Russian Election Interference Campaign Was a Well-Oiled Information Warfare Machine

Internet Research Agency's Former Office in St. Petersburg

The Russian government developed and implemented a “full-spectrum” disinformation machine to influence the political system in the United States.

The attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. election through social media is but one example of how traditional espionage, foreign government propaganda, and information warfare tactics have evolved to make use of social media and other technologies to pose a more significant national security threat than ever before.

Researchers from the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council reviewed and analyzed hundreds of thousands of social media messages, botnets, and bot accounts that were allegedly under the control or influence of the Kremlin.

A tightly-coordinated system for disseminating Kremlin disinformation

The team presented their findings at the February 2018 Munich Security Conference, where they demonstrated how the Kremlin tightly coordinates different branches of its multi-faceted and far-reaching disinformation system.

The announcement follows the indictments filed last week by the U.S. Department of Justice and Special Counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russian nationals and three entities, accused of trying to interfere in U.S. politics.

The accounts and botnets were reportedly used to amplify messaging designed to influence the 2016 election, according to an indictment filed by the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Ben Nimmo, a researcher with the Digital Forensic Lab, succinctly explained the Russian strategy during an interview with Voice of America.

You can think of it as a full spectrum system. So you will have overt propaganda accounts such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik; you’ll have diplomatic accounts such as the Russian embassy in South Africa or the Russian consulate general in Geneva; then you have websites, which claim to be independent, but which whistle-blowers have proven or forensic researchers have proven are funded by the same entities, they are funded by the Russian government; then beyond that, you have troll accounts; beyond that, you have automated ‘bots,’ whose job is to amplify everything that goes on.

Russian operatives developed and used a fully-integrated system

Russian hackers obtained emails from the Democratic National Committee in mid-2016. Subsequently, Wikileaks published the stolen emails.  The timeline of the hacking and publications of the hacked documents reveals the different elements of the Russian’s propaganda machine.

“On the day of the leak, you can actually go through the online archives and see the ‘Troll Factory’ accounts which are boosting the DNC leaks, and they were saying ‘I bet the mainstream media will never cover this, everybody has to go and click on the DNC leaks,’” Nimmo said in the interview.

Nimmo cited a specific example in contextualizing the complexity of the operation’s integration.

“One account alone, Tennessee GOP, which was the most effective fake Twitter account that the Troll Factory ran, it had over 2,000 retweets of that story.  At the same time, RT and Sputnik were reporting on this ‘shocking story’ of DNC leaks. And you can really see the interlock between the different parts of the machine.”

Russia is engaged in a sustained information warfare campaign

The Russian government has repeatedly denied any involvement in the 2016 or any U.S. election. Nevertheless, it’s increasingly clear that the Russian’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election is just the beginning of a more sustained campaign designed to divide society and breed institutional distrust.

This effort to discredit the global standing of the United States and its allies is one that requires an improved defense, which includes a deterrent component.

Private sector companies like Facebook and Twitter—whether they like it or not—are where this “information war” is being waged. Rather than protesting regulations and subsequently reacting to them, private sector firms should proactively engage in collaboration with the intelligence and national security communities.

Proactive public-private engagement and collaboration is in all parties’ best interest and would result in more innovative and secure social networks and digital public discourse.

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