Russian information warfare is ceaselessly attacking the West, but its tactics, tools, and focus continually change as the situation morphs.
We have been ‘sensitized’ to fake news, but the accusation of fake news has also become political fodder, as well, muddying the waters.
Some efforts by the Russians, most specifically USAReally, have been blunted, but the Russian trolls flowed around the obstacles in the water, adapted, and adopted new sites, means of communications, and renewed their efforts to rant against the West.
This is not to say older locations and methods are not being used. We still see concerted efforts to influence using Facebook and Twitter. The names change, the look differs, and the methods morph, but the efforts continue.
The biggest problem remains the human factor. Humans continue to blindly forward articles without checking truthfulness, veracity, or to get corroboration. Obvious Russian troll graphics are still being circulated, some are even recycled from 2016.
In the US, we lack a comprehensive strategy because we lack a dedicated focal point. This article originates in Australia, the Russian information warfare problem is indeed global.
‘Regime change without a war’: we need to get smarter about fake news
In less than a month, Americans will vote in congressional elections, the first national electoral contest since Russia’s historic intervention in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Yet in the two years since Russian election interference sent shockwaves through the democratic world, the risk for democracy remains misunderstood and underestimated by some.
People need to be aware that there are nations and organisations which are targeting them with interference activity, says analyst Lee Foster, who heads the information operations team for cybersecurity firm FireEye. “People may think they’re not very important or influential but it doesn’t mean they won’t be targeted as part of this activity, because interference [campaigns are] about shaping behaviour at a large scale.”
“One of the biggest challenges for me is the people who don’t think this challenge exists,” says Foster. “There is distrust of media in a lot of democracies now. Leaders are playing to that. And that makes it very difficult to educate people about this activity.”
Disbelief arises from a confluence of technological and political factors. Social media technology allows people to opt-in to the news they prefer, while in the realm of politics, a populist backlash has created doubt about the legitimacy of authority in general. Add to that mix the megaphone US President Donald Trump has used to divide, confuse and anger the global public.
Trump’s example has encouraged the public to reject unwelcome information as “fake news” – denial that can go viral on social media. The trend is alive and well in Australia, too, where figures such as former Labor leader Mark Latham routinely promote anti-establishment counter-narratives, while others embrace weaponised narratives that can fracture the sense of national cohesion.
Australia, too, has become a destination for internet-based anti-establishment personalities preaching alternative news such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern, and even Brexiteer Nigel Farage: people who preach and profit from a backlash against the political system, or from division within a democracy’s population.
In this environment, the issue of online interference campaigns risks becoming viewed as simply a matter of a disparity of opinions.
Yet, the potential damage of such campaigns is real. Not so long ago, Moscow’s online propaganda campaigns were described publicly as something to aid armed conflict against a target country. Last year, UK-based Russian info war expert Keir Giles reported that “Russian thought leaders” had publicly begun to say “that information operations on their own can bring about strategic effects up to and including regime change without the need for armed intervention at all.”
That is real geopolitical power.
And it’s not just regime change campaigns, either, but intra-regional conflict and wider, strategic efforts too, such as the large-scale Iranian influence operation that Foster and his team at FireEye discovered and exposed this year. A vast network of websites promoted inauthentic content designed to shape perceptions on issues important to Iran, such as perceptions of the Saudi-Yemen conflict, and the plight of the Palestinians.
If societies are going to tackle the problem of information operations, Foster says: “there has to be a large scale understanding that this behaviour exists and people know what it actually looks like and how it works.”
The threat itself is evolving fast.
Bots and trolls, exposed after the 2016 US presidential campaign, have not gone away. But a new style of propaganda makes no effort to hide its origins, even as its agenda is explicitly divisive and anti-American, Foster says.
One such operation is the website, USAReally. This site runs stories in English that only portray the US in a bleak light. Recent headlines include: “Forgery, Bribery the Main Tools of Liberal Politicians,” and “Americans Could Soon Be Drowning in Own Garbage”. It also announced the “Global Democracy Award” for journalists to provide information “showing how the US government interferes in the affairs of other countries”.
USAReally is owned by the Federal News Agency (FAN), a private-sector operation that is connected to the St Petersburg “troll factory”, the Internet Research Agency. Not only does USAReally operate in a legal grey zone protected by America’s free speech law, it seeks to hire English-speaking journalists and targets English speakers. Its owner has even toured the US to point out US hypocrisy for his viewers.
After Facebook and other platforms took down links to USAReally, members of the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency flooded the Russian social media site LiveJournal to complain about Western censorship.
