In last night’s American presidential debate, both candidates were asked about the threat posed by cyberwarfare to national security. In her answer, Hillary Clinton cited the growing risk of cyber attacks on American targets, and mentioned the most high-profile attack to date: the hacking of Democratic National Committee email servers by actors linked to Russian intelligence services.
Donald Trump, true to form, rejected the idea that Russia was to blame - and instead stated that anyone from China’s government to a lone bedridden hacker was just as likely to be responsible for the attack. Despite Trump’s evidence-resistant doubt, the DNC hack is only one of many recent examples of Russia’s modern approach to information warfare.
Disinformation has been part of states’ communications strategy since there have been states, primarily during times of war. The British famously planted fake documents on a corpse as part of Operation Barclay during the Second World War to deceive Axis powers about the invasion of Sicily. The Americans deployed a unit of artists to stage false operations - complete with inflatable tanks - to name just a few of the more dramatic examples. But propagandized disinformation has played an outsized role in the strategy of Russian peacetime foreign policy for nearly a century.
Central to these covert propaganda operations is to embed a kernel of truth within layers of lies. With so-called "active measures", Russian state intelligence agencies have long used falsified documents and puppet outlets to spread anti-Western conspiracy theories, such as Operation INFEKTION, which popularized the notion that AIDS was an American-made bioweapon. The kernel of truth in Operation INFEKTION was the broad observation that LGBTQ Americans were being actively persecuted by their government. This sort of true-but-nonspecific criticism makes the lie slippery and harder to dismiss outright. It can also spark domestic political infighting by giving talking points to opposition groups in the target country, as occurred within the Democratic party after the DNC email leak.
The Kremlin no longer needs to rely on top-down operations thanks to modern communication technology and media saturation. Instead, it selects stories that arise from an existing marketplace of deceptions to promote its information agenda, creating a "firehose of falsehood". Capitalizing on the frenetic barrage of information demanded by the 24-hour news cycle, content is manufactured in large volumes and disseminated across a wide range of platforms, from traditional TV-news to modern clickbait websites that look like a Bizzaro World version of Salon. The most successful of these platforms by far is the multi-media giant RT, which has an annual budget exceeding $300 million USD and produces radio and TV programming in five languages (including English and German). RT is one of the most popular sources of news online. Accurate numbers are hard to pin down, but it boasts a self-measured online viewership of a billion total page views. Along with other outlets whose Kremlin ties are less transparent, this high-volume approach exploits a bug in human reasoning. Claims made by multiple sources which are superficially distinct and deploy different arguments are far more persuasive than claims supported by fewer sources, regardless of actual evidence. Stories generated or distorted by Russian press are sometimes picked up by foreign outlets and treated as accurate news, but more often these stories are circulated by users on social media. And crucially, studies suggest that a majority of Americans get their news from social media.
This system was caught in action recently: on August 10th, Russia’s Federal Security Service and President Putin both released statements accusing the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence of being behind an alleged terrorist plot to sneak militants into occupied Crimea. Russian state-sponsored media quickly jumped on the story, along with the subsequent denial by the Ukrainian government. The story quickly fell off, however, as it failed to gain traction through either international coverage or public uproar in both occupied Crimea and Russia. Some prominent analysts of Russia argue that the entire affair was likely a counter-intelligence psyop carried out by Russian assets in Crimea.
The incident is a textbook example of Russia’s highly responsive cut-and-run approach to propaganda; if it fails to become popular quickly, drop the story and move on. It is also emblematic of the goals of Russia’s modern propaganda war. Rather than trying to portray Russia as a shinier city upon a better hill, these operations seek to undermine public trust in civic institutions, to create confusion about proxy conflicts, and to corrode public discourse with conspiracy theories and falsehoods. As Russia scholar Mark Galeotti puts it, the Kremlin’s overarching goal is to "dissolve the ties that bind" nations together in existing transnational institutions and supranational organizations.
At present, there are only a handful of organizations working to filter through Russia’s foreign-facing propaganda market. Most are government-sponsored, like America’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and one of their offshoot projects, The Interpreter. While Radio Free Europe also serves to provide regular news to Eastern Europe, the EU-funded Disinformation Review explicitly tracks Russian propaganda on a weekly basis, alongside the independent Stopfake, a Ukraine-specific project run by The Mohyla School of Journalism. Similarly, some citizen-journalists like Glasnost Gone publish their informal work decoding and exposing pro-Kremlin propaganda on social media sites like Twitter.
Unfortunately, these efforts are mostly unknown outside of academic, political, and Eastern-European pro-democracy activist circles. Debunking every distorted story pumped out by Putin’s propaganda pipeline would be far too time intensive for any one project or government. Instead, as a report by the Centre for European Policy Analysis recommends, high-profile independent media watchdogs should be established to inform the international public that propaganda from Kremlin-backed outlets is being produced on a massive scale and that they are the target audience.
Tempering the role that automation plays in article generation and curation is another strategy to combat misinformation. Keeping a human editor in the loop can serve as a bulwark against distorted news gaining viral traction on social media. Facebook’s recent move towards algorithm-led content sorting highlights the risks of increased automation. Following accusations that Facebook’s Trending News team had prioritized ‘liberal’ headlines ahead of ‘conservative’ stories, the company replaced its human quality control team with a completely automated algorithm. Within three days, the algorithm had sorted a completely fabricated story about Fox News star host Megyn Kelly being fired from the network for secretly being a supporter of Hillary Clinton to the top of its ‘Trending’ topics list. It takes little imagination to see a similar situation emerging in the future, but involving malicious propaganda rather than an accidental tabloid scandal.
One dramatic effect of Russia’s propaganda is how it could influence foreign elections while masquerading as regular news. Voters across the political spectrum should consider this: Putin would not allow a serious dissenting politician to get airtime on state-funded Russian media unless doing so could denigrate them or their constituents. The same is true of airtime given to foreign politicians - from Donald Trump to the American Green Party’s Jill Stein. Since we do not expect accuracy or fairness from Russian state media directed at Russians, we should assume that the same cynical motives are at play when, instead, we are the audience.
For those living in countries bordering Russia, however, the stakes are much higher. Along the Ukrainian ‘border’ with occupied Crimea, many communities are still divided by armed checkpoints, terrorized with massive military drills, and threatened by regular outbreaks of violence between paramilitary groups despite official ceasefire agreements. If Russia’s well-financed propaganda machine continues unchecked, the Kremlin will be able to dominate the narrative of the conflict in eastern Ukraine - and be emboldened to launch similar offensives in the near future.