What Russia’s Meddling Can Tell Us About Their Motives and Our Indifference

Russian meddling


 

It doesn’t feel great to learn what we’ve suspected all along: that Russia’s meddling in our 2016 election was extensive and widespread. Whether our favored candidate won or lost, it’s certainly not something we wanted to be true. The notion that Kremlin-sponsored actors used and abused social media to divide America and influence a national election was too scandalous for comfort — something that seemed best reserved for late-night cerebration at the pub or unvetted blogs. That information warfare of precisely this speed and scale has been successfully conducted by Russian operatives across eastern Europe and beyond for decades did little to blunt our collective naiveté.

In fairness, I doubt anyone outside the national security community could have foreseen what they were able to accomplish. Thousands of accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other popular platforms were created by professional trolls — not to spread pro-Russia propaganda as one might assume — but for the express and more sinister purpose of disrupting our political discourse and pushing us further apart as a society. And if the batch of documents released this week by the House Intelligence Committee is any indication, our attackers knew us all too well.
 

 
Whether you happened to be a firearm enthusiast, a social justice activist, a right-leaning evangelical, or a Bernie supporter, Russian impostors had you in their sights. The above ad, run in October 2016, was created by the Russian-controlled Facebook page Army of Jesus, and targeted evangelicals aged 18 to 65.

A different Russian-owned page with 225,000 followers called Heart of Texas sponsored an event scheduled for the Saturday before the election entitled “Get Ready to Secede!”. The ad targeted Texan residents only, called attention to “the crimes committed by Killary Rotten Clinton,” and asked voters: “What will happen if Hitlery becomes President?”

How about the popular Facebook page Donald Trump America? (Anyone else distinctly recall seeing their content shares from friends and family?) Yet another phony page, who in the run-up to the election urged voters to sign a petition to have Clinton removed from the presidential ballot.

On Instagram, the account _american.made, also revealed this week to be based out of Russia, fingered the nexus of Tea Party, Trump and NRA supporters. One of their ads, first appearing in April 2016, featured a parent and their child, side by side aiming handguns, with the caption: “This is the way our children have to be raised…Follow us if this video makes you proud!”

Left-identifying voters were targeted as well by several fake pages, ads and sponsored events throughout the campaign season. The pages Black Matters, Born Liberal, United Muslims of America, and LGBT United adopted the familiar language of socially conscious liberals, despite being managed by Russian hucksters.

One of the most egregious examples of Russian misdirection came in May of 2016 when two of the aforementioned Facebook groups managed to organize dueling protests for the same location at the same time. Heart of Texas staged a rally called “Stop Islamization of Texas” outside the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston. Meanwhile, United Muslims of America advertised a counter-demonstration called “Save Islamic Knowledge” for across the street. Both sides showed up, and the protests soon escalated into confrontation and verbal attacks. According to Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-NC), “Ironically, one person who attended stated, ‘The Heart of Texas promoted this event, but we didn’t see one of them.’ We now know why. It’s hard to attend an event in Houston, Texas, when you’re trolling from a site in St. Petersburg, Russia.”

What’s striking is not so much that Russia paid to pit liberals and conservatives against one another, but that they likewise sought to flare up festering disagreement within the Democratic party. Indeed, they seem to have funded just as many pro-Bernie ads as anti-Clinton ads (and at least one for Jill Stein). One such ad by the page Born Liberal and run shortly after Clinton secured the Democratic nomination, cites Sanders railing against the Clinton Foundation for accepting donations from certain foreign governments. The writer of the ad expands on Sander’s verbiage, calling the Foundation “‘organized crime’ at it’s finest [sic].”

Evidence coming out of the congressional committees suggests that Russia’s cyber-messaging was even tailored to individual states. Facebook ads peppered with anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment appeared repeatedly before voters in Michigan and Wisconsin — two of the most narrowly won states in the last election. Each of these influences, it must be acknowledged, were calculated to give Trump an electoral edge.

Taken together, the level of sophistication in the form of geographic and ideological targeting employed during the 2016 presidential campaign was nothing short of staggering, and demonstrated an uncanny awareness of American culture wars and the power of social media to give shape to those narratives.
 

At the behest of public investigators, the leading social networks have made considerable strides toward firming up the details and quantifying the breadth of Russia’s disinformation campaign. Many of the fake accounts and ad buys trace back to a troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian company based in St. Petersburg. Long suspected of operating on behalf of the Russian government, the IRA is believed to be a kind of headquarters for Russian propaganda. In sum:

  • Twitter identified 36,746 Russian bot accounts that posted more than 1.4 million election-related tweets achieving a total of 288 million views. 2,752 accounts, including 1310,000 tweets, were traced specifically to the IRA. Twitter found 9 additional Russian-based accounts not specifically tied to the IRA that bought ads using Qiwi, a Russian-based payment service.
  • Facebook announced in a blog post from September that more than 3,000 advertisements posted between June 2015 and May 2017, associated with 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages, can be linked to Russia.
  • In the House hearing this week, Facebook grew that number to 80,000 posts reaching 126 million users, and confirmed another 120 IRA-linked Pages. Taking Instagram into account, the number jumps to 150 million reached.
  • Google identified 1,108 YouTube videos traced to Russian YouTube channels that garnered at least 309,000 views.

All of these accounts have been taken down by their respective platforms as their ties to Russia became clear, while Facebook has taken the extra step of prohibiting Pages that consistently share fake news from advertising on the platform. It’s important to note that while only a fraction of these posts achieved viral energy individually, their aggregate effect allowed for the massive reach in targeted areas. And through systematic encouragement of “likes” and shares, Russian bots increased the chance their intended audience would be treated to similar content in the future, both of the organic and Russia-sponsored variety.