A USAReally’s advertisement for English-speaking journalists tells the story: “Due to the intensifying political censorship by the United States, there is less and less information left in the world of sources that are not controlled by the US authorities.”
Cosimo Mortola, an information operations analyst at FireEye, said there is a “parallel” between the free speech argument made for Russian audiences, and the one embraced by fringe characters within the West.
The battle cry of members of the alt-right and conspiracy theory peddler Alex Jones, who was recently taken off platforms for spreading lies about shootings victims’ families, is often about “free speech” and platform “censorship”. After USAReally tried to hold a rally in front of the White House and said they weren’t able to get the permits, and “they called this ‘censorship’” too, says Mortola.
While it’s not clear they are trying to actively shape the discussion of free speech in the West, “they are … interested in using it as an excuse to show deficiencies in the American system”.
Foster and Mortola spoke as part of FireEye’s Cyber Defence Summit held in Washington, DC, early this month.
During the Cold War, Russia had similarly sought to use freedom of expression in democracies as a means of sowing disorder and division, says Jim Ludes, of Rhode Island-based Salve Regina University. “In earlier eras, that meant encouraging the publication of divisive newspapers and scandalous claims,” he says.
Ludes, who heads the university’s Pell Centre For International Relations, says that in the 1960s the KGB planted “scandalous stories to discredit Martin Luther King jnr,” in the US media, until his death, at which point, the KGB used stories to inflame America’s racial divisions.
More recently Russian bots, trolls and state-backed media played up divisions around racial issues in the US in the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of African-American Michael Brown by a police officer in 2014.
“I think we need to see it as a kind of warfare — political warfare was the parlance of the early Cold War — intended to shape our behaviour and ultimately bend our will through the manipulation and exploitation of information,” Ludes says.
The difference is the ease with which these arguments spread across borders, and can be promoted to different audiences simultaneously. Adding to the complexity, says FireEye’s Mortola, the Federal News Agency is an official news outlet, registered with the Russian government – even though it has ties with the Internet Research Agency.
In this case, Mortola says, it’s not even clear who the US would be willing to try to censor.
Ludes says the truth is that a society that really values free speech “has a difficult time fighting disinformation with censorship”.
“Really we have to mobilise all of society to embrace critical thinking and reason, again,” he says.
And that points directly to the state of play of politics in the US today. Even as there are few signs that Russia is directly intervening in specific American elections, Russia-backed trolls continue to amplify issues in the US to “play both sides” of an argument on matters as diverse as American football players kneeling in protest over racial discrimination, to movies such as Star Wars.
Facebook has identified a coordinated political influence campaign ahead of November’s U.S. congressional elections and taken down dozens of fake accounts.
If Russian info warriors are not directly intervening in the US, it may because they are preoccupied at home, both with presidential elections in March in which Vladimir Putin won a fourth term in office and the controversial pension reforms which cost him political support.
Foster says that, given the level of division and rancour in the US around such topics as immigration and the nomination of Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Russia would be hard-pressed to improve on the current level of America’s internal discord.
But the ability for Russian online interference efforts to pivot from one nation to the next brings as a special warning for Australia, Foster says.
To date, a big part of Russia’s activity has been towards sowing disunity between allies.
“A heavy focus of that is Europe and NATO but the Five Eyes alliance is extremely strong and it would make sense that it’s within Russia’s interest to weaken that,” he says.
While Foster has not seen anything in this specific area yet, he says: “It wouldn’t surprise me if one day we did see something perhaps trying to distance Australia from its allies.”
In what appears to be a collective information strategy, Australia recently criticised Russia for its aggressive cyber intrusions including the 2016 US election hack-and-leak campaign, aided by WikiLeaks.
“The international community – including Russia – has agreed that international law and norms of responsible state behaviour apply in cyberspace,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on October 4, the same day similar statements were made in New Zealand, the UK, US and Canada. “By embarking on a pattern of malicious cyber behaviour, Russia has shown a total disregard for the agreements it helped to negotiate,” he said, drawing a rebuke from Russia.
Nevertheless, a gap in public awareness remains.
“We’re all foot soldiers in this fight,” says Ludes. “Every one of us in this era of social media is both a consumer and purveyor of information. We can help clean up the information ecosystem by thinking before we ‘like’, retweet and share information we see online.”
But in the opt-in reality of social media, many citizens remain unconvinced that disinformation and interference campaigns are real, says FireEye’s Foster.
“Human nature dictates that people don’t like being wrong,” he says. Nor do they like to feel “they are being duped”.
“[But] if we don’t reckon with this activity, it’s only going to get worse in terms of its effectiveness.”
The author travelled to the FireEye Cyber Defence Summit in Washington, DC, as a guest of the company.