War by Other Means – how Russia’s ‘active measures’ weaponize information


Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab

Born in the shadowy reaches of the internet, most fake news stories prove impossible to trace to their origin. But researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab excavated the root of one such fake story, involving an incident in the Black Sea in which a Russian warplane repeatedly buzzed a United States Navy destroyer, The New York Times reports, outlining the process by which fake news gets adopted by mainstream media.

Alex Halderman, a computer security expert at the University of Michigan, points out that if a sophisticated hacker were targeting American elections, it would do what it could to make any glitches appear to be accidents rather than deliberate sabotage, Vox adds.

“The Russians not only carried out this targeted leaking and information warfare style campaign to interfere with the election,” he said, “they were also taking major steps down the route of trying to interfere with the mechanics of the election by targeting a voting system vendor and their customers who are election officials.”

Many Russian hackers, including those engaged in cybercrime, are politically motivated and patriotic, notes Carnegie analyst Tim Maurer:

It is therefore possible that they could act autonomously of the government while their actions still benefit the Kremlin. However, the January 2017 joint report of the U.S. intelligence community paints a very different picture detailing that the Russian government was directly involved in interfering with the U.S. elections in 2016. 

Russia is exploiting the openness of liberal democracies to undermine them from the inside by conducting an active measures, or aktivniye meropriyatiya, campaign that is, in effect, political warfare, according to a new analysis by the Center for American Progress.

These campaigns actively seek to influence the targeted society, and they involve a number of lines of effort: espionage operations to acquire information, such as through cyberhacking; information operations to disseminate disinformation, as well as spread and amplify information that advances a particular narrative; and propaganda campaigns using traditional media platforms. While these efforts are rooted in old Soviet tactics, the new online information environment makes these current efforts a qualitatively different threat than those of the past, say Max Bergmann and Carolyn Kenney, National Security and International Policy analysts at the Center.

The dezinformatsiya weapon

The United States needs to reset its posture toward Russia to recognize that it now confronts a global ideological competition not seen since the Cold War. The ideological challenge that communism posed to liberal democracy has been replaced by authoritarian nationalism, the report adds:

The United States should not conduct disinformation campaigns, as doing so would only play into the hands of the Kremlin by adding to the cognitive dissonance that undercuts democracy and would be relatively ineffective against relatively closed societies.

Instead, the United States must seek to improve efforts to deter, detect, and counter disinformation. The United States must also recognize that countering disinformation and defending the truth means playing defense. Therefore, the United States needs to look to other tools through which it can go on the offensive, impose costs, and deter future attacks. Countering Russian disinformation requires playing offense and defense and should be embedded within a broader strategy toward challenging Russia in this new ideological contest, especially by standing up strongly in defense of democracy and human rights.


To effectively respond to the Russian threat to democracy, the United States should take a number of measures, including:

  • Immediately impose meaningful costs on Russia to deter future attacks against the United States and its allies
  • Establish an independent commission to conduct a top-to-bottom assessment of the U.S. government’s tools and capabilities to counter the Russian threat
  • Structure intelligence disclosure policies and practices to give greater priority to countering disinformation and advancing public diplomacy goals
  • Develop tools to shine a spotlight on disinformation to build public resilience
  • Significantly expand public diplomacy efforts.

Credit: Google

Social media companies should take steps to avoid being unwitting agents and need to do more to address the fact that their platforms are being used by foreign governments as vehicles to conduct information operations, the report adds:

…. Google has announced the expansion of its use of fact-checking tags, whereby news search results are tagged with such phrases as “mostly true” or “false” if stories have been checked. Google has paired up with more than 100 news and fact-checking organizations whose conclusions appear in search results if they have met certain criteria. Both Facebook and Google have also taken actions against fake news sites directly, with Google banning websites that spread misinformation from using its online advertising service and Facebook clarifying its ad placement policies to include not displaying ads for sites that include fake news. Google reported that as a result of this change, it had banned 200 publishers from its advertising network.….


Print Friendly, PDF & Email