The 2014 Russian participation in the American national election followed a long history of Russian governmental use of what we now call disinformation. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the English word “disinformation”, as translated from the Russian disinformatsiya, began use in the 1950s (English Oxford dictionaries, 2016). After the Soviet term became widely known in the 1980s, speakers of English language broadened the term as “any government communication (either overt or covert) containing intentionally false and misleading material, often combined selectively with true information, which seeks to mislead and manipulate either elites or a mass audience.”
While many governments throughout the world, and all major nations, have used disinformation against their adversaries by communicating disinformation to the citizens of the adversary, the most powerful nations have also tried to influence their adversaries’ elections or weaken a dictator’s strength through such approach. This is not something new, and while we in America are incensed at Russia’s effort in our presidential election, we have certainly played the game as well, although I dare say not up to Russia’s current expertise.
The European Union and NATO began dealing with Russian disinformation interference by setting up special units to analyze and debunk fabricated falsehoods. NATO founded a modest facility in Latvia to respond to disinformation (Mendel, 2013) and, following agreement by heads of state and governments in March 2015, the EU created the European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force, which publishes weekly reports in its website “EU vs Disinfo.” The website and its partners identified and debunked over 3,500 pro-Kremlin disinformation cases between 2015 and November 2017 (EU vs Disinfo, 2018). Facebook believes that as many as 126 million users have seen content from Russian disinformation campaigns on its platform. Twitter has said that it has found 36,000 bots spreading tweets related to the 2016 American election (Neuman, 2017). Elsewhere, Russia has used social media to destabilize former Soviet states such as the Ukraine and other Western nations such as France and Spain (Zakem, 2017).
The demise of newspapers and the rise of the internet has changed the way we get our information. It has also allowed any statement to be claimed as true, without citing a source or foundation. Why is this? Americans habitually seek “popular information,” and this opens the door to sinister forces, including but not limited to the Russian government, to undermine our democracy by promoting political disinformation online. The NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights published a detailed account of Russian government efforts entitled, “Combating Russian Disinformation: The Case for Stepping Up the Fight Online” (Barrett, Wadhwa, Baumann-Pauly, 2018). For an almost complete understanding of what is going on between Russia and the U.S. on the internet, this report should be read, and its proposed remedy should be considered.
With the deep political and cultural polarization that now exists in our society, the Russian government believes that it can capitalize to stir discontent, suspicion and paranoia among American citizens to the extent that they no longer believe or support their government. What enforces this belief of Russia is that the internet leads the viewer into what has been called “filter bubbles,” where readers seek information that supports their political predilections. This didn’t exist when there were only newspapers and magazines as an information source. There is little doubt that news consumed via filter bubbles on social media and partisan websites have sharpened and exaggerated the political and cultural polarized divides.
Nevertheless, the Russian bot plant that Hillary Clinton was a sex addict (not taking into account her age) and that she participated in out of bound sexual activities probably did not turn one vote against her. While numerous individuals took it as true, each probably already had a prejudgment of her and would not vote for her. This was a popular rumor on social media, but there has never been one iota of evidence that such a rumor is true and no source of validity offered. Perhaps the political value is just in the saying of it.
The Russian disinformation campaign against America has evolved with some degree of sophistication. Clearly, they have their psychologists working on targeted psychological profiles, as to how to undermine the democratic electoral process and create in Americans discomfort and disbelief in their government. Between June 2015 and August 2017, millions of Americans were exposed to Facebook ads (and this is just one internet platform example), generated by Russian operatives who sought to influence voter behavior and exploit divisions in American society on hot-button issues. A number of ads released during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on November 1 reveal how the Russians used Facebook “advertiser tools,” as well as free posts, to target people by their interests, political leanings, location, age and other traits. It must be remembered that the goal is not so much to win a certain election as it is to intensify polarization and hate for one of a different opinion. Here are some examples:
The ads are targeted to a predilection of a person’s interest and attitude, i.e., Someone who “likes” patriotism > A Bernie Sanders supporter > A Texan > A person in Ferguson, Mo. > A New Yorker supporting a group that mimicked Black Lives Matter > A New Yorker supporting Trump > Someone who “likes” Muslims in America > Someone who supports veterans > An LGBT supporter > A Southern conservative > A Christian conservative > A civil rights supporter > Opposed to Muslim immigration > An NRA supporter > Someone who “likes” the page Being Patriotic > Supportive of strong borders > A Hillary Clinton Supporter:
If you were… Someone who “likes” patriotism…
“Border Patrol agents in South Texas arrested an illegal alien from Honduras that had previously been deported and convicted of Rape Second Degree.
“Thanks to Obama’s and Hillary’s policy, illegals come here because they wait for amnesty promised. The wrong course had been chosen by the American government, but all those politicians are too far from the border to see who actually sneaks through it illegally.
“Rapists, drug dealers, human traffickers, and others. The percent of innocent poor families searching for a better life is too small to become an argument for amnesty and Texas warm welcome.” (Don’t Mess With TX Border Patrol).
• First run: Aug. 4, 2016
• Groups targeted: Ages 18-65+
• Interests targeted: Independence, patriotism
• Location targeted: Texas
If you were a Bernie Sanders supporter…
“If you ask me about the Clinton Foundation, do I have a problem when a sitting secretary of state and a foundation run by her husband collects many millions of dollars from foreign governments, many governments which are dictatorships… yeah, I do,” Sanders said in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN.
