During the last five years, Russian-organized spreads of disinformation over various social media platforms have undermined democracy in the United States. The crusade Russian platforms have waged against our democratic institutions and the barrage of fake news they push are detrimental not just to democratic American values, but to social media platforms and the media as well.
These attacks have their roots in the 2016 US presidential election, where a wide-ranging group of Russians and Russian bots probed state voter databases for insecurities, hacked the Clinton campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee (Abrams 2019). Republicans weren’t spared the attacks either. Russia also attempted to hack the campaign of Senator Marco Rubio and the Republican National Committee and released politically damaging information over various social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. This included political slander against institutions and candidates Russia viewed as damaging to its interests, so it targeted these groups by manufacturing public animosity towards them. Russia even tried to lobby the Trump Organization for a skyscraper in Moscow.
Russia’s plans to influence the U.S. election began in April of 2014 with the development of a “troll farm” that could spread false and disparaging messages on social media, as Time previously reported, and another crucial indictment confirmed (Abrams 2019). According to Benjamin Decker, head of the investigation firm Memetica, disinformation outlets, such as state-run news networks (Russia Times, for example), can be used to make video broadcasts that pick up on existing disinformation campaigns in an attempt to divide people. In campaigns like this, Russia may not be the original creator of false content — it might hand-pick certain sentiments with the hope of getting them to “seep into mainstream political conversations” (Funke & Benkelman 2019).
Last February, the Mueller investigation exposed and led to the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies — including the infamous Russian propaganda machine Internet Research Agency and charged them on three counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and identity theft. The investigation further charged the IRA and exposed its plan to to conduct “information warfare against the United States of America” in order to disadvantage the Clinton campaign, manipulate voters into the Trump camp, and target his opponents (NYT 2019).
Key operations included in Russia’s disinformation playbook include the covert targeting of U.S. political groups, developing a network of fake accounts used to infect the American electorate, and spreading divisive rhetoric on a network of key domestic issues in the US including Black Lives Matter, immigration and gun control. Furthermore, “to feed partisan flames and divide voters, Russian bots on social media initiated explicit Twitter hashtags such as #Hillary4Prison and #TrumpTrain to their masses of followers” (Shane 2018).
Russia’s attacks on the American electorate, its slander of legitimate candidates, and its crusade predicated on dividing and misinforming the American public represent a toxic infiltration of democracy. These attacks all come courtesy of the Internet Research Agency, providing a vast array of misinformation tactics to blind voters within a country, in this case the United States. These operationsdivide Americans by undermining public faith in the democratic process and manipulate the electorate by aggressively supporting Donald Trump while weaponizing his voter base before, during, and after the 2016 election (Martineau 2019). “The Kremlin guides and is at the helm of all these political narratives, allowing it to frame any argument in the way that best suits its needs at any given time, for any given situation. Thus, political talk shows regularly feature nationalists attacking Kremlin-sanctioned liberals. This is what Andrew Wilson calls the “highly developed industry of political manipulation,” which in the post-Soviet world is commonly known as “political technology”” (Wilson 2011).
Key weapons in Russia’s arsenal include the IRA’s purchase of online ads on platforms like Facebook, its use of divisive tweets, YouTube videos, Reddit comments, and Facebook and Instagram posts which serve to fuel this war on democracy and pour the gasoline on the flames of misinformation. In addition, “the IRA made over 61,500 Facebook posts, 116,000 Instagram posts, and 10.4 million tweets, all aimed at sowing discord and inflaming tensions among Americans, according to the report” (Martineau 2019).
The use of these anti-democratic and misinformative strategies boils down to Russia’s hostility towards Western values and the expansion of the West and its power following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia, with former KGB operative Vladimir Putin at its helm, are especially dissatisfied with Russia’s position on the global stage, in which it now has considerably less power than it did during the Cold War. The expansion of NATO and the European Union are both seen as threats by Russia, which seeks to undermine and weaken these organizations in an attempt to gain more political and economic leverage. Russia knows it can’t take on a united West (Europe and the United States) singlehandedly, so it chooses to divide them by spreading dissent from within these countries. This in turn undermines agreement between Western powers and pits them against each other.
As long as Russia and its Internet Research Agency remain at large and unaccountable, the democratic ideals of free, fair, and secure elections remain in jeopardy. Spurred by the spread of such toxic information at the expense of social media users, social media platforms will have to fight back and ramp up their security protocols in cracking down on fake news, banning bots, and taking measures to ensure the security and safety of peoples’ private data. As we have seen recently, it is far too easy for rogue operatives such as Russia and its fake news army to take advantage of these weak and vulnerable safeguards and use it to spread disinformation, while manipulating an entire population.
Abrams, Abigail. “Here’s What We Know So Far About Russia’s 2016 Meddling.” Time, Time Media LLC, 18 Apr. 2019, https://time.com/5565991/russia-influence-2016-election/.
Martineau, Paris. “Russia’s Disinformation War Is Just Getting Started.” Wired, Conde Nast, 9 Oct. 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/russias-disinformation-war-is-just-getting-started/.
“How Russia’s Disinformation Strategy Is Evolving.” Poynter, The Poynter Institute, 23 May 2019, https://www.poynter.org/fact-checking/2019/how-russias-disinformation-strategy-is-
Chen, Adrian. “The Agency.” The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Company, 2 June 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html.
Shane, Scott. “How Unwitting Americans Encountered Russian Operatives Online.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Feb. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/18/us/politics/russian-operatives-facebook-twitter.html.
The Editorial Board. “The Mueller Report and the Danger Facing American Democracy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Apr. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/19/opinion/mueller-report-trump-russia.html.
Wilson, Andrew. “‘Political Technology’: Why Is It Alive and Flourishing in the Former USSR?” OpenDemocracy, 17 June 2011, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/political-technology-why-is-it-alive-and-flourishing-in-former-ussr/.