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News brief: Russia's military moves, Shanghai lockdown, LinkedIn fake profiles

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

How could Russia try to regain the initiative in its war on Ukraine?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia's says it's pulling back troops from the capital, Kyiv, along with other locations. It's said to be refocusing on the eastern part of the country. The United States has been tracking some Russian troop movements but is waiting to see what they mean.

MARTINEZ: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here. Greg, what is the U.S. seeing around Kyiv?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, the Pentagon says that an estimated 20% or so of the Russian troops outside Kyiv have begun withdrawing in the past day or so. Now, these include front-line troops that were really only about 10 miles from the city center of the capital. These forces have headed north toward neighboring Belarus. Some have already crossed over the border. But the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, is calling this a repositioning of Russian forces, not a permanent withdrawal.

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JOHN KIRBY: Our assessment would be, as we said yesterday, that they're going to refit these troops, resupply them and then probably employ them elsewhere in Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: Does that movement amount to pretty much an admission that Russia's initial strategy failed?

MYRE: Well, you know, A, we're now five weeks into this war, and in the first two weeks, the Russians advanced to within pretty close to the capital, 10 miles or so to the north and the northwest. This was clearly a major objective to oust President Zelenskyy and his government and take over the capital, but the Russians have been stalled for the past three weeks, and they're clearly pulling back from the initial plan that didn't work. Now, that said, most of the Russian forces near Kyiv are still there, and Russia is still bombarding the city with long-range artillery on the ground supported by airstrikes. So the Russians may not be able to take Kyiv at this point, but they can keep up this long-range bombardment indefinitely.

MARTINEZ: John Kirby said those Russian forces could catch their breath and then maybe be redeployed elsewhere, if that is the plan. Do we know where that might be?

MYRE: Yeah, eastern Ukraine is really the most likely option. The Russians said this week they will focus on the east, and the Ukrainians and the U.S. say they're already seeing Russian operations that have intensified in this region. The coastal city of Mariupol is obviously one of the hardest-hit cities in Ukraine. If Russia can take it - and it does have some troops fighting on the edges of the city - then Russia would control a pretty substantial swath of Ukraine, from the Donbas region in the east and then down along the southeast coast to the Crimean peninsula in the south. And this would also allow Russia to pin down or cut off the Ukrainian forces so they can't help defend other parts of the country. So we should certainly expect this to be the main battleground in the days ahead.

MARTINEZ: The White House said yesterday that it believes that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is getting limited or even bad information from advisers, that they just don't want to give him bad news on the war or the Russian economy. Does that hold any water?

MYRE: Well, the White House stated this publicly on Wednesday afternoon, and then the Pentagon said it concurred, and then a top British intelligence official said this same thing in a rare public speech. So this was clearly a coordinated announcement. It is certainly reminiscent of these kinds of intelligence leaks we saw coming from the U.S. and its allies before the war. And we should note that this intelligence did prove to be accurate in the previous renderings. So while we don't know the exact source of this latest intelligence, Putin is clearly miscalculated in thinking this would be a quick and easy war. And some of his top advisers, like his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, seem to be more or less missing in action. The big question remaining is, what will Putin do next, and what are his ultimate goals now in Ukraine?

MARTINEZ: NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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MARTINEZ: Shanghai, China, is in lockdown this week.

INSKEEP: That city has a population of 26 million, which is close to the entire population of Texas. This is China's biggest lockdown in two years, with residents required to stay home. Offices and nonessential businesses closed, and public transport shut down, while mass testing is underway. This move is in line with the country's zero-COVID strategy, but it has prompted debate about whether China can keep the virus out forever.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Emily Feng is with us. Emily, why did the Chinese government decide to put Shanghai under lockdown orders again?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Well, they had their biggest-ever surge in cases - 5,500 today alone. And for comparison - 'cause that doesn't sound like a lot, I think, for people in the U.S. - that number is more than double the caseload in the city of Wuhan when it was locked down in early 2020. Tomorrow the second half of Shanghai goes into lockdown. Right now one-half of it is currently in lockdown.

MARTINEZ: So, yeah - so I was going to say, the rest of the world is opening up, Emily, so I'm wondering how people there feel about the lockdown.

FENG: Well, they're really frustrated. And this lockdown came suddenly, and it's happening in one of the most affluent, cosmopolitan cities in China. Today there were hundreds of desperate posts I saw on social media every hour asking for food, for urgent medical care. And these are not news stories if you've covered lockdowns in China, but the contrast of this happening in glittery Shanghai has angered residents who have been relatively privileged throughout this pandemic. And these lockdowns are creating huge economic losses as well. One economist at The Chinese University of Hong Kong estimates that, at minimum, lockdowns across the country, including Shanghai, are costing at least $46 billion a month, which is about 3% of China's GDP.

