Imagine American politics for a moment as a laboratory experiment. A foreign adversary (let’s call it “Russia”) begins to play with the subjects, using carrots and sticks to condition their behavior. The adversary develops tools to dial up anger and resentment inside the lab bubble, and even recruits unwitting accomplices to perform specific tasks.
This 21st-century political dystopia isn’t drawn from a “spec script” that just landed in Hollywood. It’s a summary of two reports on the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency published this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The studies describe a sophisticated, multilevel Russian effort to use every available tool of our open society to create resentment, mistrust and social disorder.
For a century, Russian intelligence agents have been brilliant at creating false fronts and manipulating opposition groups. Now, thanks to the Internet, they seem to be perfecting these dark arts.
Even as it meddles abroad, the Kremlin has just introduced new legislation to block its own information space from foreign penetration. Under the new law, reported this week, Russia could control all Internet and message traffic into the country, block any anonymous websites and, during a crisis, manage the Russian Web from a central command point.
Put the two halves of Russian behavior together and you have a portrait of the modern information-war battlespace, as conceived by Moscow: a wide-open United States (and Europe, too) that can be manipulated by orchestrated propaganda campaigns that exploit every racial, ethnic and political division; and a closed-off Russia, where the authorities can muzzle any hint of dissent.
The machinations of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) were first detailed in a February indictment of 13 Russian operatives by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Now, we have a detailed narrative of the breadth and depth of the Russian interference effort.
But, please, let’s stop calling it “meddling.” This was a covert-action campaign, bringing Russia’s legendary intelligence skills into a new millennium. The story is laid out in chilling detail in a 46-page study by the Oxford University Computational Propaganda Research Project and a 101-page report by a cybersecurity company called New Knowledge, both commissioned by the Senate committee.
The IRA influence campaign began in 2013 using Twitter, with trial runs in Eastern Europe, and then broadened. Between 2015 and 2017, IRA posts on Facebook and Instagram were shared by more than 30 million users, according to the Oxford study.
“Russia’s IRA activities were designed to polarize the U.S. public and interfere in elections,” the study says, by encouraging African American voters to boycott elections, pushing right-wing voters toward extremism, and “spreading sensationalist, conspiratorial and other forms of junk political news and misinformation.”
The Russians pushed every button. They sought to tap African American anger with “Blacktivist” and “Black Matters” Facebook pages. They reached conservatives through pages called “Army of Jesus,” “Heart of Texas” and “Secured Borders.” The list of the IRA’s top-20 Facebook pages is a catalogue of American rage.
The New Knowledge report blows the cover off these Internet operations. It shows how Hillary Clinton and vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine were depicted as the “Satan Team,” with Clinton wearing devil’s horns and Kaine bearing a red mark on his forehead. The researchers found an image of Jesus wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.
Instagram provided a useful platform for manipulating younger Americans. The IRA’s “Blackstagram” account had 303,663 followers; “American Veterans” had 215,680; “Sincerely Black” had 196,754; and “Rainbow Nation” had 156,465, to name the top four Instagram pages cited in the New Knowledge study.
Russia’s Internet activity wasn’t just about fomenting division. The IRA was also trying to develop assets who could be used in later covert operations. The recruitment pitches “included attempts to drive people to the streets for events, attempts to get people to perform jobs, and more insidious attempts to connect with people around very personal challenges.”
Online pitches included invitations to those “struggling with the addiction to masturbation,” to “any gay/lesbian/transgender teenagers [who] need anyone to talk to” or Black Matters followers who might be “authors,” “creative people,” “designers,” or “lawyers and legal advocates.” The Russians wanted to hook unwitting participants for future use.
“Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability . . . is a timeless espionage practice. So is the tactic of infiltrating protest movements,” notes the New Knowledge study. “The IRA attempted both . . . creating an opportunity to blackmail or manipulate these individuals in the future.”
The Internet is a Russian spy’s dream. The West’s open, democratic culture makes it an easy online target, so long as its citizens are asleep — especially when Russia’s own Internet space is closed. These frightening studies should be a wake-up call.