Who hired Russian operatives to reply to academics supporting Dr Thum?

It was reported that an open letter jointly signed by 284 academics around the world, was sent to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on Monday (30 Apr) in relation to the conduct of the committee’s hearings which were held in March.

The letter had expressed deep concern with regard to the committee’s treatment of Singapore historian, Dr Thum Ping Tjin on 29 March this year, and the wider implications for freedom of expression and academic freedom in Singapore. It also asked that the Select Committee offers Dr Thum a full apology for its unacceptable treatment of Dr Thum.

The open letter was facilitated by Dr Lee Jones from Queen Mary University of London. In addition to the open letter, Dr Jones had also sent an accompanied letter signed by himself to MP Charles Chong, the Chairman of the Select Committee.

“Strange event”: involvement of Russian online bots

In the accompanied letter, Dr Jones said he was aware that Mr Chong had already replied to their letter before they actually sent it to Mr Chong.

“Curiously, your response reached most of our signatories through a coordinated online campaign involving what we understand to be Russian bots, which somehow identified the signatories’ email addresses and sent them messages using fake accounts based in Switzerland,” Dr Jones revealed.

“Perhaps your committee should consider investigating this strange event. We are working with computer experts to trace the origins of this bot campaign and will be happy to share the results with you, and the wider public.”

On 23 Apr, Ms Kirsten Han, one of people who had testified at the Select Committee’s hearing reported on her Facebook page:

“I’ve heard that some of those who signed the open letter in support of Pingtjin Thum have received anonymous emails from encrypted accounts (see photos). It’s not clear who is behind this.

If anyone can further corroborate, or if you’ve received emails like this, message/email me! Some have shared their screencaps in the comments thread, so feel free to do that too if you’re comfortable.”

But one of the 284 academics who signed the open letter, helped to write back to the sender and reported that he had received a reply in Russian instead:

In any case, Dr Jones said that the “pre-emptive” responses missed the point of their letter.

“Your committee’s hearings were established to consider the threat from ‘fake news’. The committee’s interrogation of Dr Thum really had nothing to do with this, and only engaged peripherally with his written submission,” Dr Jones restated the points from the academics.

“We remain convinced that Dr Thum was instead put on ‘show trial’, in an effort to intimidate, attack, and discredit a prominent critic of the historical narratives used by Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party.”

“The focus of the questioning was not about ‘fake news’ but rather Dr Thum’s research on Operation Coldstore, and the clear objective was to disparage Dr Thum’s research and his scholarly credentials. We reject the notion that this is a legitimate use of a parliamentary inquiry,” he added.

If what Dr Jones said is true, it then begs the question who hires those Russian operatives to reply to the academics, who have supported Dr Thum?