JANUARY 31 2017 – 11:42AM
Russia has skilfully exploited social media to divide the West and increase Moscow’s power in Europe, the US and eventually Asia.
The use of social media as a platform to divide democracies works, in part, because the strategy preys on a fundamental blind spot in open societies: the origin and volume of voices taking part in an online discussion.
Western countries, inventors of the internet and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, tend to see discussion on social media as an open reflection of the public’s views.
That very openness means outside voices can weigh into debates – not to broaden the discussion, but to co-opt arguments and redirect them toward conclusions that undermine Western society and government.
Propaganda can be crystallised into hashtags, and the meaning can be warped to cloud the understanding of a subject or trash the reputation of ideas, parties or figures.
In this world, the opposite of free trade is not protectionism but “anti-globalism”.
Liberals are all “neo-liberals”. A vote for Trump will “avoid war with Russia”.
Hillary becomes “Killary”.
This propaganda skews toward extremes, seeking to corrode the broad middle area of agreement needed for the functioning of liberal democracies, wherever they are found, including in the Asia-Pacific region.
The speed and diffusion of propaganda on social media can create a 360-degree effect for users, so that what they perceive is not seen so much as a coherent ideological message but as the natural and growing consensus of the crowd.
A backdoor to the media
The first major change is the proliferation of technology that aids the manipulation of political attitudes, either directly to voters or indirectly, to the media.
On social media, bots (short for robots) are small programs that automate the posting of and reply to messages. Political campaigns in democracies have used bots in recent years, not always achieving the effects they desired.
But last year, they began to be exploited in a much more directed manner toward Western election campaigns.
For example, before Britain’s referendum on European Union membership in June, about 1 per cent of Twitter profiles generated one-third of traffic on the issue, according to the Computational Propaganda project at the Oxford Internet Institute.
“Most of those were bot accounts,” says Samuel Woolley, director of research of the project. “They were tweeting automatically and they generated tons of content.”
The increased use of bots can elevate awareness of an idea, cause distrust or just as likely confuse or muddle a political debate.
The impact of interaction between bots and humans is not always clear, Woolley says. But it is clear that bots can be used to get key words to trend, representing a huge back door to Western media for outside forces.
Facebook, Google and Twitter trending algorithms are pretty much based on numbers, Woolley says, “and bots massively drive up the algorithms”.
“The algorithms end up getting gamed,” he said.
Trending terms, says Woolley, help journalists figure out “what to report on, what are the most important things surrounding the debate, which hashtags are being used, and why and by who”. And those who control what’s trending – through bots, through a co-ordinated social media presence – can help steer the larger conversation in media.
Technology used in a certain way, in other words, can dramatically amplify the volume of an argument, view, voice or ideology.
This was true, especially with groups like the “alt-right”, Woolley said, which were effective in making themselves appear much more popular than they were in reality.
Alt-right figures, in addition to promoting a racist world view, tend to parrot Russian views on global affairs, which itself is a feature of an internationalised movement.
Woolley says his research showed bots located in the US, Russia, but also Japan active in trying to influence the US election.
Woolley says the increasing sophistication of bots means it is harder to determine if they are human or a hybrid of scripts mixed with human interaction.
Another way the West is blind to manipulation is the dissemination of real news, through real journalists, for strategic effect, beyond the journalists’ ability to see it.
After the Democrats were hacked by Russian outfits, the stolen material was fed back to eager reporters as “exclusives”, with hacker “fronts” such as DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 being used as “PR agencies”.
Within the context of Western media, journalists snapping up “exclusive leaks” is normal. But as with so much related to technology, the volume of these “exclusives” can be scaled up dramatically.
Over time, the persistence of the same theme in these news stories – in this case, Hillary Clinton’s emails – on networked media creates a surrounding effect for users. The stream of stories contain different details but convey the same theme – that Clinton was wildly morally corrupt.
US intelligence agencies see Russia behind this effort to denigrate Clinton and the Democrats. But such efforts aren’t new.
In 2009, for example, just before a crucial global conference on climate change, emails hacked from the University of East Anglia in Britain were posted on a server in Russia, with links sent to right-wing climate change-sceptic sites.
Hacks plus spin
The bloggers misconstrued the emails in publicising them, setting off a controversy that helped fuel the false perception that climate scientists had hid important information from the public.
One of the same Russian hacking outfits blamed for stealing Democrats’ emails in 2016, stole and published medical information on Serena and Venus Williams, the tennis stars, and gymnast Simone Biles, that suggested, erroneously, the athletes had received exceptions to the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
In the few hours that the story went unchallenged, Russia’s media pounced, pointing to Western “hypocrisy” after Russia’s teams had been accused of serious doping offences.
In fact, coordination between those stealing the documents and the sometimes-fringe media that publicise them is an important element of such propaganda. It is in the public domain first – and contextualised afterward. And who gives it context in this environment largely determines how the information is seen. This is how the mostly quotidian correspondence of the US Democrats could be shared as proof of Hillary Clinton’s supposedly nefarious activities.
And then, in the too-quick-to-verify pace of online news, there is also the possibility of inauthentic documents being mixed in with the real ones.
When Russian hackers broke into the pro-democracy billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, and stole documents which they published, they included doctored versions of papers that purported to show a connection between Soros and Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. It wasn’t true.
The ease of recycling hacked material into the media has “exposed a frightening vulnerability in our society”, wrote Joshua Foust, an intelligence analyst and journalist.