MARTINEZ: So what needs to happen to get Shanghai reopened?

FENG: I put that question to Eng Eong Ooi. He's an infectious diseases professor and research director at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. Singapore recently said it was opening up its borders and removing all quarantines. But he said the key to that is vaccination, and he points to the worst-case scenario that could happen if China opened up too early, which has already happened in Hong Kong. Hong Kong now has the highest COVID fatality rate in the world because of vaccine hesitancy among the elderly. Here's Dr. Ooi.

ENG EONG OOI: The vaccine coverage in especially the vulnerable population - so those 60 years and above and, particularly worrying, those 80 and above - are low. And so that presents a problem. And this is just talking in terms of getting two doses of the vaccine.

FENG: In other words, China still needs more vaccinations with better vaccines. They're currently using mostly domestically made ones, which work all right against severe disease and death but don't protect against infection, particularly among the elderly. Now, there are prominent health experts in China who are calling for a clear road map forward to easing controls eventually. For example, Dr. Gabriel Leung, who was one of Hong Kong's most famous epidemiologists and a government adviser, last week recommended that Hong Kong live with an endemic COVID instead of sticking with zero-COVID. And two people I've spoken to here in China with direct knowledge of the matter told NPR that Chinese health officials here are closely paying attention to Shanghai and to Hong Kong's outbreaks because they're providing really valuable data about how well vaccines work, how infections spread, and perhaps that could shape a gradual opening-up strategy someday in China, maybe next year. But for now, officials have said again today they're sticking with zero-COVID.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thank you, A.

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MARTINEZ: As long as there have been salespeople, there have been shady sales tactics, from the hard sell on a used car lot to those robocalls warning you about that car's warranty.

INSKEEP: Now comes a 21st century sales tactic in which a salesperson is not real. Fake social media accounts are using computer-generated photos. LinkedIn, the professional networking site, has taken down hundreds of profiles following an investigation by Stanford University and NPR.

MARTINEZ: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond is here to tell us more. Shannon, all right, so tell us about these accounts that this investigation uncovered.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, Stanford researcher Renee DiResta first stumbled across them because one of them actually sent her a sales pitch on LinkedIn, and something about the profile picture caught her eye. So it looked like a typical corporate headshot, but these little details were off. The woman in the photo was wearing only one earring. Her eyes were aligned perfectly in the center of the image. You know, A, most of us probably wouldn't notice these things, but DiResta studies disinformation, and she's one of the few people primed to spot these kind of signs.

RENEE DIRESTA: You know, in the course of my work, I look at a lot of these things, mostly in the context of political influence operations. But all of a sudden, here was a fake person in my inbox.

BOND: And she says all these anomalies are hallmarks of fake faces created by a particular kind of artificial intelligence. So when DiResta and a colleague started looking, they found more than a thousand LinkedIn profiles using these apparently fake faces.

MARTINEZ: Wow, fake faces. All right, so what were they doing?

BOND: Well, social media accounts with fake photos have been used for things like pushing Russian propaganda about Ukraine, to spread Chinese disinformation. What we found here is that many of these LinkedIn accounts seem to be used for basically telemarketing. They're pitching software and services to potential customers.

MARTINEZ: Making fake profiles, though, seems like a lot of trouble to go sell software. So why are people doing this?

BOND: Well, you know, obviously, during the pandemic, in-person meetings and sales conferences dried up, so many people have turned to online sites like LinkedIn to make connections. And creating these fake profiles is actually quite easy. I mean, you could go online right now, download one of these faces for free, and doing this can be cheaper than hiring, you know, real salespeople. And research shows these faces are just as believable, if not more so, than real people's faces.

MARTINEZ: Were you able to find out who made these profiles?

BOND: That was not so simple. So these profiles claim to work for more than 70 different companies. Dozens of them said they were employees of a company called RingCentral, which is a publicly traded software company, including the profile who first messaged Renee DiResta. But when I called up RingCentral, the company said they'd never heard of any of these supposed employees. RingCentral says a vendor it hired to help do sales outreach was responsible, but they wouldn't tell me who that was. And most of the firms that offer LinkedIn outreach wouldn't talk to me, either. One of them said they worked with freelancers but didn't have any involvement in making LinkedIn profiles. And ultimately, I wasn't able to find anyone who was willing to take responsibility for making these or for authorizing them.

And to be clear, LinkedIn at this point has taken down most of these profiles. It's also taken down a couple of the accounts of the vendors that we found were connected. So they have cracked down here, and they say they are improving their systems to get better at catching these kind of fake faces. But this is really a challenge, I think, for all online platforms at this point.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Shannon, thanks.

BOND: Thank you.

MARTINEZ: And a note - LinkedIn and its parent company Microsoft are among NPR's financial supporters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.