Axios Login

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January 08, 2021

I know I sometimes sarcastically congratulate you for making it to Friday, but this week it really does feel like an accomplishment.

Today's Login is 1,465 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Disinformation's Capitol win

Illustration of a hand holding marionette strings with the wooden handle made from a hashtag. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The road to Wednesday's ransacking of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob began four years ago with the Russian theft of Democratic party emails, Axios' Scott Rosenberg reports.

Why it matters: Russia aims to undermine U.S. democracy, and this week's turmoil is another sign of its success.

The big picture: Disinformation campaigns work in the short term to target enemies and in the long term to undermine the stability of social systems.

Be smart: The people who invaded Congress Wednesday to stop the certification of a U.S. presidential election weren't paid by the Kremlin or acting under orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin. But their actions — like those of the president who stoked their rage with lies — couldn't have been more aligned with Russia's goals when it attacked the U.S. political system in 2016.

  • The short-term goal was to help elect Trump, whom the Kremlin accurately viewed as a force for chaos and disruption in Washington.
  • The long-term goal was to create lasting mistrust among Americans in their own elections.

Trump took the ball and ran with it. That left the U.S. with tens of millions of people who now believe, without any evidence and against the rulings of dozens of state and federal courts, that Biden stole the White House from Trump.

Of note: On cue after Wednesday's events, Russia's government and media outlets cheered on Trump's complaints against the American press and America's "archaic" election system even while commiserating over the country's humiliation, per the Daily Beast.

Context: The U.S. failed to treat the 2016 attack as the declaration of cyber-war that it was.

  • Trump saw investigations into Russian disinformation as efforts to undermine the legitimacy of his win.

That left the U.S. vulnerable, and today we are paying the price:

  • With the SolarWinds hack, Russian cyber-saboteurs gained access to a still-unknown number of U.S. government and corporate networks. They're almost certainly still there.
  • But the Capitol invasion shows that Putin doesn't need to send hackers to pilfer Nancy Pelosi's email. Rioters waving Trump flags are now willing to try.

Between the lines: The work of undermining trust in the American system that began with clandestine cyber operations is now openly undertaken on social media platforms and right-wing media outlets.

What's next: Restoring trust takes longer than demolishing it.

  • Documenting Russia's past mischief and completing long-stymied investigations into Trump's entanglements with Moscow will be an important part of shoring up Americans' faith in their system.
  • But so will finding new ways to disassemble the alternate-reality information systems that inspire events like the Capitol siege.

2. Social media's long march toward banning Trump

Illustration of a close up of Donald Trump's mouth with a hovering mute button over it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Though often criticized for treating President Trump with kid gloves, a wide range of social media platforms took action to limit his online reach following the Capitol riot.

Facebook announced Trump's account would be shut down "indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks," and Twitter promised to ban him if he breaks its rules again, Axios' Ashley Gold and Sara Fischer report.

Between the lines: With the elections over and the president in his final days in office, tech companies feel they have more latitude to take tougher action, sources tell Axios.

The firms may also have an eye on Washington's looming power shift.

  • Democrats who have long been concerned about the proliferation of misinformation and extremism on social media will soon be in charge of the White House and both houses of Congress.

Driving the news: A slew of platforms, including companies that have shown restraint over the past four years, finally pulled the plug on the president's accounts after Wednesday's events.

  • Facebook and Instagram banned Trump for at least the next two weeks.
  • Twitter locked Trump's account Wednesday, reinstating him Thursday once he deleted problematic tweets.
  • Twitch and Snapchat disabled Trump's accounts.
  • Shopify took down two online stores affiliated with the president.

Meanwhile, YouTube said it's accelerating its enforcement against false claims of voter fraud from Trump and others following Wednesday's events.

The big picture: Platforms have taken incremental steps to confront lies and inflammatory posts from Trump and his supporters, ranging from labels to limiting posts' reach to removing certain posts, groups and accounts altogether.

  • But they've hesitated to fully muzzle the president, with Facebook citing a commitment to free expression and Twitter saying it's in the public interest to hear what world leaders are saying — until now.

Be smart: The damage is already done. Fixing the problem, critics say, requires looking beyond just Trump.