So, Bernie has the point. I appreciate the way he maintains his independent opinion in spite of all the pressure that is on him as the ‘second Democratic option’. Because…” (Born Liberal)
• First run: June 8, 2016
• Groups targeted: Ages 18-65+
• Interests targeted: Bernie Sanders
If you were a Texan…
“Fellow Texans! It’s time to say a strong NO to the establishment robbers. It is unacceptable for us to see them ruin all we’ve been building for decades. For centuries. The establishment thinks they can treat us like stupid sheep but they are wrong. We won’t put up with this anymore. The corrupt media does not talk about the crimes committed by Killary Rotten Clinton, neither does it mention the leaked emails but it would rather keep on kicking around (…) Get ready to Secede!” (Heart of Texas)
• First run: Oct. 26, 2016
• Groups targeted: Ages 18-65+
• Interests targeted: People who like Heart of Texas
• Locations targeted: Texas
A New Yorker supporting Trump
“Hillary Clinton is the co-author of Obama’s anti-police and anti-Constitutional propaganda. Down with Hillary!” (Being Patriotic)
• First run: July 12, 2016
• Groups targeted: 18-65+
• Interests targeted: Donald Trump, Donald Trump for President, Donald Trump, Jr.
• Locations targeted: New York City
If you were someone who supports veterans…
“Hillary Clinton has a 69 percent disapproval rate among all veterans. Indeed, there are many reasons for it. First of all, Benghazi: four people died on her watch and she did not send help. Secondly, Hillary refused to apologize to all veterans, when she has made several remarks about veterans ‘embellishing’ the situation at the VA. Finally, Hillary is the only one politician (except Barack Obama) who is despised by the overwhelming majority of American veterans. If Hillary becomes the President of the US, the American army should be withdrawn from Hillary’s control according to the amendments to the Constitution” (Heart of Texas).
• Interests targeted: Supporting veterans, independence, patriotism
• Locations targeted: Texas
If you were a Christian conservative…
“Today Americans are able to elect a president with godly moral principles. Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is. And even though Donald Trump isn’t a saint by any means, he’s at least an honest man and he cares deeply for this country. My vote goes for him!” (Army of Jesus)
• First run: Oct. 19, 2016
• Groups targeted: Ages 18-65+
• Interests targeted: Laura Ingraham, God, Ron Paul, Christianity, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Breitbart, Bible, Conservatism, Michael Savage, Faith, Mike Huckabee, Jesus
If you were a civil rights supporter…
“Danny Williams, 30, has been trying since at least 1999 to be acknowledged as the out-of-wedlock son of former President Bill Clinton and a black prostitute in Little Rock, Arkansas.” (Glum, 2017)
• First run: Oct. 18, 2016
• Interests targeted: Martin Luther King, Jr, African-American civil rights Movement, African-American history, Malcom X
These are a mere sample of the ads. Russian operatives bought them and many, many more during the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath. While it may look like “politics as usual,” you have to look at the psychological nuances and understand what the Russians are really after—polarization, paranoia, distrust of all politicians and government. Facebook has said these ads were created by the Internal Research Agency, a troll farm in St. Petersburg. There are hundreds more.
It is time that Americans developed an easily accessible fact-checking system and use it.
Barrett, P. M. Wadhwa T. Baumann-Pauly D. (2018). Combating Russian Disinformation: The Case for Stepping Up the Fight Online. New York: NUY Stern. Retrieved from: https://issuu.com/nyusterncenterforbusinessandhumanri/docs/nyu_stern_cbhr_combating_russian_di?e=31640827/63115656
“Disinformation”, English Oxford dictionaries. (2016). Oxford: Oxford University Press
EU vs Disinfo. (2018). Retrieved from https://euvsdisinfo.eu/
Mendell, Ronald L. (2013). “Disinformation”. Investigating Information-based Crimes. Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd, p. 45.
Neuman, Scott. (2017, November 14). Russia Using Disinformation To ‘Sow Discord In West,’ Britain’s Prime Minister Says. NPR.org, Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/11/14/564013066/russia-using-disinformation-to-sow-discord-in-west-britains-prime-minister-says
Zakem, Vera (2017, January 6). How Russia’s Disinformation Campaign Could Extend Its Tentacles. NPR.org, Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2017/01/06/508032496/how-russias-disinformation-campaign-could-extend-its-tentacles
• Army of Jesus. Retrieved from https://democrats-intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/6053177352305.pdf
• Being Patriotic. Retrieved from https://democrats-intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/anti_hrc_event_.pdf
• Born Liberal. Retrieved from https://democrats-intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/6052444182463.pdf
• Don’t Mess With TX Border Patrol. Retrieved from https://democrats-intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/6047937080773.pdf
• Glum, J. (2017, November 1). Russian Facebook Ads: Photos Show Fake News Posts Promoted A Bernie Sanders Coloring Book, Texas Secession. Newsweek. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/russia-facebook-ads-fake-news-congressional-hearings-698969
• Heart of Texas. Retrieved from https://democrats-intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/6052584843973_partially_redacted.pdf
• Heart of Texas. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/2016Q1RussianFacebookAds_20180520/2016-q2/2016-05/P%281%290002670_djvu.txt
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