By Patricia H Kushlis
At long last the US – albeit thanks to a few NGOs – has begun to make public the unabated Russian disinformation campaign which engulfed last year’s American elections and continues today. The Kremlin’s helpers primarily boosted and continue to bolster the pro-Trump message aimed at the largely under-educated American political far right. But more insidiously the Russian campaign has been designed to challenge democratic governance in the eyes of the world including and not unimportantly among Russia’s own domestic audience in the run up to the Russian Federation's own presidential election on March 18, 2018.
The Kremlin’s American campaign is a mix of propaganda and disinformation and it is part and parcel of Russia’s cyber warfare against the West – its goal is to upend Europe and the US and thereby eliminate the economic sanctions against Moscow which were enacted after Russia illegally invaded Crimea and then Eastern Ukraine in 2014. The US Congress voted just last spring to strengthen the sanctions not, as Moscow had hoped with Trump’s ascension to the White House in January, to weaken or better yet eliminate them.
Potemkin Villages Live On
Some of the Russian stories being propagated are total fabrications- pure Potemkin Villages - but the most insidious are laced with tinges of the truth – enough to hoodwink the unwitting. They take their cues from America’s own alt-right, neo-Nazi messages which reinforce racism and economic inequalities.
Regardless, these messages are amplified through multiple bots and cyberborgs and are targeted at the aggrieved far right Trump voters. Their goals are to undercut the veracity of the reporting in the established US media. The stories are designed to tear a multiethnic society apart.
The Russian information warfare campaign also targets America’s far left especially those enamored by conspiracy theories but its activities against the left are far weaker than the high decibel volume aimed at the right. This campaign often echoes and amplifies Trump’s worst and most fallacious charges against the veracity of the western major media, his enemies, his fake news claims against the Mueller investigation and anyone else he perceives to be thwarting his efforts as well as promoting and encouraging his racist views. The Kremlin goal: to destabilize and hence weaken the US, its greatest nemesis, and Europe.
Last January, the Obama administration publicly released an unclassified version of the DNI report. The final quarter of the report was devoted to an analysis of the propaganda and disinformation aspects of Russian cyber warfare against the US electoral system, a campaign which inundated specific voters in swing states. The Russian message – which succeeded – was anti-Hillary and pro-Trump. Whether this was the deciding factor in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin is still questioned but the barrage of Internet delivered messages via Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media aimed at these vulnerable voters in certain districts was relentless and appears to have paid off.
Donald Trump – who profited from the Russian assistance - still claims the DNI report - signed off on by the heads of the most important US intelligence agencies - is “fake news.” He is even more disparaging of the Steele Dossier.
Nevertheless, the Russian cyber warfare campaign against the US continues.
Ben Nimmo, Obama’s chief advisor on cyber warfare now heads a research unit on Russian disinformation at the Atlantic Council and as importantly for the media, the German Marshall Fund of the US has recently launched a crucial public website named Hamilton-68 which continually tracks Russian disinformation and propaganda activities aimed at Internet users in the US. This website has identified 600 different bots which magnify the Russian messages via Twitter.
The good news is that Hamilton-68 is functioning as it should. Just in the past month, I have seen information used in various reputable US media accounts that cite its data base. This gives the reporters, researchers, and academics for the first time, access to accurate and on time data that graphically depicts how Russian cyber warfare operates in the US through substantial, near real time data which shows which stories are being promoted and by whom. Hamilton-68 does not claim to refute them – it just makes it very clear to anyone who can read its simple graphs - the sources of stories which somehow climb to the top of the charts in now not so mysterious ways.
The fact that Facebook has finally owned up to the fact that it sold over $100,000 worth of ads despite months of denials no questions asked - which were traced back to the Internet Research Agency, an organization controlled by the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence agency) during the 2016 US presidential campaign and that those ads were designed to smear Hillary and promote Trump is a piece of the puzzle. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg reluctantly agreed to turn over 3,000 of these ads to a Senate investigating committee. Twitter and Google have also finally admitted that they too had published IRA ads during the 2016 campaign. These tech titans are far from alone.
Meanwhile, the investigations into the Trump campaign’s likely connections with the Kremlin grind on. The interrelationships are complex and those under investigation are engaged in cover ups that make Nixon’s Watergate read like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Mueller investigation has divided its work into 13 areas of inquiry. One is looking at the potential relationships between Trump’s own campaign cyber operation run by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Russian intelligence, and Facebook ad buys – albeit a small amount in overall campaign spending on advertisements. This investigation may hold a key to unraveling the connections.
Microtargeted campaign ads
We know that campaign ads were microtargeted at potential voters in swing districts in swing states. Could these districts also be ones where the voting machines were antiquated and did not provide possibility of a recount? Is there a correlation between the hacking of 21 states electoral systems and these same districts? Did these campaign ads include Russian government buys? Were the voting machines and the voter registration lists in these same states the targets of Russian government hacking? If so how did they gain the electoral data upon which to base those buys? From whom? Or was this just coincidental? What was the content or contents of those ads? What role, if any, did the data mining company Cambridge Analytica play in guiding all of this? Or did Russian intelligence just rely on readily available audience profile data on Facebook? Or what about the relationship with Jared Kushner who oversaw the Trump cyber campaign? And where did the internet security firm Kaspersky come in?
American voters, at the very least, are owed truthful answers.
A Post Script: Last week even I received a gmail from a Russian internet source – a London based company named Quizzically Idiosyncratic TM - advertising a sweatshirt with photos of the American flag, Putin and the logo “I wish he were my president.” Huh? Don’t think so. But why was I a target via gmail for that particular Russian internet campaign?
Just because I’ve made it clear publicly that I think Donald Trump is unfit for the US Presidency does not make me long for the country to be run by an autocratic Russian. I just think the Congressional Republicans should do their duty and get rid of Messrs Trump and Mr. Pence, clean up our antiquated electoral system which the Russians have taken advantage of and apparently continue to use, reign in the Russian influence campaign itself and restore the vestige of dignity and power the US deserves.