North Korea, Kavanaugh, all those Trump tweets and more in 2018

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In this file photo taken on June 11, 2018 US President Donald Trump (R) gestures as he meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore. (AFP)
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Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, September 27, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 31 December 2018

North Korea, Kavanaugh, all those Trump tweets and more in 2018

  • Over the course of the year, Trump spoke at more than 40 campaign rallies, kept up his Twitter barrage (40,000 tweets since 2009 on his @realDonaldTrump account) and answered plenty of questions

WASHINGTON: The stranger-than-sitcom American presidency opened 2018 with a big tease about mutual nuclear destruction from two leaders who then found “love” not war. It seems President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un were just playing hard to get.
The presidency ends the year saturated in tumult, with the government in partial shutdown and Trump tweeting a video of himself warbling a parody of the theme song from “Green Acres,” a television sitcom from the 1960s, to mark his signing of a farm bill.
Throw in a beer-loving and very angry Supreme Court nominee, an unhappy departing defense secretary, Trump’s parallel universe of facts and his zillion tweets, and you can see that the president’s world this year was touched by the weird, the traumatic and the fantastical — also known as WTF.
There was no holding back the self-described “very stable genius” with the “very, very large brain.”
Some serious and relatively conventional things got done in 2018.
There was a midterm election. Many more Democrats are coming to Congress and not quite all of them plan to run for president. Divided government dawns in January when Democrats take control of the House; Republicans retain their grip on the Senate.
An overhaul of the criminal justice system was accomplished, and in an unusually bipartisan way, though it took a dash of reality TV’s Kim Kardashian West to move it along. Gun control actually was tightened a bit, with Trump’s unilateral banning of bump stocks.
Trump shocked allies and lost Defense Secretary Jim Mattis over a presidential decision to pull US troops out of Syria, quickly following up with indications that up to half the troops in Afghanistan might be withdrawn, too.
Self-described “Tariff Man” started one trade war, with China, and headed off a second by tweaking the North American Free Trade Agreement and giving it an unpronounceable acronym, USMCA. He withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal, putting action behind his Twitter shout: “WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH.”
Trump placed his second justice on the Supreme Court in two years after Brett Kavanaugh, accused of alcohol-fueled sexual assault in his youth, raged against the allegations at a congressional hearing and acknowledged only: “I liked beer, I still like beer,” but “I never sexually assaulted anyone.”
There were frustrations and fulminations aplenty for the president, particularly about the steaming-ahead Russia-Trump campaign investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller (“special councel” in some Trump tweets).
Nor did he make much progress on his promised border wall (“boarder wall“), which he renamed “artistically designed steel slats” in December in what he regarded as a concession to wall-despising, concrete-cursing Democrats. The concession did not work: large parts of the government closed Saturday over the wall-induced budget impasse.
He took heat for a zero-tolerance policy that forced migrant children from their parents until he backed off, inaccurately blaming Democrats for “Child Seperation.”
It was a very good year for jobs. It was a check-your-smartphone-right-now, pass-the-smelling-salts year for the stock market. Trump, who assailed the unemployment rate as a phony measure when he was a candidate, couldn’t speak of it enough as Obama-era job growth continued on his watch. He went mum about the market, a prime subject for his boasting before it took a sustained dive.
Trump’s approval rating in polls was one of the few constants on this swiftly tilting planet: 42 percent approval and 56 percent disapproval in The Associated Press-NORC’s latest and 38 percent-57 percent via Gallup, neither much different than in January.
Through it all, the mainstreaming of the bizarre proceeded apace and North Korea’s Kim set that tone right on Jan. 1 with his New Year cheer to Americans across the ocean: “It’s not a mere threat but a reality that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office. All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike.”
Trump responded the next day with a tweet about size and performance. “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!“
Once they got that out of their system, things quickly improved, helped along by Kim’s letters to Trump, which the US president called “beautiful.” There was no more talk about Trump being a “mentally deranged dotard” or Kim being a “maniac,” the musty insults of an earlier time. In June, they held history’s first meeting between a North Korean leader and a current US president. “We fell in love,” Trump later said at a West Virginia rally.
Kim had previously vowed to visit “fire and fury” on the US but the “Fire and Fury” that made Trump livid early this year was the book of the same name, Michael Wolff’s insider account of the Trump White House. That was a different sort of missile. The president took particular exception to observations in the book by his former chief strategist, tweeting about “Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!“
They are said to be on better terms now.
Over the course of the year, Trump spoke at more than 40 campaign rallies, kept up his Twitter barrage (40,000 tweets since 2009 on his @realDonaldTrump account) and answered plenty of questions in infrequent but lengthy news conferences and sit-down interviews.
So what stands out in this blizzardy whiteout of unconventionality?
How about this farewell to his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson? “He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell.” (The president usually reserves “dumb as a rock” for journalists.)
Or his description of Stormy Daniels, paid to stay quiet about their alleged affair, as “horseface?“
Or this description of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, as “scared stiff and Missing in Action,” before Sessions was finally out in November?
Will history long remember that in 2018 the president called Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff “little Adam Schitt” on Twitter and nations in Africa “shithole countries” in a private meeting?
Or that he (correctly) predicted Hurricane Florence would be “tremendously wet” or told the AP: “I have a natural instinct for science?“
In July, Trump appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he stood by Putin’s side at a Helsinki summit news conference and gave weight to Putin’s denial that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, despite the firm conclusion of US intelligence agencies that it had. “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, Trump said.
But while it’s been hardly noticed in a capital consumed by the shutdown drama, Mattis, Syria, steel slats and market convulsions, 2018 draws to a close as it started — with warnings of a nuclear Armageddon, this time from Putin.
Putin’s prompt was Trump’s intention to walk away from one arms control treaty and his reluctance to extend another.
That, said Putin, “could lead to the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet.”
Maybe he’s just playing hard to get.


