With the election only five months away, the US has no idea how to defend itself against Russia
A fortnight ago, the West had a chance to look into the Russian online influence crystal ball that is Ukraine, when several Russian-controlled bot farms were uncovered within its borders and shut down. Using 40,000 SIM-cards housed at 12 addresses across the country, more than 10,000 bot accounts had been spreading messages designed to undermine the Ukrainian government.
For years, Ukraine has been Russia’s disinformation laboratory, the Cassandra of the information war. And what does this glimpse prophesies? It should warn us that despite greater public awareness, increased attention from social media platforms, and millions of dollars of government investments to counter hostile influence campaigns, disinformers in Russia and other adversarial states have not been deterred. They have adapted. And now the American presidential election is in their sights.
I was living in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, before the last US election, in 2016. Disinformation was already part of daily life there; I watched as the country attempted to defend itself against Russian attacks, not only on the physical battlefield, where a war that Russia instigated claimed thousands of lives, but in the information space as well. These attacks showed no signs of letting up in Ukraine, or across Europe. If anything, online warfare was intensifying. It seemed that every day a Ukrainian was telling me the United States ignored Eastern and Central Europe’s struggles at its own peril. Information warfare does not respect international borders. I knew it would reach us soon, too.
Revelations about the extent of Russia’s influence campaign and the vulnerability of American society to disinformation did indeed flood our collective consciousness after election night. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s collusion investigation details the Internet Research Agency’s now infamous “social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States”, as well as the Russian intelligence service’s hack-and-leak operations, and attempts by the Russian government to influence the Trump campaign itself.
But the United States’ and its Western allies’ understanding of the disinformation concept has barely evolved since it first entered collective awareness four years ago. You can tell by the language used. In unsophisticated fashion, governments and media outlets still describe Russia as having “hacked” the US election. They discuss Russian “bots” and “trolls” interchangeably, without knowing what either word means (a bot is an inauthentic automated account controlled by lines of code; a troll is controlled by a human). Russian ads spread “fake news,” they say, and they’re ready to do it again.
The trouble is, most of these assertions are misconceptions or blunt shorthand that don’t help voters understand how they are being targeted and manipulated. Russian operatives create informational chaos without the deployment of cut-and-dry “fakes”. In fact, fake news describes only a sliver of Russian influence operations. The most convincing Russian narratives, and indeed, the most successful, in both Central and Eastern Europe and the United States, are narratives grounded in truth which exploit the divisions in societies.
These truths can be undisputed facts or the perceived realities of life for marginalised populations that Russian operations target. So, in Estonia, in 2007, Russian media amplified and exacerbated the complaints of ethnic Russians toward the post-independence Estonian government about the opportunities available to them as Russian speakers. In Poland, Russia continues to fuel conspiracy theories about the 2010 plane crash that killed the Polish president and 100 members of the country’s political elite. And as Ukraine continues to pursue democratic reform, Russia’s disinformation amplifies well-founded accusations of corruption, seeking to undermine the post-revolution Ukrainian government and its legitimacy at home and abroad. And American vulnerabilities around race, income, sexuality, and geography continue to fuel Russian operations in the United States.
Contrary to popular understanding, these campaigns never ran on malicious bots and ads purchased in rubles alone; emotion is their primary currency. This has, in fairness, become clearer to US audiences in recent months as Russia and now China have amplified discord and government missteps amid the Covid-19 infodemic and George Floyd protests.
Even so, Americans and their government have been slow to recognise that disinformers are adapting their tactics. From bot farms in Ukraine, to the co-opting of local organisations in Nigeria and Ghana, and the use of American Facebook Groups to sow discord, Russia has been constantly re-writing the disinformation playbook to make their operations more difficult to track and counteract.
Popular awareness lags woefully behind. This is reflected in our response to the attacks. In its missteps and hesitance, combined with a desire for an easy fix, the United States has effectively abdicated leadership of this critical issue. Where it ought to have been setting the rules of engagement, the tone, and the moral compass in responding to Russia’s information war, the United States has been a tardy, timid, or tertiary player, with any efforts stymied by domestic politicisation.
One consequence of American political acrimony is that its lawmakers have effectively issued social media companies a “get out of jail free” card for their role in the erosion of our information ecosystem, the demise of democratic debate, and their complicity in the spread of disinformation. In Britain, politicians have launched well-informed inquiries and attempted to hold social media platforms to account, and the Government is in the midst of crafting social media regulations that keep users’ democratic rights at their core; but in the United States, regulation has become a partisan issue, understood through the lens of alleged bias on platforms, ignoring the fact that disinformation knows no political party.
As a result, with the 2020 election only five months away, the United States is still vulnerable to Russia. Basic election security legislation, including the Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill that would mandate transparency around online political advertising, languishes in the Senate, politicised by the Republican majority, which refuses to put it on the agenda. Social media platforms have been forced into action by an irate public and are now engaged in a furious game of Whack-a-Troll, removing accounts and networks that clearly violate their terms of service. But they are slow to adapt to the disinformers’ rewritten playbooks.
The biggest failing of the past four years, however, comes from the US government itself: it has has eschewed its responsibility to protect equitable, democratic discourse at home and abroad. No single US government agency or entity holds the reins in the American response to Russian disinformation at home. And any attempts that have been made — sparse, disparate and uncoordinated — do not have the support from the President or his closest advisers.
In April last year, for example, The New York Times reported that top officials charged with protecting US elections were told not to bring up their work in front of the President, who views any discussion of Russian interference as an attack on the legitimacy of his administration. Even outside of this, there is a stark incongruity between what the President says and what his administration does. How can US allies, or moreover, the American people, trust that the Trump administration’s efforts to protect the democratic process are adequate or legitimate when Trump praises and jokes with Putin?
Even if Trump were to give a speech from the Oval Office today decrying nefarious efforts to influence our democratic process, urging Congress to fund election security measures and pass common sense online advertising regulations, we would still be on the back foot. That’s because he defines the problem as something being done to us, rather than a weaponisation of our own weaknesses.
The investments we so desperately need to repair the fissures in our society that bad actors manipulate — in media and digital literacy, critical thinking, civics, and journalism as a public good — have been neglected at best. More often, this administration has actively divested from these projects.
Until our elected officials begin to once again respect the truth, then, it is up to us, the people — at protests, in the voting booth — to remind them it exists. It would be easy to check out, to seek entertainment instead of information as many of us have done during the incessant flow of coronavirus information over the past three months. It would be easy to shirk our civic duties and ignore democratic discourse entirely. But unless we want to live in an autocracy, it really is time to make sure we are heard.
This essay is adapted from Nina Jankovitz’s book, How to Lose the Information War (Bloomsbury/IBTauris).