Echoes of War: The Kremlin Playbook

In 2016, Russia successfully waged war on Hilary Clinton’s Presidential election campaign marking one of the most damning assaults in America’s history. Universal suffrage and fair elections are the cornerstones of representative democracy. To have a situation where an adversarial power, whose GDP is less than half that of America’s, impact the course of the country’s most important democratic decision is hugely alarming. Misha Glenny, author of McMafia, argues that an aggressive use of cyberattacks is used to make up for the countries own economic, political and technological deficiencies. Moreover, his statement that they are ‘enjoying the whole spectacle’ is confirmed by Vladislav Surkov, a key ally and ideological architect of Putinism, writing that ‘foreign politicians ascribe to Russia interference in elections and referendums across the globe. In fact, the matter is even more serious – Russia interferes in their brains, and they do not know what to do with their own altered consciousness’. The ideologue not only delights in Russia’s reputation as election meddlers but lays claim towards changing the way liberal democracies think. Timothy Snyder, writing in anger not glee, agrees with Surkov describing how the centrality of the internet to US citizens has given Russia the ability to exploit the web and ‘alter mental states’ with the view of weakening Western institutions like the Presidential office and the European Union. With sweaty palms and a raised heart rate Synder wrote that ‘once the competition was about the invisible manipulation of personalities, it was not surprising that Russia won’.

The Internet Research Agency (IRA) are one of the main Russian organizations behind manufacturing consent in the 2016 Presidential Election. The IRA was created in 2011 in response to government protests against Putin. The IRA has been described as “the biggest trolling operation in history” and is ‘largely staffed by college students from the prestigious St.Petersburg State University’. By Spring 2014, the IRA had created a department known as the ‘Translator’ department to focus on U.S operations. In 2014, they circulated false news about a toxic chemical leak in Louisiana, using the trademark ‘fake social media accounts, fake videos and fake news websites… to create a veneer of authenticity’. In 2015 the IRA started working towards getting Trump elected. The Mueller report states how ‘the IRA created accounts in the names of fictitious U.S organizations and grassroots groups’ posing as ‘anti-immigration groups, Tea Party activists, Black Lives Matters protestors and other U.S social and political activists’. Moreover, Snyder describes how the ‘attack surface’ for the IRA came through ‘Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit, 9GAG and Google’. Through these social media sites, the IRA would use what the Oxford Internet Institute describe as ‘computational propaganda’ to support Trump and ensure ‘intense’ criticism of Hilary Clinton.

The scale of infiltration by fake bots on Facebook was vast. The social media platform shutdown 5.8 million fake accounts before the November 2016 election. Testifying in 2017 to the Mueller investigation, a Facebook representative described how Facebook had identified 470 IRA controlled accounts which had ‘made 80,000 posts between January 2015 and August 2017’, reaching ‘as many as 126 million persons through its Facebook accounts’. Masquerading Facebook accounts were able to accumulate large numbers of followers. At the time of Facebook deactivation in 2017  the IRA’s “United Muslims of America” Facebook group had over 300,000 followers, the “Don’t Shoot Us” Facebook group had over 250,000 followers, the “Being Patriotic” Facebook group had over 200,000 followers and the “Secure Borders” Facebook group over 130,000 followers. All these Facebook users had been conned into receiving posts and information from a group of trolls in St. Petersburg and thus became specimens of their ‘computational propaganda’. Beyond this, the IRA purchased over 3,500 advertisements spending $100,000 on pro-Trump advertising. The creation of Facebook’s 2018 Ad Library has introduced publishing measures that should vet foreign interference with national elections, however, the policing of the creation of profiles and accumulation of followers through group pages is far harder to control. Through virtue of exploiting Facebook, the IRA accumulated vast amounts of communicative power which they could use to promote and publish their political goals of muddying Clinton, championing Trump and sowing confusion and mistrust in the soil of US electoral democracy.

Similar strategy and success were found through the creation of bots on Twitter. Snyder and the Mueller Report note how, in January 2016, Twitter identified 3,814 IRA-controlled Twitter accounts and predicted that 1.4 million people may have been in contact with an IRA controlled account. Like Facebook, these Twitter bots managed to attract a large audience and accumulate strong communicative and network power, for instance: @jenn_abrams, who claimed to be a Virginian Trump supporter, had 70,000 followers, @Pamela_Moore13, claiming to a Texan Trump supporter, had 70,000 followers while @America_1st_ an anti-immigration persona received 24,000 followers. What is not provided is the detail of whether these followers were American citizens or just bots used to inflate the authenticity of the online avatars. Nonetheless, the communicative impact of their messages is demonstrated by the high-profile users that retweeted and interacted with their work as ‘Ambassador Michael McFaul, Roger Stone, Sean Hannity and Michael Flynn Jr’ all retweeted and responded to IRA controlled accounts. Therefore, through the cloak of anonymity, malicious actors could build and maintain bots whose network reach was of real significance. Unchallenged, these profiles were able to embed pro-Kremlin printing presses in the middle of the presidential discourse.

The IRA used their position of virtual significance to organize real political events from Russia. Rather than turn up to rallies themselves, the IRA would contact people associated with the group asking them to host and run events.

Miners for Trump poster IRA.jpeg

Poster from an IRA sponsored rally 

The infiltration and manifestations of IRA sponsored events were creepily creative. For instance, Trump-supporting Harry Miller was ‘unwittingly paid by some of the Russian indictees’ to burn an effigy of Hilary Clinton, while the IRA sponsored persona “Black Fist” hired a self-defence instructor in New York to teach African-Americans to protect themselves when contacted by law enforcement. These events demonstrate cold political manipulation in successfully creating and authenticating avatar spies mixed with the creative excitement of fooling Americans stink of the same grandiose absurdity exhibited through Ali G, Borat and Bruno. Trumps interaction with IRA sponsored events and tweets, as happened with a rally in Miami and the correspondence with @10_gop, would be a lot funnier were it not for the fact that these masquerades are evidence of a significant assault on the foundation of Western electoral democracy, allowing an adversarial power to spin a political contest in their favour.

Heffernan argues that through disguising robots as people, the IRA is ‘charged with fraud and not acts of war’ and thus the American people are ‘disinclined to see the internet and the nation as under siege’. US society is dependent upon the internet and addicted to social media. They were and are vulnerable to malicious social media campaigns be this from US politicians or covert Russian operations. In order to acknowledge the true extent of Russia’s impact, it is important to seriously discuss the communicative power of social media. While people may not be killed by the strategy of the IRA, without check and balance, their actions could lead towards the death of liberal democracy.