Russia steps up disinformation with a goal to upend our elections
With the countdown to the U.S. presidential election under way, Russia is continuing its assault on America and its democratic institutions. Russian individuals and groups who have been affiliated with St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency — the “troll” farm that uses social media to attack political enemies — have launched targeted efforts to affect political debates and elections in the United States. FBI Director Christopher Wray warned lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee this spring: “We are seeing, and have never stopped seeing, efforts to engage in malign foreign influence by the Russians.”
As an example, Russian operatives recruited U.S. journalists to write articles critical of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the Democrats’ respective nominees for president and vice president. Other articles criticized President Trump, indicating that the Kremlin’s goal was more to attack the legitimacy of the U.S. electoral process than to support a single party or candidate.
Facebook reported that it removed a network of 13 fake accounts and two pages involved in the effort. Operatives had created fictitious personas on Facebook to direct people to a site called Peace Data, supposedly a nonprofit news site. Peace Data published approximately 500 articles in English and 200 articles in Arabic. Many were written by unwitting journalists; others were written by false personas with fake profile pictures of the authors.
According to the State Department, seven Kremlin-aligned disinformation proxy sites and organizations, including the Strategic Culture Foundation website and the Katehon think tank, amplified narratives critical of the United States while embracing Russian positions, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak. The report said Russia’s general aims are “questioning the value of democratic institutions” and “weakening the international credibility and international cohesion of the United States and its allies and partners.”
Other U.S. government officials report that two senior officers of Russia’s GRU intelligence agency published approximately 150 articles about COVID-19 that either denigrated the United States or praised Russia for its efforts to fight the disease. The articles originated from InfoRos, an agency that operated a series of websites that spread anti-American disinformation. The articles, in well-written English, cycled through other news sources to hide their origin and enhance their legitimacy.
In March, Facebook and Twitter took action against a Russian-linked operation that worked with a nonprofit group in Ghana and sought to influence Black voters in the United States with targeted messages.
The laws of war are clear that when the United States is attacked by another country, it has the right to retaliate. The rights of self-defense are perhaps less clear when the attack happens in cyberspace. Certainly, if the cyber attack results in physical damage, such as the destruction of critical infrastructure, then a country has the right to defend itself. But in the case of an attack in the form of disinformation, the law spells out no clear guidelines.
Unlike the United States, Russia is a particularly bad target for a retaliatory disinformation strike. Russian President Vladimir Putin rules with an iron fist. His opponents such as Alexei Navalny or KGB defector Sergei Skripal, find themselves dead or dying from poisonings involving chemical agents such as Novichok. There is little need to sow doubt as to the legitimacy of Russian elections; Putin has done that already.
America must be on guard for the next seven weeks; it doesn’t appear to have any other options.
James J. Coyle, Ph.D., is CEO of Coyle International Consulting Inc., specializing in international security issues, and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. He served in a number of U.S. government positions, including as director of Middle East Studies, U.S. Army War College. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.”
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