Whether we will ever be able to measure their impact at the voting booth is beside the point: Russia committed cyberwarfare against US citizens, and they’re really good at it.

What Does Russia Want?

Disinformation, or dezinformatsiya as it’s known in Russia, is hardly new. As Rachel Maddow points out, cyberwarfare has been a central component of Russia’s geopolitical strategy for decades. Using information as a weapon is every bit as integral as military warfare or the ground invasion of neighboring territories, and perhaps more so. The measures uncovered by social media giants mirror the methods and motivations of past Russian-directed cyberattacks around the world. Similar patterns of exploitation coinciding with key elections and policy decisions have been observed in the Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
 

A report issued this year by the Defense Intelligence Agency (pdf) agrees, stating that “Russia views the information sphere as a key domain for modern military conflict. Moscow views the information domain as strategically decisive and critically important to control its domestic populace and influence adversary states. Information warfare is a key means of achieving its ambitions of becoming a dominant player on the world stage.”

Such ambitions begin by influencing beliefs, perceptions and behaviors. The information we consume may be barren of truth but useful psychologically, manipulating us to act (or vote) in a certain way, or not at all. According to the same report, by engaging in “information confrontation,” Russian propaganda “strives to influence, confuse, and demoralize its intended audience, often containing a mixture of true and false information to seem plausible and fit into the preexisting worldview of the intended audience.”

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it harks back to what Maria Bustillos has called dismediation (a phenomenon I discussed late last year). Russia doesn’t traffic in dezinformatsiya so you believe something untrue. They push dezinformatsiya so you believe nothing is true. The idea is to sever the bonds that make democracy functional, to place a noose around civic discourse by undermining trust in civic institutions, principally the media and governments. As is Russia’s aim, this ultimately facilitates deepening tribal fractures and political alienation.

“The fundamental purpose of dezinformatsiya,” The New York Times wrote last year, “is to undermine the official version of events — even the very idea that there is a true version of events — and foster a kind of policy paralysis. What the Russians are doing is building narratives; they are not building facts,” he said. “The underlying narrative is, ‘Don’t trust anyone.’”

Why they do all of this has a simple enough answer: to kindle existing cultural fires; weaken institutional trust; sow discord and encourage disengagement of the populace; steer the West on a trajectory that benefits them. Answering why they so heavily targeted America and seemed to favor Trump in this particular election is a bit more difficult, though the list of possible motives is seemingly endless.

As a major oil power whose economic interests would be harmed by international policies to slow climate change, it makes sense that Putin would want a card-carrying climate denier at the helm of a dominant superpower that also won a little thing called the Cold War. But one could just as easily chalk it up to rankling resentment over Clinton’s term as Secretary of State, anti-Muslim prejudice, and the sanctions we imposed for their invasion of Ukraine. Even if none of these figured prominently, the cost of leveraging social media to influence populations is so low as to be inconsequential, rendering any potential benefits worthwhile.

What Does It All Mean?

As news of the extent of Russia’s interference has come to light, people have wondered what this means for the recent election, the validity of Trump’s presidency, and basic American competence. As reprehensible as Russia’s meddling was, systematic ad targeting isn’t quite enough to overturn an election result. More importantly, that their methods were so effective necessitates a closer look in the mirror.

In an important sense, we have ourselves to blame for falling for easily debunked propaganda. We have ourselves to blame for so blithely succumbing to confirmation bias and blind partisanism. We have ourselves to blame for not imparting basic critical thinking skills to our students and our children from an early age. That’s on us, not on Russia. Russia exploited this ineptitude for their own gain, and to great effect as recent reports indicate. Our indifference to the facts, to standards of accuracy, journalistic integrity, objectivity and fairness, cost us dearly. In short, Russia’s tampering was so successful because we as a nation are so susceptible.

And rest assured, if Russia didn’t engage in these practices, there are plenty of in-house partisan agitators to fill the void. The far-right contingent, spurred by Alex Jones, Limbaugh and Hannity, and yes, many on the left as well, do a bang-up job circulating false stories and debunked narratives, without any help from Russia. Though the aid of Russian-backed IRA allowed their messaging to hit harder and spread further, we cannot ignore our own cankerous intellectual failures.

Thus, while lawmakers hem and haw about Russian intrusions into American democracy, we need to acknowledge the obvious point that their techniques would not have worked without existing organic support for the ideas they spread. After all, they modeled them after us. There are deeper problems at home that existed well before Russia decided to get involved, problems that will persist after every detail of their influence campaign is known.

As Vox’s David Roberts argues, the epistemic crisis facing America is a much larger and more serious problem plaguing our politics and society than either Russia’s meddling or whatever Mueller’s probe ultimately reveals. Sure, the probe could lead to grounds for impeachment if federal crimes are uncovered, but this doesn’t magically make impeachment a surefire outcome, nor does it wash away the longstanding intellectual woes of the American electorate. Our enduring indifference to what is real and what is true, aided and abetted by partisan media, has destroyed our ability to find common ground and deranged nearly every aspect of the political environment.

The bottom line: America needs to get smarter if we wish to prevent more Trumps and misdirection. Facts need to matter again — to those reporting them and to those consuming them. For so long as we house and foster a sizable stooge population that treats core institutions and norms like a choose-your-own-adventure story, the faultlines exposed by the recent election will continue to haunt us for the foreseeable future.


 
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This post was featured on HuffPost’s Contributor platform.

Feature image credit: mikolajn, adamkaz/iStock