Did you know that foreign intelligence agents are actively using social media to influence what you believe? It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s not.
It’s time to learn about when this Russian intelligence activity started, how to identify whether an ad or social post is potentially foreign propaganda, and how to protect yourself.
Foreign Propaganda Isn’t New
At the end of 2017, it became public knowledge that a Russian propaganda factory known as the Internet Research Agency had been actively distributing disinformation on major social networks during the 2016 US presidential election. While there’s a lot of online angst about foreign ads and “fake news” on social media targeting potential voters in the 2016 election, there’s something important missing from most reports:
This isn’t the first time foreign state-run organizations have attempted to influence the “hearts and minds” of the American people.
As far back as the mid-1980s, the KGB initiated a campaign of a kind the intelligence community calls “active measures”. That is, using some form of truth—that there was a growing AIDS epidemic around the world—and injecting misinformation into the media about it.
The goal of the Russian AIDS disinformation campaign was the same as most active measures that came before it. It was intended to influence foreign individuals and organizations to weaken US credibility and create anti-Americanism globally.
The Russian disinformation campaign sought to convince the world that the United States created the AIDS virus at Fort Detrick.
The propaganda contended that it was part of an effort to target and kill individuals based on their race and sexual orientation.
This is not a conspiracy. It was a Russian propaganda campaign revealed to the CIA via a senior East European intelligence officer who defected in 1968. It went by the name of Operation INFEKTION.
The story the defector told, and the CIA’s full analysis and evidence-gathering around Operation INFEKTION, was outlined in a full report, published in the agency’s December 2009 edition of Studies in Intelligence.
Russian Propaganda and the 2016 Election
So what was unique about the 2016 election that brought Russian “active measures” to light?
Without getting into the politics, it’s likely that regardless which party lost the election, Russian active measures would have come to light as the losing party analyzed it’s long media campaign.
What either side was going to discover, to the shock of analyists and the American public, is that the major front for Russian disinformation campaigns is now social media.
One example of this was Twitter account @TEN_GOP, created by the now-known Russian disinformation “troll-factory” internet Research Agency. It regularly issued tweets that were disparaging toward the Democratic party and President Obama.
This isn’t to say that one political party benefits Russian interests more than the other. Most of the ads and fake news stories were more focused on promoting conspiracy theories that weaken US credibility and create anti-Americanism.
For example, if you can convince a majority of the world that a former State Secretary is an evil person and potentially a criminal, what does that say about the US State Department and its activities across the world?
Actual party politics are irrelevant when it comes to foreign “active measures” campaigns.
The goal is almost always the same. It’s to convince a skeptical population that the United States (or whatever country is targeted), is an unethical, non-credible government that should not be trusted.
You can see this when you look past the face value of these messages. They weren’t primarily to support a specific party or platform, but to instill distrust and even contempt toward the government. This was more apparent in some ads than others.
The evidence for this foreign intelligence activity is now overwhelming.
In February, NBC News release a database of 200,000 deleted tweets from accounts that are now known to be sourced from Russian intelligence.
If you use any social media platform—whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram—it’s important to understand what this means for you, personally.
The deletion of these accounts doesn’t mean the threat is gone. In fact, it’s very likely that there are many thousands more accounts out there that are actively spreading propaganda meant to influence what you believe about your government.
Pro-Gun and Anti-Gun Propaganda
While the election brought the influence of Russian active measures into the public spotlight, the activity hasn’t stopped. Nor does it show any signs of slowing.
At the end of 2017, the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee released a collection of Russian linked Facebook ads. They were not all election related. Most were positioned to capitalize on some national crisis, working to fuel public disagreement about an issue.
Most posts are very much the definition of troll-like behavior.
The superficial purpose of these posts is to spark debate on controversial issues. The real intent is much more sinister.
Bret Schafer, a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy told Wired that the root motive for every single one of these ads boils down to a Kremlin agenda.
“That [sparking debate] allows them to then push content that is more directly related to the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda. I don’t think the Kremlin cares one way or another whether we enact stricter gun control laws. It’s just being used as bait, basically.”
Knowing everything we now know about what Russian social media disinformation looks like, it’s easier to identify content that’s most likely from the Kremlin.
It’s also easier to protect yourself from them.
Are You Vulnerable to Disinformation?
There are actions you can take right now to protect yourself from any future “active measures” that come out of the Kremlin.
First, it’s important to accept that this is a reality. Social media is a primary intelligence battleground where agents both foreign and domestic are fighting for control of your heart and mind. This isn’t a conspiracy theory.
Facebook and Instagram
Thanks to the public outcry about all of this following the 2016 election, every major social network took actions to protect its membership from known accounts linked to Russian intelligence services.
Facebook provides a tool for you to check whether you’ve ever liked or followed an account that is now known to be linked to the Russian internet Research Agency.
At the bottom of the form, there’s an option to log into your Instagram account to see if anything you’ve liked there is linked to the IRA as well.
