Russian trolls paid activists to sow discord: how to reduce vulnerability


A Russian “troll factory” paid tens of thousands of dollars to unwitting American activists to sow discord in the US, The Times reports:

This is the first suggestion of direct payments from Russia to American citizens with the aim of fomenting divisions in the US. About 100 US activists were ­approached online and did not know they were accepting support from a Russian organisation.

The troll factory, based in St Petersburg and officially a company called Internet Research, has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman known as “Putin’s cook” because of his Kremlin catering contracts. The push is seen as part of wider Russian propaganda efforts…..The factory’s existence has been known since 2015. This week a former “internet operator” there told Moscow’s Dozhd television channel he and others had been instructed to write comments on US media articles that were designed to inflame tension around sensitive issues and “provoke disorder”.

The revelations shed new light on Russia’s political interference and disinformation campaigns:

One former troll, who was interviewed by the independent Russian news outlet Dozhd and went by “Maxim,” or Max, spoke of his experience working for the Internet Research Agency, a well-researched Russian company in St. Petersburg whose function is to spread pro-Russian propaganda and sow political discord in nations perceived as hostile to Russia.

“Our task was to set Americans against their own government,” he said, “to provoke unrest and discontent.”

Fake social media accounts are sowing division in Western democracies, notes analyst Michael J. Coren. The US State Department says Russia spends at least $500 million per year on media infrastructure to wage disinformation and counter-narratives campaigns about the European Union and the United States, he writes for Quartz.

In January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified report stating definitively that hacking is part of a Russian attempt to “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order” by sowing chaos and eroding faith in the democratic process, notes Susan Hennessey, Managing Editor of Lawfare and a Fellow in National Security Law at the Brookings Institution. Two recent books illuminate the immensely complex issues at play and help explain why the United States has failed to adequately protect itself from cyberthreats, she writes for Foreign Affairs:

In The Cybersecurity DilemmaBen Buchanan, a cybersecurity specialist at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, outlines the structural challenges unique to interactions among states in cyberspace. In Cyberspace in Peace and War, the economist and security expert Martin Libicki authoritatively details states’ operational and strategic considerations in the cyber-realm. These two books add nuance to debates about digital conflicts while resisting the temptation to treat them as analogous to nuclear or conventional ones.

The experience of the Baltic states demonstrates how under Vladimir Putin, Russia asserts itself as a revisionist power determined to expand its sphere of influence using a wide array of tools, notes Colin Dueck, a Jeane Kirkpatrick visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. These tools include economic pressure, shrewd diplomacy, oil and gas manipulation, bribery, disinformation, covert action, cyber-attacks, military coercion, and sometimes outright invasion.

To avoid a repeat of the 2016 fiasco, the United States must chart a new course shaped by a higher tolerance for strategic risk. For starters, Washington must articulate clearer lines, Lawfare’s Hennessey contends:

The Obama administration’s cyberstrategy presented ambiguity as a deterrent tactic, claiming that a lack of specificity would discourage states from simply tailoring their malicious activities to avoid crossing lines. But experience has demonstrated that aggressive adversaries considered that zone of ambiguity to be a zone of impunity. Although setting clearer lines does risk encouraging some additional below-the-threshold activity, containing behavior in that space is a better outcome than allowing more serious violations to go unchecked.

“Likewise, the United States should be more consistent and proactive in publicly attributing attacks [and]…cease to be inhibited by the fear of sparking escalatory cycles,” she insists. “Stronger responses to hacking, such as counterattacks and aggressive sanctions, do carry significant risks, but Washington can no longer rely on a do-nothing or do-little approach.”


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