Google says misinformation campaign used YouTube to target Hong Kong protests

Updated 23 August 2019

Google says misinformation campaign used YouTube to target Hong Kong protests

SAN FRANCISCO, US: Google on Thursday said it disabled a series of YouTube channels that appeared to be part of a coordinated influence campaign against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The announcement by YouTube’s parent company came after Twitter and Facebook accused the Chinese government of backing a social media campaign to discredit Hong Kong’s protest movement and sow political discord in the city.
Google disabled 210 YouTube channels that it found behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the Hong Kong protests, according to Shane Huntley of the company’s security threat analysis group.
“This discovery was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter,” Huntley said in an online post.
Twitter and Facebook announced this week that they suspended nearly 1,000 active accounts linked to a coordinated influence campaign. Twitter said it had shut down about 200,000 more before they could inflict any damage.
“These accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” Twitter said, referring to the active accounts it shut down.
Facebook said some of the posts from accounts it banned compared the protesters in Hong Kong with Daesh group militants, branded them “cockroaches” and alleged they planned to kill people using slingshots.
China has “taken a page from Russia’s playbook” as it uses social media platforms outside the country to wage a disinformation campaign against the protests, according to the non-profit Soufan Center for research, analysis, and strategic dialogue related to global security issues.
“Beijing has deployed a relentless disinformation campaign on Twitter and Facebook powered by unknown numbers of bots, trolls, and so-called ‘sock puppets,’” the center said on its website, referring to fake online identities created for deception.
“China’s behavior will likely grow more aggressive in both the physical and virtual realms, using on-the-ground actions to complement an intensifying cyber campaign characterized by disinformation, deflection, and obfuscation.”

Misused by autocratic regimes
While social media platforms have been tools for people to advocate for rights, justice or freedom in their countries, the services are being turned on them by oppressive governments, according to the Soufan Center.
“Autocratic governments are now using these same platforms to disparage demonstrators, divide protest movements, and confuse sympathetic onlookers,” the center said.
Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous southern Chinese city and one of the world’s most important financial hubs, is in the grip of an unprecedented political crisis that has seen millions of people take to the streets demanding greater freedoms.
China’s government has publicly largely left the city’s leaders and police force to try and resolve the crisis, but behind the scenes online, Beijing is seeking to sway public opinion about Hong Kong, according to Twitter and Facebook.
“We are disclosing a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change,” Twitter said.
It said it had pulled 936 accounts originating in China that were spreading disinformation.
Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, part of the government’s so-called “Great Firewall” of censorship.
Because of the bans, many of the fake accounts were accessed using “virtual private networks” that give a deceptive picture of the user’s location, Twitter said.
Facebook said it had acted on a tip from Twitter, removing seven pages, three groups and five Facebook accounts that had about 15,500 followers.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” Facebook said.