If you do spot any pages or accounts in this tool, it’s a sign that you’re susceptible to the tactics these agents use. If so, it’s that much more important to follow the advice below and protect youself from these intelligence attacks.
Twitter hasn’t provided a similar tool yet, but they reportedly emailed thousands of account users who unknowingly interacted with accounts run by the IRA.
Tumblr recently released a long list of accounts that were identified as being linked to state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. This list is maintained by Tumblr and updated frequently.
If you use Tumblr, make sure to cross check this list to see if you’ve fallen for any of the disinformation spread by these accounts.
In 2017, Google reported to Congress that over 1,100 YouTube videos were distributed by Russian-linked groups during the 2016 election.
While YouTube doesn’t provide a list of the accounts suspected as being state-sponsored disinformation, it has pledged to label all videos coming from state-sponsored broadcasters.
How to Protect Yourself Against Propaganda
Whether or not you’ve fallen for state-sponsored disinformation in the past, you can use the following tips to protect yourself from these kinds of social media posts moving forward.
Recognizing Potential Fake News
Nearly all disinformation campaigns are built to capitalize on something that will trigger a large group of people in an emotional way. This is why politics, religion, and race are so often used.
One example of this was in 2014, when disinformation agents fabricated a fake news account of a chemical explosion taking place in Louisiana. The goal was to tap into public fears about terrorism.
Note: The following Twitter account is shut down now, but the following fake news tweet was pulled from the Internet Archive.
Consider how elaborate this hoax was. The disinformation agents created all of the following fake “evidence”.
A wide range of sources fueled these rumors:
- YouTube video with fake CNN footage
- Tweets directed toward Louisiana journalists
- SMS messages sent to local residents
Eventually, the company released a public statement that no such explosion had taken place.
Only Sharing From Original Sources
With that level of proof, how do you not react by retweeting or reposting the news?
Taking the following steps will stop the spread of fake news accounts in their tracks.
- Go directly to the source. If a link on Facebook or Twitter links to what looks like a news website, close the browser tab. Launch a new browser tab, go directly to the news website, and search for news on the event. If nothing turns up, you were likely looking at a fake news page. Facebook also offers tips to identify fake news.
- Don’t respond emotionally. These social media posts are crafted to trigger people who hold strong beliefs on gun laws, racial injustice, or even people who are anxious about acts of terrorism. When you feel yourself responding emotionally to a post, take a step back and think critically. Is the story realistic? Can you identify the original source? Is there actual evidence on authentic news sites or mainstream blogs that prove the claim is authentic?
- Repost source sites, not posts. Make a pledge to yourself to never use a “retweet” or “repost” button again. Instead, click on the link, verify that the source is an authentic and reliable source, and then share the original source instead. If everyone made this a habit, most of the fake news spread throughout social media would die off quickly.
Clicking on original source links let you confirm that the link goes to a real news website and not a fake one.
From the original page, you can then share the link with your friends.
If the URL looks fishy (it’s an alternative spelling of the real URL or has a strange subdomain), then close the tab and search the actual news site for the story before sharing it.
If you’ve ever been duped by those “dead celebrity” posts that crop up every now and then, you know how annoying it can be to be tricked by fake news.
Don’t contribute to the problem by sharing what could be fake news!
Identifying Fake Accounts
State-sponsored social media propaganda factories are becoming very clever in their approach to developing fake online profiles that look like non-Russian accounts.
You’ll find one of the following types of profiles running these state-sponsored accounts.
- Bot: A bot is a fully automated account that agents program to retweet or repost the accounts run by human disinformation agents.
- Sockpuppet: A sockpuppet is a secondary account that disinformationists make to look like it’s a different individual engaging in a conversation. In reality, it’s just the original profile pretending to engage in a real conversation or debate with someone.
- Fake Profile/Troll: The most common type of account used by state-sponsored disinformation agents are fake profiles. Disinformationists create the account to appear as though it’s someone who lives somewhere in the US.
To make these profiles appear authentic, they’ll even create a number of sockpuppet accounts to friend or follow the original.
On Facebook they’ll create a small number of seemingly mundane posts about their lives. Many of them even create very basic web pages as well, especially if they want to give the appearance of running some kind of activist organization or company.
In most cases the profiles and the web pages are very thin on actual content, and most of them suspiciously only have content going back for a few years or less.
The War of Ideas
Many westerners naively believed that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the end of the Cold War, and with it the end of the kind of spy games that went on during that era.
The reality is that the governments of many countries in the world continue to take part in spy games like active measures and psychological operations against the citizens of other countries.
It’s generally acknowledged that the CIA and MI6 work hard to influence foreign elections in other countries through covert measures.
It would be naive of us to believe that just because we’re citizens of a developed Western country, that we’re protected from the same sort of covert actions from other governments.
If you’re worried about fake news, make sure to check out our list of most trusted news sites and sources. There are also fact-checking services cropping up all the time, like Bing’s new fact-checking service.
Image Credit: belchonock/Depositphotos