A New Kind of War: From Russia, With Disinformation, Part I

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This is the first segment of a three-part series exploring how Russian disinformation has impacted and continues to impact U.S. elections.

Like millions of Americans, I tried to make sense of what happened after the 2016 presidential election. I had never given much thought to the Electoral College, let alone foreign interference in our elections. Before Donald Trump, I had never lost sleep over whether a presidential candidate or the president of the United States was conspiring with a foreign country to win an election or destroy our democracy. We are experiencing a new kind of war, a war domestically grown, by the interference of
a foreign adversary and with the help of our own president.

Information Warfare

But we would come to learn that Russia deployed a successful information warfare strategy against our country, specifically to impact our elections and create division. A bipartisan Senate Intel Report confirmed that Russia interfered to boost Trump but also engaged in a similar elevation of Bernie Sanders to split the Democratic vote between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Russia then targeted messaging to Sanders’s supporters to vote for Trump in the presidential election. 

In April 2019, investigative journalist Michael Kranish confirmed this theory in The Washington Post. Kranish points to a particular tweet that appears to have been posted from Louisiana, but upon analysis by Clemson University, was found to have originated in Russia.

Russia deployed this information warfare attack by creating a company known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA). According to the Senate Intelligence report released in August 2019, the IRA used social media and other sources to spread divisive disinformation in the United States.

Masquerading as Americans, these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States. This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government’s covert support of Russia’s favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election.” 

Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate, Volume 2: Russia’s Use of Social Media

In the Handbook of Russian Information Warfare, Keir Giles describes two types of information attacks: psychological warfare (psychological operations or PsyOps) and technology warfare.

According to “one authoritative Russian textbook,” information-psychological warfare is intended to affect the personnel of the armed forces and the population and is conducted on a permanent basis.

Giles makes clear that in Russia’s disinformation campaign, the propaganda pushed by the PsyOps program is more likely to be unwittingly spread by a friend or family member who simply has a different viewpoint. They respond to topics specifically raised to divide us, like religion or race. Pictures or memes conveying emotional references seemed to be the most effective at raising tensions among targets. The “target” is you, your spouse, your sibling, your child, your friend, your neighbor, your co-worker, your boss . . . you get the idea. 

The average person has no way of knowing they have shared something harmful, which is one reason this type of warfare is so dangerous. The information warfare attack on our country has been quite effective by creating “tribal” political parties and making it difficult for them to negotiate or work alongside one another. With roots embedded so deeply in our regular use of technology, information warfare has negatively impacted the lives of everyday citizens. The division has ended relationships, torn apart families, destroyed friendships, and left its mark on businesses and communities.

Giles provides guidelines to understand the magnitude of damage this type of warfare can cause. Information warfare is not new. But as technology evolves, along with our dependence on the internet and social media, so does Russia’s ability to use that technology as a weapon against us. Giles writes:

“Furthermore, information warfare can cover a vast range of different activities and processes seeking to steal, plant, interdict, manipulate, distort or destroy information. The channels and methods available for doing this cover an equally broad range, including computers, smartphones, real or invented news media, statements by leaders or celebrities, online troll campaigns, text messages, vox pops by concerned citizens, YouTube videos, or direct approaches to individual human targets. Recent Russian campaigning provides examples of all of the above and more.”

The importance of knowing how this disinformation targets us is extremely pertinent to our ability to fight against these attacks.

The Russian “firehose of falsehood” propaganda model drives home the scope and provides details of the numerous ways Russia has been able to influence our societal beliefs since the Cold War era. This model is characterized by large volumes of messages broadcast continuously over many channels. It also relies on “a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions” until it “entertains, confuses and overwhelms the audience.” 

Russia’s information warfare strategy puts an “emphasis on obfuscation and on getting targets to act in the interests of the propagandist without realizing that they have done so.” 

If it feels like the chaos is nonstop, that is intentional. Giles addresses the regularity and consistency of these attacks: “In the Russian construct, information warfare is not an activity limited to wartime. . . . it is an ongoing activity regardless of the state of relations with the opponent . . .” Russian interference in the United States has actually increased since the 2016 election. The Senate Intel Committee’s report stated that the data shows increased IRA activity across social media after Election Day: Instagram up 238 percent, Facebook 59 percent, Twitter 52 percent, and YouTube up by 84 percent. Russia’s campaign to use information warfare on social media is still going strong.

Come back tomorrow to read Part II focusing on how Russia uses trolls and bot armies to disseminate false information across social media platforms.

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