Power Trip

A Voter’s Guide to Russian Shenanigans

Despite a lagging military and weak economy, they remain a modern superpower thanks to information warfare.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

RRussia lost the Cold War and now finds itself in a difficult position. The United States sits atop the global power structure, with China closing the gap. The United States’ annual military budget in 2017 was $610 billion, higher than the next seven countries combined. And many of those are U.S. allies. China’s is $228 billion and growing. Russia’s military budget in 2017 was $66.3 billion—less than Saudi Arabia’s. Its economy is a twelfth the size of the United States.

With the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and the ability to project military power in its region, Russia remains a player. But it’s a second-rate power, and long-term trends are pointing down. And they know it.

Despite these disadvantages, Russia has managed to be a major player in the 21st century. Under Vladimir Putin, the country has punched above its weight, sowing havoc within its opponents. Unable to cultivate enough military or economic might to compete with the United States, Russia has settled on a strategy of disruption. It’s declining in many ways, but no one can beat it in one key arena: information. In that way, Russia has reinvented itself as the first true 21st-century world power.

The goal is simple: If Russia can’t scale to the heights of its enemies, the country will bring its enemies down to its level. With propaganda, cyberattacks, and support for divisive political causes, Russia aims to weaken rivals in the West, undermine public confidence in democracy, and incapacitate NATO and the European Union.

Sometimes these outlets produce straight news in line with mainstream coverage. Sometimes they amplify divisive voices. And sometimes they spread propaganda, using slanted commentary and disinformation.

Essentially, it’s a version of the Soviet doctrine of “active measures” (that is, political warfare) updated for the information age. What Russia understands, and other countries are only now realizing, is that global power competitions increasingly take place not on battlefields or trading floors, but in our heads.

The United States, U.K., and many other Western countries, closely divided with political passions running hot, are ripe for this type of exploitation. Russia’s information warriors try to heighten divisions, sometimes with exaggerations and lies, but often simply by amplifying divisive voices within their target countries.

If Americans or Europeans are busy being angry at each other, they’re less focused on countering Russia abroad. And if they believe Russian operatives are lurking around the internet’s every corner, spreading disinformation, they lose trust in established sources and think Russia’s manipulating them, even when it isn’t. There’s a lot of power in that.

The Propagandists

Perhaps Russia’s greatest informational assets are the media networks RT (founded as Russia Today in 2005) and Sputnik (launched 2014).

RT provides a cable/satellite TV channel in English, Arabic, Spanish, German, and French. Sputnik produces radio in 42 languages. Both have websites. The result is a lot of Russian government–produced content — news, talk shows, documentaries — spread around the world.

RT and Sputnik’s biggest advantage is substantial government funding. Unlike private media organizations, these Russian outlets don’t have to worry about turning a profit. That allows them to give a large platform to fringe voices, both left and right, who couldn’t get a large enough audience for a show on a mainstream network but can rile up like-minded people and win a few converts.

They get some bigger names, too. Guests on RT programs include Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who served for 24 days and subsequently pled guilty to a felony for lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian government.

Source: Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia/CC BY 4.0 International

The internet changed the news business, forcing private organizations to cut back. Among U.S. media organizations especially, international coverage was a common target for budget cuts, because it’s expensive and tends to interest audiences less. As a result, RT and Sputnik coverage from farther-flung locations gets picked up more often by blogs and news aggregators.

Sometimes these outlets produce straight news in line with mainstream coverage. Sometimes they amplify divisive voices. And sometimes they spread propaganda, using slanted commentary and disinformation. The mix helps them appear like legitimate news sources.

Combined, the professional propagandists, trolls, and bots can manipulate users and algorithms to amplify voices that serve Russia’s interests.

In this way, Russia takes advantage of the West’s liberal values. State media dominates the Russian market, but press freedom elsewhere gives RT an opening no foreign outlet would get in Russia. Countries have started pushing back, with the U.K. accusing them of breaking rules preventing misleading content and the United States forcing RT to register as a foreign agent.

Requiring RT’s programs to come with a disclaimer — “THIS IS FUNDED BY THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT” — could provide a middle ground, upholding free speech while giving viewers an informed choice. But it wouldn’t do that much. No Western government has figured out how to counter Russia’s larger strategy.

Bots and Trolls

Russia’s international propaganda outlets create a mutually reinforcing feedback loop with Russia’s infamous army of internet trolls. The trolls set up fake accounts — some automated, some run by people — that interact with users on message boards and social media, spread divisive content, argue in bad faith, and amplify non-Russian voices that do the same.

RT has a substantial presence on social media: 2.69 million followers on Twitter and 5.3 million on Facebook for RT English; 2.93 million on Twitter and 6.8 million on Facebook for RT en Español. Some of those accounts are fake, but many are real, and both share RT’s posts, exposing them to millions more.

Combined, the professional propagandists, trolls, and bots can manipulate users and algorithms on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube to amplify voices that serve Russia’s interests, such as those who support political causes that sow division within or between Western countries, including anti-E.U. political parties, the U.K. Independence Party and Brexit, the Catalonian separatist movement in Spain, the alt-right, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in America, and Marine Le Pen’s presidential campaign in France. And they can take Russia’s side in a controversial issue, such as defending pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.

Social media companies unintentionally created a vector for government manipulation and still have not fully reckoned with it. Facebook sold political ads to Russian operatives and allowed them to set up fake groups that garnered hundreds of thousands of followers. Twitter is swimming in trolls and bots. YouTube’s algorithm recommends extremist videos, which keeps people on the site longer but also amplifies disinformation. And all of these companies provide individuals the means to quickly make false information go viral.

