This past February a grand-jury indictment was filed in Washington, D.C. by special counsel Robert Mueller regarding the investigation of Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 American Presidential election. This high profile case has been surrounded by controversy from the beginning, with skepticism and misinformation coming from many sources. On the surface, the attack appears to be a whole new kind of warfare. The type of information war that involves large-scale cyber breaches, fake social media accounts, fabricated news stories and automated bots meant to generate buzz. Click here to learn more.
However, below the surface, all the evidence suggests these cyber attacks are just the latest tool in the Russian government’s chest of propaganda tricks.
Historically, these interventions have had the long-term aim of weakening Western democracies by undermining trust in institutions and dividing their citizens against each other. During the height of the soviet union, the KGB referred to such disinformation campaigns as “active measures.”
In the 1960s the KGB financed the publishing house, the Liberty Book Club, to circulate a rumor that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was orchestrated by the CIA. They even went so far as to forge a letter between Lee Harvey Oswald and his “handler.” In the 70s they circulated pamphlets in an attempt to start a war between the Black Panthers and the Jewish Defense League. Many of these attempts failed, but thanks to the efforts there are many today that still believe the CIA created HIV in a biological-weapons lab, (a story that the KGB allegedly invented).
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, (FDD) warns that with the advent of the information age, these old tricks might have finally found a platform to thrive.
Using fabricated social-media accounts Russian operatives tried to reduce voter turnout among blacks, Muslims, and Hispanics, (demographics that typically vote Democratic). Mr. Mueller’s indictment papers contend that many of the social-media groups created have upwards of 100,000 followers each. Much of their work was done online, but evidence shows that they recruited U.S. allies. Some knew who their boss was, and others did not. These included “unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump campaign.”
While the effectiveness of any one piece of propaganda may be hard to measure it’s clear that Russia’s goals are focused on long-term success “working with the grain of time.” Social media can hijack a user’s attention in a way that few other platforms can. Strong emotions lead to higher click rates which organically increase viewability. As FDD explains, what starts as a piece of fabricated news becomes common party-conversation fodder. Soon enough the average voter isn’t sure which source to believe and becomes disenchanted and untrusting with the government as a whole. Click to learn more on Mark Dubowitz.
When evidence first surfaced in 2016, many high-ranking members of the GOP refused to acknowledge the attacks. For their part, social media giants have tried to clamp down on fake accounts, but found themselves overwhelmed by the task. Then President, Obama, gave modest warnings and implemented some sanctions against Russia at the time, but feared to do more without Congressional support because of how suspicious voters could perceive it. After the election, the director of national intelligence issued a report laying out much of the evidence he had seen and warned of its seriousness.
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has not instructed his intelligence organizations on how to counter the threat. His comments have given off the impression that he doesn’t view the allegations as a national-security risk, but as a threat to his reputation and a refute of his legitimacy.
His administration’s refusal to take Russian disinformation seriously and dismissal of reports as “fake news” has made America even more susceptible to future campaigns. A poll published in January found that 49% of Republicans do not believe Russia tried to influence the election in 2016. As the president acknowledged in a February tweet, “If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption, and chaos, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.”