The Kremlin has brought an online war of hearts and minds to US soil with a vengeance. From Charlottesville, Virginia, to the sidelines of the National Football League, and Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore, Maryland, reports are pouring in that Russian operatives complemented their major cyber attacks against U.S. election infrastructure and institutions in 2016 with a number of additional disinformation and influence campaigns orchestrated to further divide the American public.
Such Russian operatives range from Russian intelligence agencies such as the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, to a broader category of state-sponsored or “patriotic” hackers and “troll farms” (like the Internet Research Agency) affiliated with the Russian military or government, to state-sponsored media platforms such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik. Russia’s new information warfare campaigns generally follow an “amplify, divide, undermine” pattern against the United States and its allies: By exacerbating political or social division in liberal democracies and undermining the faith citizens of these democracies have in their political and social institutions, Russian seeks to weaken the overall effectiveness of its democratic rivals.
A cardinal rule of new information warfare is to operate in a legal gray zone while taking advantage of clear legal protections on speech available in liberal democracies. No international law governing cyber attacks between nations that falls below the level of an “armed attack” exists, so Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and voting systems didn’t violate international law, although perpetrators of those attacks residing in Russia or the United States can be charged with crimes under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). In this case, the Obama administration had to take matters into its own hands by imposing sanctions that expelled Russian diplomats from Washington, and Robert Mueller’s investigations into possible domestic U.S. collusion with Russian operatives is ongoing.
Nor was Wikileaks’ release of the DNC emails illegal, being protected by the First Amendment in the U.S. and similar laws around the world. Yet the amplification of these emails further divided the United States population, undermined trust in a vital political institution, and probably contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Russia’s disinformation and cyber campaigns are deliberately designed to take advantage of the openness of information flows and democratic divisions innate to liberal democracies. An authoritarian regime could plausibly clamp down on broadcasts of politically embarrassing or divisive news reports, but laws of free speech and expression define liberal democracies and check the ability of their governments to intervene. These are the protections that allow Russian-sponsored media outlets RT and Sputnik to promote pro-Kremlin and anti-U.S. establishment content across American airwaves and cyberspace.
One unexpected consequence of freedom of speech in the digital age is the increasing self-regulation by social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter as they take down fake news and automated accounts (“bots”) associated with the Russian government. But here the gray zone gets grayer. For one, is taking down fake news a form of self-censorship? Most will agree that Russian fake news is deleterious to U.S. civil society and institutions, but fewer would agree that Mark Zuckerberg should decide how the First Amendment can or cannot be exercised online on the basis of computer algorithms.
Next, how should social media managers excise adverse foreign actors from their platform without censoring domestic ones with the same message? Russian operatives are so comfortable dovetailing their information campaigns with existing U.S. political and social conversations that social media companies cannot easily sanction foreign actors without also punishing Americans who hold certain views.
One such connection is between the Russian propaganda machine and the U.S. “Alt-Right,” a new movement of ultra-conservatives. Around the time of Charlottesville protests in August, 2017, fake twitter accounts “linked to Russian influence operations” began churning out tweets and promoting content critical of left-wing “Antifa” demonstrators, then praising President Trump’s response to the protests. The bots also promoted what amounts to Russian propaganda from Sputnik and RT.
The result of this dovetailing serves both the Kremlin and the Alt-Right’s interests well: Russian propaganda and fake news are regularly shared by Alt-Right websites, just as Russian sites propagate U.S. right-wing news, reflecting a symbiotic relationship between the two. As Facebook and Twitter crack down on fake accounts or others that disseminate Russian fake news, they may begin treading on the turf of the “Alt-Right” or White Nationalists by removing their accounts as well.
Such “persecution” by “liberal media” plays well into the self-victimization, anti-establishment, and siege mentality of “Alt-Right” and White Nationalist groups, who are likely to be drawn closer to Russian influencers who amplify their message. In return, the Kremlin gains a more loyal vanguard for perpetrating its own political agenda vis-à-vis the United States and elsewhere.
Russia has proven to be utilitarian in achieving its goal to amplify, divide, and undermine, as the Kremlin targets divisive issues in American society beyond just the “Alt-Right.” On September 28, 2017, CNN reported that Russian operatives apparently fabricated the “Blacktivist” Facebook page to dovetail with the Black Lives Matter movement. Boasting more followers – some of which were undoubtedly fake accounts – than the actual Black Lives Matter site, Blacktivist featured videos of police brutality and encouraged protests in what CNN’s unnamed sources described as a Russian attempt to sow racial discord in the United States leading up to the 2016 Elections.
Just a day before the CNN story broke, Senator James Lankford, Republican Senator from Oklahoma and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed that Russian “troll farms” were amplifying both the #Takeaknee and competing #BoycottNFL hashtags on social media so as to exacerbate social division over the decisions of some National Football League players not to celebrate the U.S. national anthem before football games. Beyond just seeking to undermine the National Football League itself as a foundational American pastime, Russian hijacking of social media also attempts to undermine the trust Americans have in the companies providing such platforms and services.
How should the US respond to Russia’s new information warfare on the American home front? Three types of responses need to be pursued: operational, legislative, and systemic.
Operational responses are immediate actions, such as U.S. government regulators and social media companies developing and deploying algorithms that detect and delete fake news and accounts that otherwise violate their terms of service on the basis of past data, or hiring additional workers to track and report on these trends.
Operational responses need to be supported with legislation to eliminate the gray areas of information warfare. But it will not be easy. American legislators criticize social media companies for being neglectful and taking inadequate measures to stop fake news and influence campaigns, yet remain constrained from providing legal cover or encouragement for what these companies are already doing by the First Amendment. Rolling back First Amendment protections could be seen as a victory for Russia in undermining the US constitution. Furthermore, fake news and influence campaigns feed into Twitter and Facebook’s ad revenues, placing these companies at odds with regulators and possibly contributing to their reluctance to confront the issue in the first place.
Congress can, however, create tighter regulation over how user accounts are created and used, to justify media companies’ and websites removal or sanctioning of accounts that promote fake news or are created by Russian operatives, especially if they are automated. This could involve automatically suspending suspect accounts unless additional personal information (such as text message verification via cell phone, or email verification) is provided. Congress can also pass a law that requires the private sector to coordinate and verify foreign disinformation and influence campaigns with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, if a cooperative outcome can’t be achieved otherwise.
Finally, there are a number of systemic issues that contribute to the virulence of Russian information warfare against the United States. Policy could address some of them: digital literacy initiatives in the U.S. should be expanded in K-12 education and public awareness campaigns, and include training on how to identify and verify fake news. The U.S. can take inspiration from other countries, such as Taiwan, where a new educational curriculum teaches students to recognize fake news, in response to disinformation campaigns by the People’s Republic of China and the proliferation of fake news in general.
But the real systemic factor behind these campaigns has been the rise of social media and Internet news at the expense of established journalistic practices and media outlets. According to a 2017 Pew Survey, 67 percent of Americans get their news from social media outlets, up from 62 percent in 2016.
In a world where people self-select their news sources and receive near-constant updates on platforms profiting from the viral distribution of eye-catching content regardless of verification, the allure of fake and divisive news will grow. Policymakers should prioritize educating the public about the threats disinformation campaigns pose to U.S. institutions and the First Amendment, and ensuring that these campaigns do not continue to hijack and undermine the new digital institutions of our democracy.