Fake Social Media and Political Interference: How (Mainly) Russia Does It

  • Russia is responsible for 72 percent of covert social media campaigns in other countries
  • Sophisticated operations deliver fast responses to events and opportunities

Foreign interference in political issues using misinformation campaigns on social media has become a much-discussed feature of political debate. What is actually going on, and who is behind it?

Last year a team of researchers from Princeton compiled and analyzed a database of all 53 identifiable attempts by a state to impact and influence the politics of another state by using media channels, and especially social media, and disseminating content designed to appear indigenous to the target state.

This is a rapidly growing area of political contest – in the 2016 U.S. presidential election social media channels were more widely viewed than traditional editorial media. It is often thought that foreign influencers are at work. This report brings many of the facts to light.

Fully 72 percent of the cases identified were conducted by Russia, with China, Iran and Saudi Arabia accounting for most of the remainder, and the latter two really concentrating on their regional rivals. Also unsurprisingly, 38 percent of the attempts targeted the United States, 9 percent the UK, and most of the rest were isolated cases in other European countries, plus Israel, Brazil, and one or two other places.

There is no clear trend in strategy – defamation of individuals or institutions and attempts at changing opinions seemed to dominate. Only 15 percent of cases seemed to be explicitly seeking to polarize to the extremes on any particular issue, said researchers.

In terms of tactics, 90 percent of the cases used trolls, and 50 percent of them used automation to spread their message. Seemingly, about half of them definitely used fake accounts, although this is probably an underestimate. Twitter, news outlets and Facebook predominate, especially Twitter. Perhaps this was because at the time these platforms carried out little screening, allowing propaganda masquerading as indigenous political activism to slip through. This may now be changing.

Russia’s efforts have been examined more closely. They, along with China, have large-scale media organizations with lengthy experience in spreading propaganda in their own countries. The Internet Research Agency, a known Russian social media operation, has well-organized programs with writers divided into groups according to their English-writing skills and briefed with reacting daily to events and diplomatic developments. China has been less active, partly because their citizens do not commonly use Twitter and Facebook and therefore it may be harder to organize operations focusing on them.

Looking in detail at Russia’s efforts, the indication is less of a fixed political ideology and more of a pragmatic and sophisticated approach to encouraging changes that will support Russia’s geopolitical goals, with attacks on both the Clinton and Trump campaigns in 2016. Russian-managed bots and trolls pushed voters in both directions about subjects such as immigration, vaccinations, gun control and many other current topics.

Notably, Russian programs discredited American institutions in general, conservative critics of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Theresa May of the UK, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. They attacked U.S. military operations around the world. They sought to polarize American politics by simultaneously supporting the Black Lives Matter and the White Lives Matter movements, and interfered in Canadian, Australian and Brazilian politics. They supported right-wing movements in the United States and Germany, and left-wing separatists in Catalonia.

While Russia has been the most active perpetrator of what this report calls “this new form of statecraft,” China, Iran and even states such as Mexico are copying these techniques and deploying them, sometimes for internal as well as external purposes.

The full report includes a brief description of each of the 53 Foreign Influence Efforts identified.

Further rapid growth in the use of these tactics is probably to be expected, as other countries learn from Russia’s progress. This report also shows how much can be exposed and monitored in such campaigns, and it may be that the increased screening of “fake news” by the leading social media channels will start to change the situation.

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Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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