Turns out it’s clicks, not Kalashnikovs, that are Russia’s most potent weapon against the West.
In fact, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are elemental to Kremlin efforts to discredit Western institutions, including democracy itself.
The evidence is apparent in recent revelations from Facebook about how Russian operatives opted for polarizing posts to further split an America already riven with divisions.
And it wasn’t just in the U.S. election: British researchers reported on Wednesday that last year’s Brexit argument was augmented by tens of thousands of tweets from more than 150,000 Twitter accounts emanating from Russia intended to disunite the United Kingdom by fostering fear about immigrants and Muslims.
The Kremlin’s surreptitious attempts at influence were foreshadowed in the U.S. intelligence assessment of Russia’s role in the 2016 campaign.
“Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations — such as cyber activity — with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls,’ ” the assessment said. The report later added: “We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes.”
That may already be happening.
“Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate,” according to a Freedom House report issued Wednesday. “The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” Freedom House President Michael J. Abramowitz said in a statement. “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”
The Atlantic Council concurs regarding Russia, according to a new report, “The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 2: Russian Influence in Greece, Italy and Spain” (the first “Trojan Horse” report detailed Russian-linked political activity in France, Germany and Great Britain). The report states in part that “as a result of its economic limitations, the Kremlin is constantly engaged in a cost-benefit game to assess how to achieve its foreign policy goals with minimal investment. For this reason, asymmetric measures — disinformation, cyberattacks, cultivation of political allies, and corruption — that are far less expensive than economic investment or conventional military activities but have great destabilization potential are the preferred tool of choice for the Kremlin. Chaos is cheap.”
Talk is cheap, too. Especially if it’s from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told his U.S. counterpart that Russia had no part in influencing the 2016 election. That answer seemed to satisfy President Donald Trump, who after talking with Putin during his trip to Asia told reporters, “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
Actually, it’s Russia’s attack on our democracy that is not a good thing for our country — a point Trump seemed to accede when he later walked back his compliant comments.
In contrast, British Prime Minister Theresa May minced no words about Kremlin attempts to “undermine free societies” and “sow discord in the West.
“We know what you are doing, and you will not succeed,” May said.
U.S. intelligence experts know, too, but Trump undercut some previous leaders by labeling them “political hacks” before later saying he was with the intelligence experts as “currently constituted with their leadership.”
Trump’s “affinity for Putin and refusal to believe the U.S. intelligence community stand out among Western leaders,” said one of the Atlantic Council reports’ authors, Alina Polyakova (who is now affiliated with the Brookings Institution). Polyakova, in Rome to release the report, said via e-mail, “The president’s stance, and thus lack of U.S. response to Russian actions, certainly provides cover for bad actors in the future.”
Present-day bad actors in the Duma dealt a potential blow to Western media organizations by unanimously passing a bill allowing the Russian government to deem some international news outlets as “foreign agents.” The law, which must pass Russia’s Senate and the real decisionmaker — Putin — is a rapid response to the U.S. Justice Department’s requirement that RT, (formerly known as Russia Today), the Kremlin-backed cable network, register as a foreign agent.
The dual moves were decried by media freedom organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, whose head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, Johann Bihr, said in a statement: “The law’s extremely vague provisions open the way to selective, arbitrary and highly political application and, at a time of unprecedented pressure on the media, are liable to make it even harder for Russian citizens to get access to freely reported news.”
And that is what ultimately must matter: That Russians, and indeed citizens worldwide, can get the truth in order to shape their futures. So just as the West guards against Russia’s military capabilities, it must gird against its media capabilities, and culpability, too.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.