democracy. When they do, we must respond forcefully, publicly and decisively.”

President Barack Obama has ordered American intelligence agencies to produce a full report on Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election
President Barack Obama has ordered American intelligence agencies to produce a full report on Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election

On Saturday the intelligence officials declared that Russia was not just attempting to destabilize the election but also had a hand in giving one candidate the edge.

According to one intelligence official, there were indications in early October that the Russians were focused on harming Hillary Clinton. However, CIA officials were reluctant to make public their assessment in the middle of the campaign as they were circumspect of being accused of trying to politicize their findings.

The C.I.A’s procrastination in shifting their assessment and findings, according to another intelligence agent, is the reason why President Barak Obama has ordered a full review and detailed report of “lessons learned” on Russia’s covert intervention in influencing the election before he leaves office on January 20, 2017.

The F.B.I., which is responsible for domestic cyber investigations, is not in sync with the C.I.A Findings as it has reportedly told Republicans that no evidence of breach has been seen.

Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also known to be one of Trump’s avid supporters, said on Friday that he had no misgivings about Russia’s involvement in manipulating the election.

Mr Nunes said that the intelligence agencies had “ignored pleas by numerous Intelligence Committee members to take more forceful action against the Kremlin’s aggression.”

However, what still remains unclear is the objective behind Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election. At this point of time, one can only speculate.