“The worst gossip-chasing tendencies in the media and the lackadaisical security of many legacy email systems have created a perfect storm.
“It isn’t clear how to characterise these attacks (Are they cyber? Propaganda? Something new?), so it isn’t clear which agency should be in charge of coordinating a response – or even if a response is possible,” Foust wrote in War on the Rocks.
In this area, free speech and the public’s right to know give cover to crippling attacks on the legitimacy of public figures and institutions.
Foust told Fairfax Media: “The fundamental openness of Western media markets is a weakness … and there simply isn’t any way around that.
“We cannot put up walls without becoming something other than what we currently are.”
At the same time, the focus of Russia’s propaganda has changed from Soviet times, when it touted communism’s material success and criticised the West’s decadence.
Today’s Russian propaganda “is very adaptive and it does not limit itself to any ideological framework”, senior editor Olga Irisova of the Russian affairs journal Intersection Project told Fairfax Media.
This is true of the many voices over which it is carried, including state-backed broadcasters like Sputnik and RT which pride themselves on offering “alternatives” to traditional media.
This is a significant change from the time of the Cold War.
“While during the Cold War it was more or less clear what narratives USSR propaganda charged with communist ideology would promote (capitalism versus communism as an alternative model for development; stories about how bad the life is for people in capitalist countries and how well the Soviet state cared for its people) … the current Kremlin propaganda can promote almost any narrative that could undermine people’s confidence in the liberal way of life,” Irisova said.
For those on the left, the Kremlin has one message, to those on the right, another, she says.
Why is Russia doing this? Because under President Vladimir Putin, the nation has embarked on an effort to reclaim the glory of the past, which it largely feels it was robbed of after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This sort of cyberwar plays to strengths of Russia society – strong computer and language skills, a robust internet culture and a knowledge of the West.
Western citizens, “not fully aware of how the liberal paradigm can respond to new and emerging challenges”, can also get sucked in by the “simple answers Russian propaganda offers to difficult questions”, Irisova said.
For all the talk of “fake news”, when it comes to Russia, the bigger risk is more accurately described as half-fake news.
“It is important to understand that totally made-up fake stories are quite rare things,” Irisova said.
“Most pro-Kremlin media take a real news or event, but with the help of emotional language and relevant ‘experts’ they then stain and distort it so that the West or liberals would look as ‘the bad guys’.”
Relying on abstract values – rather than tall tales of Soviet industrial output – as the basis for propaganda online gives it a stronger psychological dimension than in the past, Irisova says.
Russia’s domestic propaganda today, freed of the constraints of ideology, focuses on “more abstract and less tangible ‘matters’ such as ‘the Russian world’ (Russkiy Mir) or ‘a special path’ devoid of a particular vector”, said Irisova.
Propaganda focusing on an unmeasurable quality like spirituality “is impossible to gauge … with the naked eye”.
The possibilities for injecting propaganda of this nature into Western discourse through viral social media appear limitless.
Related searches to ‘globalism’. Source: Google
Consider the term “globalism”. Clinton was accused of being “globalist” while globetrotting Trump was touted on social media as the “anti-globalist” candidate, promising a rejection of malign – and importantly, abstract – forces in favour of “Americanism”.
Unlike “globalisation”, which denotes global economic integration, “globalism” also connotes a right-wing extremist world view in which a cabal of global elites – bankers, politicians, Jews – benefit from the suffering of the virtuous common people in nations.
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, one of “globalism’s” biggest foes, defined it as a “global digital panopticon control system“.
Inferring its popularity by the number of searches people conducted for “globalism” on Google, trend data shows they peaked on the week of the US election.
Compare Jones’ definition to these headlines about Edward Snowden in 2014: “Snowden showed us just how big the panopticon really was. Now it’s up to us”.
Arguably, Alex Jones and Edward Snowden’s audiences are somewhat different – and the articles about Snowden weren’t written by him.
Yet the same message is conveyed by them via different channels, seeping into Western audiences, creating more distrust for democratic governments – a key element of the new globalised Russian propaganda technique.
For Moscow, “it is information itself which is important and the object of operations, independent of the channel through which the information is transmitted,” observed UK-based Russian security expert Keir Giles.
It should also be noted that both Jones and Snowden have Russia links. Jones has appeared with ideologue Alexander Dugin, while Snowden, of course, is living indefinitely in Moscow. The “alt-right”has a number of points of overlap with Russia as well.
Search interest in the term ‘globalism’ peaked during the week of the US election. Source: Google
None of this is to say there is necessarily top-down control of such propaganda on the internet. But the chaos of the internet means there doesn’t need to be. Rather, links, content and propaganda can be disseminated on a much more casual and even eclectic basis.
After nearly 30 years of globalisation, Russia has had a long time to deepen social, political, cultural and commercial ties with the West.
Whether Alex Jones was inspired by the Moscow-based Snowden or not underscores the viral nature of online communication.
Being able to directly create and transmit destructive messages over social media into Western democracies to undermine governments is significant. Getting citizens of democracies to take up the cause themselves is also a tool.
The fact that social media users in the West are active participants in the messaging that is ultimately damaging legitimate democratic rule must be considered one of the ironic achievements of Russia’s propaganda strategy online.
The West invented social media. But Russia figured out how best to turn it against Western democracies.
The challenge in those democracies today will be to figure out how to reclaim social media as the place safe for democracy and unsafe for demagogues. This may be the Great Game of the years to come.