Disinformation Campaigns and the Internet: Who to Trust?

El Lissitzky’s Lenin Tribute, 1924. Source

In recent years, American journalists have increasingly publicized Russian efforts to influence public opinion online through targeted disinformation campaigns and hacking attempts. However, these kinds of state-sanctioned programs are not new, nor are they the sole province of former KGB agents.

Over the course of the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the nations of the “Free World” orchestrated massive campaigns to persuade, dissuade and mobilize populations both domestically and abroad. American intelligence agencies actively financed and enthe publication of anti-Soviet materials, in one notable case translating and publishing “Doctor Zhivago” in English despite the protests of Russian author Boris Pasternak. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union sent KGB agents like Oleg Kalugin to America to write articles on crime, homelessness and drug use – articles later published internationally and domestically to discredit capitalism.

Since the end of the Cold War, all that has changed are the methods that nation-states employ. Whereas a printing press or TV network was once required, now a single computer can disseminate reams of false information. In the modern age of disinformation, members of the Russian citizenry are hired to generate, sustain and draw traffic to false news stories, as well as to genuine stories that highlight the failings of Russia’s enemies. American journalist Adrien Chen was one of the first to publicize these efforts in his article “The Agency,” published in the New York Times in 2015. This is in addition to more visible and direct forms of propaganda, such as the efforts of Russia Today exposed by journalist Liz Wahl in March 2014.

The Moscow Kremlin, image credit Russian Federation. Source

Operating scores of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, these веб-бригады (web-brigades) use their internet presence to manipulate popularity-based algorithms, throwing their weight behind stories advantageous to Russian interests.

These веб-бригады, much like their Soviet forebears, have also done much to highlight and inflame the divisions between citizens of Western democracies. According to Chen, this includes false reports of an ebola outbreak in Atlanta, Georgia, and of a chemical spill in Louisiana.

In the political sphere, Russian agents have also sought to falsely depict members of the European Union as “fascist state[s],” according to the EU vs. Disinformation website. The EU vs. Disinformation campaign was founded by the EU’s East StratCom Task Force in the wake of Russian defamation efforts in 2015.

These agents also helped to sow confusion during the American 2016 presidential election, though the extent of their involvement (and of their effectiveness) is as of yet unknown, tabled for the moment while investigators focus on hacking attempts confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security and cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike.

Russia has taken a notably active role in exploiting the opportunities for disinformation and propaganda afforded by the growth of social media, yet it is far from the only actor involved in this space. Other nation-states are equally active on social media, dispatching their own agents and building their own networks of fake accounts. Businesses employ similar methods to market their products and to denigrate their competition.

With all of this manufactured noise, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish false “buzz” from a legitimate public response. Unfortunately, there seems to be little internet consumers can do beyond applying a healthy dose of skepticism to any and all content.