Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia · United States

The Reality Of Russian Information Warfare

Following the Facebook disclosure that the Russian Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia took out $100,000 of ads on Facebook during the US election of 2016, Twitter is now following suit and filing a report, according to The Hill. Twitter to give analysis of Russian activity to Congress. The Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg is the home of at least 400 Russian trolls who had the agenda of haunting online comment sections, Facebook posts, LinkedIn discussion forums, and anyplace else their anonymized electrons could reach. There are a number of other “troll farms” beside St. Petersburg in Russia. They overwhelmed normal and meaningful discussions. They strongly discouraged civil discourse. They undermined American democracy, it was literally a threat to national security.

This is completely separate from Russian official and “patriotic” hacking of US, French, and other networks. The stolen information was then “leaked” and shared at such places as Wikileaks, with overwhelming results. Please don’t lose sight that the hacking was done quietly, but it was the disclosure of the information that did all the harm.  Thank Russia for that. Hacking was the tiniest component of Russian Information Warfare but somehow it gets all the headlines.

Completely separate was the deluge of fake and “false” news pushed on us during the US election and recirculated wildly, only because the headline of the articles echoed a sentiment which was usually too good to be true. Facebook was absolutely saturated and nobody seemed to care that it was from a disreputable source flinging wild accusations, making despicable statements, and screaming absolutely impossible “facts”. We saw this again in France this past spring and we’re about to see it again in Germany. Yes, Russia is staying busy.

Simultaneously, hundreds of new websites were echoing and amplifying Russian propaganda from the magnificently funded official Russian propaganda and unofficial proxy sites, creating a maelstrom of disparaging, divisive, and degrading “yellow journalism” articles which saturated our inboxes and Facebook timelines and were even picked up by mainstream news sources and occasionally reported as facts. A Whois search of the new websites revealed some fake identities with Russian phone numbers, a St. Petersburg IP address, or a Moscow physical address. A quick check of mainstream websites revealed nobody else was carrying the stories, but Americans just did not care. “Look, proof!”

These were accompanied by distinctly pro-Russian sites, such as Russia-Insider, Global Research, and others, who either wrote about “reality”, presented “alternate” news, or used the phrase “US Imperial” far too often. These, in turn, were often picked up by Infowars, wittingly or unwittingly, because their titles were usually very sensational.

What we did see being published by RT, formerly known as Russia Today, and Sputnik News, in English, was and is mostly propaganda. A few kernels of actual facts are smothered with layers of deception, sprinkled with outright lies, and garnished with misdirection eristic (as Plato would use it) argumentative techniques. In other words, complete crap.

At the same time, back home, Russia choked off dissent, opposition, and independent reporting from Russia, as we saw in Crimea and Donbas, Ukraine – they strictly controlled what information was reported. Heck, almost every news source in the world refers to Russians and their proxies in Ukraine as Separatists. Today, in Russia, there are no news sources that are not at least 80% Russian owned. Opposition candidates to Putin are assassinated or have dye thrown in their faces. Outspoken critics become suddenly accident prone. Dissenting journalists die at an early age. Defectors drink Polonium laced tea. Possible snitches to the FBI wind up dead in Washington DC motel rooms after beating themselves to death. People are rightly too scared to speak up.

This meme is banned in Russia

Laws are passed in Russia declaring parody and satire cannot be used to make fun of Russian leaders.  Russia is even banning memes which make fun of Putin.

The amazing thing is America is not the main target of Russian Information Warfare, their main focus is Russian citizens. We last saw this, to this extent, in Nazi Germany. Vladimir Putin knows he is susceptible to a popular uprising, similar to 1917 if the Russian people ever know the truth. This is why we have heard almost nothing about the 100th anniversary – this year – of the Russian Revolution. Here is a test, count the number of times, next month, you hear about the October Revolution or the Great October Socialist Revolution. Chances are you won’t, and absolutely not in Russian sources.

This is only a bit of Russian holodets, the snot-flavored Russian appetizer, known as Russian Information Warfare. Every bit of it is unethical, immoral, and much is arguably illegal. It is designed to tip-toe up to the threshold where the West would get triggered and would respond, but it doesn’t quite cross that line. Everything is about deniability. “Prove it”.

In countless discussions with reporters, I often say “what Russia does feels wrong, we feel violated, but they can’t be taken to court.”

In the meantime, this is what the US is doing.

We have four elements of National Power: Diplomacy, Information, Military, and the Economy. We have sometimes multiple Departments in the Executive Branch of our government for diplomacy, military, and economy. But we have nothing for information. We don’t even have an information strategy.

…but we’re talking about Facebook ads and fake news, now, almost one year after the election.



One thought on “The Reality Of Russian Information Warfare

  1. Great perspective Joel. I agree 100%. The other day I had an idea parallel to the “tip-toe up to the threshold where the West would get triggered and would respond”, in that mutually assured destruction created these conditions – such as experienced before in the Cold War — and highlighting the limitation of such a MAD strategy. In the 1980’s Russia apparently felt it could not win a conventional ground war in Europe vs American armor. Information Warfare became their preferred battlefield. Now today, we may be seeing a scenario where the MAD deterrents still apply by and large, but Russia has advanced its IW capability in conjunction with modernized ground forces to the point that it really changes the calculus back to that 1970’s kind of environment. I dunno, not really the best formed idea there, but to me it seems like on the assumption nobody in their right minds would engage in nuclear war with us, we let this whole area go untended which has indeed become a viable and insidious threat. As I suggested to a contact recently, its like we’re a “frog in boiling water” in the west; in that the change of risk is so incremental, few may realize before it is too late.

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