  • "Wednesday's attempted coup was not an aberration, but a logical result of our disintegrating information ecosystem," said Accountable Tech's Jesse Lehrich. "Correcting course will require deep structural reforms, not tweaks around the edges."

3. The far right's circus of memes

One of the rioters at the U.S. Capitol dressed in fur, some horns and with red, white and blue face paint.

Photo: Win McNamee via Getty Images

So much of the assault on the Capitol looked readymade for memes because, for many of today's far-right digital natives, that is the point, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

  • The outlandishly costumed rioters — among them, shirtless, horned "Q Shaman" Jake Angeli and fur-clad Brooklynite Aaron Mostofsky — had no wish to fade into the crowd.
  • Others livestreamed their own vandalism, mugging for phone cameras as they, for instance, picked up House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office phone and pretended to make a call, egged on by amused commenters.

Yes, but: The unseriousness is intentional — a core feature of modern far-right extremism.

Between the lines: "The left can't meme" is itself a meme among the online right. In this milieu, liberals and leftists are mocked as self-serious and censorious and nihilist irony is the norm.

  • Graphic footage of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse gunning down protesters this summer got remixed into joke videos passed around by far-right users even on mainstream platforms like Twitter.
  • Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people at a 2019 mass shooting in a New Zealand mosque, filled a racist manifesto with inside jokes aimed at far-right users of forums like 8chan (now 8kun).

The memers can't be separated from people with actual malicious intent, and when they're all part of the same mob, it doesn't much matter who's just in it to amuse their online friends and who actually aims to overthrow the government.

The far-right circus offers camouflage for plainer hate speech — like sweatshirts at Wednesday's event reading "Camp Auschwitz" or T-shirts sporting an acronym meaning "6 million wasn't enough."

Be smart: History is full of groups of disaffected extremists getting enjoyment out of bucking norms and flouting authority.

4. Cybersecurity fears loom behind Capitol breach

Rioters storm the U.S. Capitol

Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The breach of the Capitol also put lawmakers' cybersecurity at risk, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: Files, emails and other data lifted from lawmakers would have enormous value to hostile foreign powers, cybercriminals and other bad actors.

Driving the news: In a letter circulated Thursday to House lawmakers' offices, the chamber's chief administrative officer said "there have been no indications that the House network was compromised" but advised staff to make a full accounting of all devices and report back if anything appears missing or amiss.

Context: Rioters entered Pelosi's office, and a reporter tweeted (and has since deleted) a photo claiming to be of an unlocked computer with email open in her office.

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said a laptop was stolen from an office he used in a video he posted showing damage to the room.
  • Pelosi and Merkley's offices did not respond to request for comments.

How it works: If any congressional devices or networks were breached, either amid the chaos Wednesday or via, say, a USB drive surreptitiously inserted into a computer, that could mean not only theft of information but also the potential to insert malicious code for future exploitation or mischief.

  • A Hill aide told Axios it's a high-impact, low probability situation. "From a cybersecurity standpoint, I don't think anybody was really prepared for the amount of physical access that appeared yesterday."

Reality check: Classified and other highly sensitive information doesn't just sit around on Hill office laptops, and there's no indication any of the people who stormed the Capitol were there as cyberspies. But even the small risk of congressional networks being breached is seriously troubling, say experts.

  • "I don't think you can rule it out at this point," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security at Auburn University.

5. Take note

On Tap

  • CES officially starts Monday, but some gadget announcements have already started and I'd expect more between now and Monday.

Trading Places

  • SolarWinds, still reeling from the massive hack of its software, has hired noted cybersecurity experts Chris Krebs and Alex Stamos to help the company rebuild its security (and reputation). Both are serving as consultants and have already begun work, per a source.
  • Goldman Sachs announced that Sam Britton and Matt Gibson will co-head the bank's global media, tech and telecom business. Nick Giovanni, who ran the business for two years, left to become CFO of Instacart.


6. After you Login

Usually I watch Stephen Colbert to see if he is as frustrated by the day as I was, but every now and then I get to update my music collection, as was the case after seeing singer Julien Baker perform “Faith Healer” from her upcoming album Little Oblivions.