While old-school propaganda tried to convince everyone of something that wasn’t true, the new version tries to exhaust people — to get them to doubt that truth matters or that finding it out is possible.

For example, one of Russia’s disinformation campaigns targets the White Helmets, a volunteer organization in Syria that conducts search-and-rescue efforts after bombardments. The White Helmets’ work reveals how much Russian-backed Syrian military operations are killing civilians, and Russia has tried to discredit them as al-Qaeda terrorists.

Russian accounts helped spread a claim on Twitter by a Swiss doctor who inaccurately claimed a picture of White Helmet workers treating children was fake. It received more than 12,500 retweets and was translated into multiple languages — those posts also got thousands of retweets — and kept spreading even after the doctor admitted he made a mistake.

With this disinformation, Assad’s supporters get “evidence” to counter and distract from accusations that he’s responsible for the mass murder of civilians. Additionally, it floods the information space, creating enough uncertainty that third parties think, “I don’t know who to believe,” and therefore don’t demand action to stop it.

That’s part of the trick. While old-school propaganda tried to convince everyone of something that wasn’t true, the new version tries to exhaust people — to get them to doubt that truth matters or that finding it out is possible. That helps sow division and undermines traditional arbiters of truth, such as universities and the mainstream media.

To enhance these efforts, Russian trolls created fake accounts and integrated themselves into existing online networks. In the most successful known example, a fake Twitter account called @TEN_GOP (that is, Tennessee Republican) accumulated more than 130,000 followers. According to the Digital Forensic Research Lab:

Few Americans were more patriotic on Twitter than the user known as @TEN_GOP. For almost two years, it lauded President Donald Trump, praised the American military, promoted Brexit and the European far right, and interacted with dozens of leading conservatives, while attacking Trump’s election rival Hillary Clinton, liberals, Muslims and the mainstream media.

The fake account gained followers by aping popular posts among its target audience, ranging from generic feel-good tweets thanking the police or military to conspiracy theories about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. After building an audience, @TEN_GOP mixed in more pro-Assad propaganda as well. RT and Sputnik were among its favorite sources.

The troll was good enough at integrating the fake account into Trumpist circles that it got retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., Roger Stone, Sebastian Gorka, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Mike Cernovich, Michael Flynn Jr., and others.

And as @TEN_GOP’s prominence within these circles grew, reporters cited it as a pro-Trump conservative voice. Glenn Greenwald, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post all fell for it.

Direct Interference

Russia’s most brazen information operation aimed to elect Donald Trump. Along with amplifying pro-Trump and anti-Clinton voices online, hackers from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, stole private emails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign and strategically released them via WikiLeaks for maximum political impact.

As with other information campaigns, Russian bots and trolls helped spread Clinton’s emails and associated pro-Trump/anti-Clinton commentary. This effort helped keep the story in the news.

And it jibed with the Trump campaign’s strategy to paint Hillary as a dishonest crook. While there’s no evidence the campaign and the Russian government directly coordinated on this strategy, they clearly acted toward the same goal.

It’s impossible to know whether Russian interference determined the outcome — there are too many variables — but it obviously affected the election and the aftermath. Russia’s hacking and influence operations became a huge scandal, leading to an FBI investigation and the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel.

By amplifying some of the angriest voices and most divisive issues, Russia’s information operations increase political turmoil within the United States.

On February 16, 2018, Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations—including the St. Petersburg–based troll farm called the Internet Research Agency — laying out criminal charges related to interference in the 2016 election, such as wire fraud, bank fraud, and identity theft. But the FBI’s jurisdiction does not extend to Russia, and the Internet Research Agency is on track to spend more than $20 million on trolling operations this year.

Interestingly, while much of Russia’s online propaganda in 2016 supported Trump — recently released Twitter data shows a sharp uptick in pro-Trump posts after he secured the Republican nomination — Russia’s post-election efforts in the United States have aimed more at pushing on culture war wedges. For example, Russian-linked accounts supported both sides of the NFL kneeling debate, with some supporting the players and sharing Black Lives Matter slogans while others joined the president in denouncing the kneelers as unpatriotic and anti-police.

This shows how Russia’s main goal is sowing chaos in its primary adversary, not supporting any particular cause. Electing Trump was divisive, but uniting the country behind him wouldn’t be.

Therefore, Russia’s information warfare strategy against the United States post-2016 has tried to heighten divisions associated with Trump, especially regarding Russian electoral interference, rather than support the U.S. president in general. Russian disinformation and amplification networks backed the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign encouraging Congressman Devin Nunes to share a document he wrote painting the FBI’s Russia investigation as illegitimate, the so-called #WalkAway movement of angry Democrats quitting to support Trump, and the heated debate over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Russia did not invent any of these controversies. But by amplifying some of the angriest voices and most divisive issues, Russia’s information operations increase political turmoil within the United States. At the very least, that hinders the United States’ ability to assert global leadership, thereby giving Russia more space to pursue its interests.

Le Pen lost, but Trump and Brexit won. The United States, the European Union, and the Western alliance are more divided than they’ve been in years — arguably since before the Cold War. Russia did not create the divisions, but its information warfare techniques have helped exacerbate them.

We cannot determine exactly how much worse today’s political divisions are thanks to Russian efforts. But there’s a widespread perception in the West, especially in internet circles, that Russia is supporting divisive political causes and spreading disinformation.

That perception creates suspicion that political opponents are acting in bad faith at the behest of a foreign power. It reduces public confidence that democratic governments legitimately reflect the will of the people. It undermines acceptance of shared facts and creates doubt that widely accepted truth is even possible anymore.

Essentially, Russia is more powerful than its military and economic capabilities would indicate, for a simple reason: A lot of people believe that it is.

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.

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