Home Tech How a smear campaign against NPR led Elon Musk to fall out with Signal

How a smear campaign against NPR led Elon Musk to fall out with Signal

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How a smear campaign against NPR led Elon Musk to fall out with Signal

For almost two weeks, an esoteric debate has raged on X, formerly Twitter: could users concerned about privacy and security trust the Signal messaging app, or was the Telegram platform a better alternative? X’s chatbot Grok AI described the trending moment as “Telegram v Signal: a crypto clash.”

Signal is an app for sending end-to-end encrypted messages to individuals and small groups. Telegram offers broadcast and messaging channels but it is not end-to-end encryption by default. Debates have arisen about their relative merits. Through the years, albeit largely within the confines of online spaces inhabited by cybersecurity, cryptography, privacy, and policy fanatics. This time, the conversation attracted broader attention (Elon Musk’s 183 million followers) because of X’s most notorious ability: transforming isolated facts into viral conspiracy theories to entertain angry crowds. As a supporting actor, he got a front-row seat to the manufactured controversy.

On April 9, former NPR editor Uri Berliner wrote an essay in the conservative-leaning publication Free Press arguing that NPR had increasingly chosen to cater to a very small subset of left-wing America. Debates over NPR’s supposed leftist leanings and conservative calls to defund it are also not new. This time, however, Berliner’s viral article came a few weeks after the appointment of NPR’s new executive director, Katherine Maher. Conservative activists began to investigate.

It turned out that Maher had some bad tweets. “Bad” is subjective, of course; they could be more accurately described as progressive tweets. Her approach made them a gold mine for people angry about Berliner’s story, and The alchemy of influencers, algorithms and online crowds quickly turned Maher into that most unfortunate of online figures: the main character of X.

The right-wing activist and propaganda guru Chris Rufo led the crusade, directing the social media narrative to right-wing media to The New York Times and on return. The online crowd called for Maher’s immediate firing.

NPR and its board of directors, however, did not relent.

Every effective smear campaign takes a grain of truth and then covers it with layers of innuendo like an oyster applying mother-of-pearl. For the objective, distinguishing between truth and falsehood forces a difficult decision to be made: silence or a cascade of attempted explanations as the accusations evolve and the goalposts move.

But Rufo and other right-wingers – perhaps frustrated that they had not won victory with a quick public dismissal – pulled the goalposts out of the field of reality and into the feverish swamp of conspiracy. They unearthed a tweet from 2016 from a Tunisian activist who suggested that Maher, who had worked in the country, was secretly from the CIA. Although she denied it and her accuser did not appear to comment further on the matter, Rufo published a post on her blog on April 24 alleging that she was an “agent of regime change” who had launched “color revolutions” in the north. from Africa and was bringing them to America. In this new narrative, Maher was not only a biased progressive; she was part of the deep state.

Rufo’s post relied heavily on a particular smear tactic: the transitive property of bad people, which connects people and institutions in a chain of guilt by association. The power of defamation lies in insinuation, waiting for the reader to connect the dots without explicit accusations that could lead to defamation lawsuits.

What does this have to do with Signal and Telegram?

Maher is on the board of directors of the Signal Foundation. Through the transitive property of bad people, everything Maher is linked to is now also suspect. And so, on May 6 – while Maher had not yet been fired by NPR – another Rufo blog post appeared, the goalposts were moved, and the conspiracy theory deepened. The point appeared in the opening box: “Is the integrity of the chairman’s encrypted messaging app compromised?” A new list of insinuations followed: Signal received a grant from the Open Technology Fund, sponsored by the US government. The CEO of Signal, who had elected Maher to the board, was also a progressive, a leftist who had previously been a stock agitator at Google.

I got an unexpected preview of this layer of innuendo early in the campaign when a prominent businessman became angry over the issue. it worked for me on tweet on whether Signal had been compromised: Three years ago, I joined the board from an open source cryptocurrency foundation whose goal is to power payments on Signal. This did not involve any personal involvement with Signal or Maher. But I do research how narratives spread online, which has landed me on the receiving end of some smear campaigns. I was useful as a Bad Person with supposed ties to the target. The businessman never specified what exactly he could have done to Signal. It was enough that they said I was involved.

While the lack of specificity in these accusations should be a red flag, it instead drives the entire effort. Instigated by nothing more than a few vague tweets from influencers, Signal’s compromised character fabrication bounced off X without any evidence.

Understandably, the ordinary people who shared the claims found Rufo’s smear work persuasive: they trust him, they don’t like Maher, and the technicalities are complex. But one person who does understand technology – X CEO Elon Musk – not only saw the insinuations, but added his on May 6: “There are known vulnerabilities in Signal that are not being addressed. It seems strange…” He also offered no evidence. However, the accounts in their responses began to wonder about Telegram. Was it a better, anti-woke alternative? Jack Dorsey, who is tech-savvy enough to know better, also pushed the allegations.

Community notes and journalists got to work fact check musk. The CEO of Signal responded, noting that Signal’s code is open source and closely examined by the security and privacy community. Maher, even if she were the nefarious, woke, deep-state regime-transformer she was supposed to be, couldn’t compromise the app if she tried. Musk’s claim had little to no basis in fact, but she has the power to make dubious claims the topic of discussion for millions.

Thus, a viral conspiracy theory became a trend again and others used it for their purposes. Telegram CEO Pavel Durov highlighted Dorsey’s involvement in Rufo’s article. in a post promoting Telegram as “the only popular method of communication that is verifiably private.” Cryptography professors, security researchers and technology journalists. wrote threads clarifying the risks on the use of Telegram for secure communications and warns against Telegram’s attempt to attract Signal activists.

The original dispute over bias at NPR now seems almost quaint. Second-order manufactures seem so far-fetched that it is not worth bothering to refute them. And yet, because of the hyperpartisan vitriol of today’s fractured reality, they have real consequences.

There are reputational costs for those caught up in conspiracy theories, who find it almost impossible to convince converts that they have been duped. But in the case of “Telegram vs Signal: a crypto clash,” there is also a risk for activists, particularly outside the US, who could switch to the less secure alternative because they have been deceived by prominent tech heroes. Undermining trust in companies and institutions, largely to score points against an enemy, has never been easier.

So what can we do? First, support the targets of bad faith attacks. Institutions must learn to understand how these efforts work and, instead of remaining silent, they must speak out promptly. More generally, however, media literacy efforts should focus on explaining how these campaigns work, highlighting recurring rhetorical tricks, tropes, and lack of evidence. Helping others understand and recognize the mechanisms of smear campaigns will ultimately make them less effective.

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