Inside Russia’s social media wars


Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events by manipulating public opinion, Massimo Calabresi writes for TIME:

The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces…[facilitating Russia’s] ongoing information war against global democracy…Much of what is publicly known about the mechanics and techniques of social media propaganda comes from a program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that [Rand Corp’s Rand] Waltzman ran to study how propagandists might manipulate social media….

In the Cold War, operatives might distribute disinformation-laden newspapers to targeted political groups or insinuate an agent provocateur into a group of influential intellectuals. By harnessing computing power to segment and target literally millions of people in real time online, Waltzman concluded, you could potentially change behavior “on the scale of democratic governments.”

“Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day,” says Waltzman, who ran the program.

Russia has clearly stated that conducting hybrid information warfare is important to achieving its strategic goals. One of those goals is undermining the Western institutions that oppose it, The New York Times adds.

“Of course, from Moscow, we look at this chaos with a bit of a smile,” said Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin analyst. “So many Americans used to look at the chaos in Russia that way. It is a kind of psychological revenge.”

Russia may be constrained in its current Putin may still be hoping to establish better relations with the U.S. and so not try to hinder his American counterpart significantly, experts said.

Credit: CNA

The Kremlin knows that its current machinations “will make it almost impossible to restore a modicum of order to Russian-American relations,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I suspect he regrets that, while also seeing opportunities in having the U.S. brought low,” said Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group].

During the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Russian government spent more than $19 million to fund 600 people to constantly comment on news articles, write blogs, and operate throughout social media, notes analyst Michael Holloway:

They intended to sway public and international opinion, overwhelm the voices of dissidents online, and create an image of a population supportive of the annexation. To accomplish this, social cyber attackers appealed to the pro-Russian population of Crimea by spreading rumors of hate and fear. One such rumor involved the crucifixion of a three-year-old child in the public square of Slovyansk by Ukrainian soldiers, but independent sources quickly debunked this story as false.

As Russia expands its cyberpropaganda efforts, the U.S. and its allies are only just beginning to figure out how to fight back, TIME’s Calabresi adds:

One problem: the fear of Russian influence operations can be more damaging than the operations themselves. Eager to appear more powerful than they are, the Russians would consider it a success if you questioned the truth of your news sources, knowing that Moscow might be lurking in your Facebook or Twitter feed. But figuring out if they are is hard.

Uncovering “signals that indicate a particular handle is a state-sponsored account is really, really difficult,” says Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which tackles global security challenges.


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