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By Lawrence D. Dietz, JD, MSS
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
The recently released Mueller report is only one reason why there is a great deal of attention on Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2018 midterm elections. Interestingly, there has not been the same level of concern regarding China’s social media and influence efforts toward the United States. Those efforts are also extensive, but with a different set of goals. While the Mueller report may be the most well-known on Russian disinformation, it is certainly not the first such report.
On March 2, The New York Times carried a story headlined “Russian General Pitches ‘Information’ Operations as a Form of War.” According to the story, “General [Valery] Gerasimov said Russia’s armed forces must maintain both ‘classical’ and ‘asymmetrical’ potential, using jargon for the mix of combat, intelligence and propaganda tools that the Kremlin has deployed in conflicts such as Syria and Ukraine.”
Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, more commonly known as the GRU, is believed to be the top Russian cyber influence organization.
Disinformation Report Prepared for Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
On December 17, 2018, New Knowledge, an online security firm that protects brands and industries, released a disinformation report prepared at the request of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). The report was based on data provided by leading social media organizations, including Alphabet, Facebook and Twitter. The senators were concerned about the influence, tactics, techniques and procedures (ITTP) used by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA).
The report was distilled into a 139-slide deck which provided 12 key takeaways:
- The comprehensive dataset included 10.4 million tweets, 1107 YouTube videos, 116,205 Instagram posts, and 61,483 unique Facebook posts.
- There is still what appears to be active content and ongoing efforts on several platforms.
- The majority of the content focused on societally divisive issues, most notably race.
- The greatest effort on Facebook and Instagram appears to have been focused on developing black audiences.
- Substantial portions of the political content was anti-Hillary Clinton on both the right and left-leaning pages.
- There appeared to be a strong and consistent preference for then-candidate Donald Trump, beginning in the early primaries.
- Messaging tactics and topics varied by platform: Facebook and Instagram focused on creating persistent messaging and reinforcing themes. They created strong ties by posting a majority of content designed to generate in-group approval and camaraderie, then posted occasional content that was either designed to sow division from out-groups, explicitly partisan and election-related, or focused on a theme that Russia cared about (Syria). Twitter content, meanwhile, was much more reactive to current events and topics, and less focused on group dynamics.
- Gun rights (including a dedicated page for black audiences) and immigration received extensive attention.
- There were instances in which the same article was shared to two different pages simultaneously, each taking the opposite point of view.
- There were several variants of suppression narratives, spread both on Twitter and Facebook. These included malicious misdirection (text-to-vote scams deployed on Twitter), support redirection (“Vote for a 3rd party!”), and turnout suppression (“Stay home on Election Day!”).
- The IRA shifted a majority of its activity to Instagram in 2017; this was perhaps in response to increased scrutiny on other platforms, including media coverage of its Twitter operation.
- Instagram engagement outperformed Facebook; this may be an indicator of the platform being more ideal for memetic warfare (it offers features and a culture that are a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter). It may also indicate the IRA used click farms to boost their numbers.
That report is counterbalanced by “Beyond Hybrid War: How China Exploits Social Media to Sway American Opinion” by the Insikt Group and published by Recorded Future on March 6. The report noted that the Chinese ITTP were quite different from those employed by Russia.
The Insikt Group believes that Russia’s goals were primarily focused on undermining American’s faith in the democratic process and the Western alliance. China’s focus, on the other hand, was on giving China greater influence over the global system and promoting the “dream” that China believes it represents.
While Beijing’s ITTP centered on non-threatening messages extolling China’s virtues orchestrated by state-sponsored media, Russia used “fake news” and memes to divide the U.S. population, fanning existing flashpoints such as gun laws, immigration and race.
Analysis Concluded that Russia Interfered in 2016 US Presidential Election
The Insikt Group’s analysis concluded that the Russians were also interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by hacking online voting systems. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published a report with a Summary of Initial Findings and Recommendations.
A precis of the report stated: “In 2016, cyber actors affiliated with the Russian Government conducted an unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign against state election infrastructure. Russian actors scanned databases for vulnerabilities, attempted intrusions, and in a small number of cases successfully penetrated a voter registration database. This activity was part of a larger campaign to prepare to undermine confidence in the voting process. The Committee has not seen any evidence that vote tallies were manipulated or that voter registration information was deleted or modified.”
The Russians were attempting to drive their preference for a single candidate’s election (Trump) by fanning the discontent of key target audiences and reinforcing divisive messaging designed to do so. The Committee made six recommendations:
- Reinforce States’ Primacy in Running Elections
- Build a Stronger Defense, Part I: Create Effective Deterrence
- Build a Stronger Defense, Part II: Improve Information Sharing on Threats
- Build a Stronger Defense, Part III: Secure Election Related Systems
- Build a Stronger Defense, Part IV: Take Steps to Secure the Vote Itself
- Provide Federal Grant Fund Assistance for the States
In contrast, it was not believed that the Chinese operations attempted to influence the U.S. election. The Chinese employed a positive orientation in their social media operations because they were supporting China’s national strategic goals.
It would appear that America’s adversaries are well aware of the power of social media. While they may differ in their goals, objectives, strategies and techniques, Russia and China have shown that they are willing and able to harness the power of social media to try to influence the behavior of American citizens.
This is a situation that requires constant vigilance on the part of all Americans, especially as we approach the 2020 presidential election.
About the Author
Lawrence Dietz is an adjunct professor for the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University, specializing in teaching courses on military intelligence, intelligence and security. He is also an Attorney at Law in California and the District of Columbia; an Ombudsman and Outreach Director for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve; a U.S. Army Colonel (Retired); and General Counsel and Managing Director, Information Security at TAL Global.
Lawrence holds a B.S. in business administration from Northeastern University, an MBA from Babson College and a Juris Doctorate from Suffolk University Law School. Other academic credentials include an M.S. in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College and an LLM in European Union Law from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.