Undermining Democracy: Kremlin Tools of Malign Political Influence
Despite the fact that no traces of active Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election were found, influence operations, including on the Internet, continue. In light of the active methods of resisting Russian interference and the removal of fake social media accounts, the Kremlin trolls began to use new tactics and more sophisticated ways of concealing their identity..
The expert community continues to research Russian influence operations and their impact on foreign societies. Thus, the digital forensics laboratory of the Washington Atlantic Council, together with the Free Russia Foundation, held a discussion on Thursday, February 11, on the topic of Russian foreign interference in US domestic politics. As part of the online event, the Free Russia Foundation also presented a report, “The Kremlin’s Impact on Social Networks in the United States: A Moving Target,” which concludes that Kremlin trolls are exploiting the growing political polarization in the United States and the disinformation generated by by the Americans themselves.
Despite the countermeasures taken by the United States and leading social networks, the Kremlin‘s attempts to intervene in the American political process were observed during the 2020 presidential elections, according to one of the authors of the report, an expert of the Free Russia Foundation and a researcher at the Virginia Polytechnic University. Maria Snegovaya (Maria Snegovaya, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University). For example, the blocking of fake accounts by Facebook and Twitter forced the Kremlin trolls to develop more sophisticated methods of hiding their identity. Instead of creating fake accounts, they increasingly resorted to identity theft and imitation of official campaigns and groups, and their activities also shifted to lesser-known social media platforms..
At the same time, the extreme internal polarization in the United States provides the Kremlin trolls and their confidants with fertile ground for exploiting existing differences and weakening American society. “Much more effort is being directed towards polarizing online discussions by building on existing narratives on US social media rather than creating new ones,” Snegovaya said during the discussion..
The expert adds that although it is rather difficult to measure the impact of influence operations, it can be said that Americans, who share extreme right and left ideologies, less trusting the mainstream media and state institutions, were more actively involved in the exchange of information promoted or used by the Kremlin trolls for their own purposes..
Head of the Research and Policy Division of the Alliance for Democracy Program of the German Marshall Fund of the USA Jessica Brandt (Jessica Brandt, GMF) notes a general trend towards more targeted Russian influence operations, which are more difficult to detect and whose information space in target countries is becoming wider. At the same time, the expert also emphasizes that the Kremlin trolls use the existing disagreements in societies and involve local residents in their activities, who can disseminate content that divides society or other information beneficial to the Kremlin trolls. “We saw this in many African countries before local elections, using authentic social media accounts of local users,” says Jessica Brandt. – We saw this in Ukraine on the eve of the presidential elections in 2019 “.
The tactics of the Kremlin trolls to involve local residents using their real accounts on social networks is quite difficult to resist, the expert emphasizes. In terms of civil and constitutional freedoms, they have the right to express their opinion.
“Russia is pretty good at identifying those people whose political views coincide with the discourse that is beneficial to promote the Kremlin,” adds Brandt..
Expert of the RAND Research Center Marek Posard (Marek Posard, Rand Corporation), in turn, also emphasizes that internal problems in the United States, including economic inequality and extreme political polarization of society, were created by the Americans themselves, but are actively used by the opponents of the United States..
“We are now in a particularly difficult situation because the pandemic has brought to the fore a lot of social problems,” the expert says. – This provides an opportunity for our adversaries – Russia, China, Iran and others – to use information operations,
to, at a minimum, undermine our ability to engage in dialogue to reach consensus on issues of public concern “.
At the same time, using internal problems in the United States against them does not require much effort, he notes: “These operations are very easy to carry out. You don’t need an infantry division. You don’t have to invest in any major weapons system for decades. All you have to do is have cheap paid trolls and fake accounts. They can last for several months and have a pretty tangible impact. And if the Russians can do this, then we must remember that other countries can do it too “.
“I think we are in the early stages, not the final stages of this,” he adds. “And our internal problems can become national security problems.”.
Director of Digital Forensics Laboratory, Atlantic Council Nicholas Yap (Nicholas Yap), in turn, emphasizes that the topics of Russian intervention have begun to be covered in American society, regardless of their reliability. And the more politicized the topic, the more it can spread in the American information space. Also, the topic of disinformation and foreign intervention itself becomes a “political weapon” when statements of intervention are heard either in order to use the tactics of “look at yourself”, or whataboutism, or to divert attention from the essence of the problem..
Compared to 2016, Russian interference in 2020 was insignificant, but the topic of Russian disinformation has become one of the most covered topics, the expert adds. “This raises many important questions for civil society and the media about how to responsibly report on this topic, so as not to fall into expectations and not play into the hands of [the Kremlin],” concludes Nicholas Yap..
Journalist «Voices of America». Prior to that, she worked for international non-governmental organizations in Washington and London, in the Russian-language version of the Estonian daily newspaper “Postimees” and as a spokesman for the Estonian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Interests – international relations, politics, economics