Overcoming Foreign Influence in Social Media
Published March 1, 2022
American adversaries such as Russia and China are using cyber-enabled deception operations to spread divisive messages. In 2016, Houston’s Islamic Da’wah Center became the site of two dueling protests, both of which began in online communities formed by a Kremlin-backed organization. Discovering and calling out specific disinformation campaigns can be difficult, but by increasing awareness that our adversaries are actively trying to inflame divisions in our society, we can begin to counter these insidious efforts.
- Why are cyber-enabled deception operations so dangerous?
- How can we recognize and combat cyber-enabled deception operations?
During the Cold War, the Soviets launched “active measures” campaigns to peddle false narratives. Their conspiracy theories included stories that the CIA was involved in the Kennedy assassination, and that the AIDS virus had been created by the US military. But before the Internet, these kinds of lies spread slowly, if at all.
Today, cyber-enabled deception operations, especially in democratic societies with freedom of speech, enable false messages to go viral at scales and speeds previously unimaginable.
Modern-day Russian disinformation “floods the zone” across every format and information channel. Volume is key. Twitter estimates that Russia used more than fifty thousand automated accounts, or bots, to tweet election-related content during the 2016 presidential campaign. Russian officers have infiltrated everything from 4chan to Pinterest. And, worryingly, they have had some success.
In May of 2016, Houston’s Islamic Da’wah Center became the site of two dueling protests. On one side of the street was a group called Heart of Texas that rallied to “stop the Islamization of Texas.” On the other side, a group called the United Muslims of America staged a counter-protest to “save Islamic knowledge.”
The people attending both protests were real Americans who genuinely believed in their causes. But the entire scene was instigated by the Kremlin in Russia. And none of the protestors knew it.
Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America were Facebook groups created by a shadowy Kremlin-backed organization called the Internet Research Agency. Inside a Russian office building, hundreds of employees were hired to masquerade as Americans online in around-the-clock shifts—tweeting, liking, friending, and sharing in English to attract American followers.
A bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee described Russia’s influence operation as “painstaking and deliberate.” Two Russian operatives even traveled to the United States in 2014 to meet with American political activists. Their aim: gathering intelligence to make their deception campaign look more realistic.
It worked. To Americans, the Facebook groups seemed genuine. Heart of Texas amassed 250,000 followers, all advocating for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies. United Muslims of America attracted 320,000 followers.
These groups were just two of thousands of fake social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Their purpose is to overwhelm, divide, and breed distrust in information itself, undermining democratic discourse and interfering in presidential elections.
Russia was the first to embrace cyber weapons of mass deception, but it’s not alone anymore. China’s operations have grown more sophisticated during the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in Wuhan in late 2019. Within months, China’s disinformation campaigns to shift blame for the virus had grown so widespread, the EU called it an “infodemic.”
At the same time, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center warned that foreign countries—led by Russia, but also including China and Iran—were using online disinformation to “sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, to shift U.S. policies, to increase discord, and to undermine confidence in our democratic process” before the 2020 presidential election.
Discovering and calling out specific disinformation campaigns can be difficult, but by increasing awareness that our adversaries are actively trying to inflame divisions in our society we can begin to counter these insidious efforts.