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Troll Watch: Misinformation Operations Target UK

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back to an important topic now - the so-called news being pushed out by certain groups and entities, some tied to the Russian government, who are all trying to influence public opinion in the U.S. They do this by making up some stories and amplifying others. Since we know this has happened and we thought we'd try to keep track of it, that's what we're doing with our new series, Troll Watch.

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MARTIN: We're going to tell you which stories are being pushed out by fake accounts on social media. Matt Tait is here to help us with this. He's a cybersecurity fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. He used to work for the British intelligence agency GCHQ. Matt Tait, thanks so much for talking with us once again.

MATT TAIT: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So, Matt, what were the internet trolls pushing out this past week?

TAIT: So one of the big things that the trolls have been talking about this week is - at the beginning of the week, British Prime Minister Theresa May released a statement on the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in Salisbury in the U.K. earlier this year. The U.K. government has now claimed that two military intelligence officers for the Russian government were behind the poisoning and released a bunch of evidence behind it.

The Russian government and Russian trolls have been really aggressively pushing this week this was not the case, trying to undermine the specific evidence that the U.K. government has produced.

MARTIN: So the intention here is to undermine confidence in the investigation into this poisoning here, which is - obviously is a very big issue, not just in the U.K. but also in the United States because it shows kind of a cross-border intelligence operation, which no one wants, right?

TAIT: Sure. And in the United States, the U.S. expelled a large number of diplomats as a consequence of this poisoning. And yet the Russian government's position is that they're not behind this. They want to discredit the British government's evidence suggesting that they are.

MARTIN: Focusing back on the U.S., midterm elections are coming soon. Are there any particular messages that we should be looking for in anticipation of that?

TAIT: Sure. So Friday, we reached 60 days before the midterm elections. The Department of Justice traditionally has tried to avoid having political indictments and so on during that period immediately before the election. But Paul Manafort has a second trial that's due to start in a couple of days. The Mueller investigation is very divisive inside the United States. So I think we're going to see a lot of pushing of the narrative that the Mueller investigation demonstrates, one thing or the other because, of course, amplifying these voices increases the dysfunction inside the United States.

MARTIN: That is Matt Tait. He's a cybersecurity fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. Matt Tait, thanks so much for joining us once again.

TAIT: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.