New information, some from former Russian spies in America who are now cooperating with us, reveals an increasing and pervasive use of social media by Russian members of an elite intelligence unit in Russia, to influence broad groups of U.S. citizens in significant ways. It is considered a new and insidious kind of warfare. US intelligence agencies and social media companies are struggling to find ways to prevent Russians operatives from making phony accounts to spread their messages as well as circulate misinformation without removing the freedom U.S citizen’s treasure. Many relate freedom to the core of the U.S., making this the ideal form of attack. Russia is well aware of the limitations the U.S. has when it comes to big social media companies, and they plan to use that in their favor.
A report (pdf) released late in 2018 by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project is the most detailed analysis yet of the scope and effect of Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) social media campaign and its impact on America’s elections.The analysis found that the main goal of the interference was to polarize the American public, in three main ways: by feeding political extremism (particularly for the far right), by spreading incendiary fake news, and by exploiting and exacerbating existing divisions—in particular those of a racial nature.The IRA’s social media activities campaigned “for African American voters to boycott elections or follow the wrong voting procedures in 2016, and more recently for Mexican American and Hispanic voters to distrust US institutions,” the report found.
African Americans were the majority of users targeted by the IRA (other minorities were engaged significantly only after the election). Of a total of 2,855 ads purchased by the IRA, nearly 1,000—which reached over 13 million users—were about African-American politics or culture. Those messages were much cheaper than ones on other topics, averaging 905 rubles, or $14, per ad, compared with nearly 6,200 rubles, or $93, for ads about conservative politics. Accounts opened in connection with the website Black Matters (they are now deactivated) helped spread the messages, which misled readers about the voter registration process, encouraged them to boycott the election, and attempted to sow mistrust in established democratic procedures.
While the means may be new, this is actually a tested strategy: Russian agents have been involved in racial relations in the US for decades, both offering legitimate support and exploiting racial tensions to create internal turmoil in the US.
Former FSB intelligence service officer, Jan Neumann states, “The US government is going to tell Google, Twitter, YouTube, ‘You guys have to do what we tell you to do?”. He adds, “That’s just not realistic.”. Oleg Kalugin was a former KGB general who worked as a Russian spy in U.S. universities and even supervised the Russian president Vladimir Putin when he was an intelligence officer. Kalugin states that when it comes to security services and private sectors, there is little to no difference in Russia, unlike in the U.S., and President Putin has no issues utilizing private companies to reach their objective. The U.S. has attempted to gain information from private companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, but the sharing has been minimal with simple pdfs instead of detailed spreadsheets for the government to analyze properly. On top of their control over private sectors, a former FSB officer has reported that Russia has a plethora of skilled technicians that are able to seamlessly push digital disinformation and do it flawlessly.
“Now they have new methods, social networks,”, says Joseph Wippl, a former clandestine operative for the Intelligence Agency. “It plays to some of their strengths in technology and mathematics, where I think they’ve traditionally been pretty good.”, he added.
While Russia has never backed down when it comes to improving its espionage capabilities since back during the cold war, the U.S. has pushed more of its efforts into countering terrorism after the attack on 9/11. There is also the new order under U.S. President Donald Trump who has reported to shrink Russian intelligence efforts, and a number of informants have not been heard from after a counterintelligence operation.
One report, co-authored by a number of reputable sources such as the cybersecurity organization New Knowledge, Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and the Canfield Research Group, states: “Our deeply-felt national scruples about misidentifying a fake account or inadvertently silencing someone, however briefly, create a welcoming environment for malign groups who masquerade as Americans or who game algorithms. Ironically even Internet Research Agency trolls laid claim to these principles, complaining publicly about being censored when Facebook moderated or banned them.”
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