How Russian Agents Are Showing Up in Your Facebook and Twitter Streams
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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 How Government Propaganda Is Undermining Your Online Security How Government Propaganda Is Undermining Your Online Security Thanks to the internet, government propaganda comes from all directions, and the messages are mixed. In a world of cyber warfare and hacking, who can you trust? Even then, can you really rely on them? Read More .

Russian propaganda on social media

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.

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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 5 Sites That Help You Understand The US Primary Elections 5 Sites That Help You Understand The US Primary Elections The US election results matter almost everywhere. These few sites help you know who is voting when, who won where, and even learn who is likely to win. Read More .

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.

russian agents facebook twitter tweet - tennesee gop

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?

Russian propaganda on social media

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.

Russian agents facebook twitter tweet - blacktivist

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.

Russian agents facebook twitter

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.

Russian agents facebook ad

Most posts are very much the definition of troll-like behavior How To Beat Internet Trolls at Their Own Game How To Beat Internet Trolls at Their Own Game There's a certain subset of people on the Internet who like messing with people just for the sake of doing it. We call them trolls. Read More .

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.

Russian agents facebook twitter - facebook article

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

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

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.

Russian propaganda on social media

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.

YouTube

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 Outrage Porn Is Making You Angry And Dumb, Stop Looking At It Outrage Porn Is Making You Angry And Dumb, Stop Looking At It Revenge porn is articles, pictures, cartoons or other media that are carefully crafted (either intentionally or not) to make people like you very offended, and very angry. Read More 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.

Russian propaganda on social media

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 Facebook Offers Tips to Help You Spot Fake News Facebook Offers Tips to Help You Spot Fake News While Facebook doesn't produce fake news, it's at least partly responsible for its dissemination. Which is why it's now offering tips to help you spot fake news before it spreads. Read More .
  • 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.

Russian propaganda on social media

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.

Russian propaganda on social media

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 How to Spot 7 Online Fakes Used by Scammers How to Spot 7 Online Fakes Used by Scammers You can't trust everything you see online. Here are seven commonly faked elements online and some advice for identifying them. Read More 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 13 Most Trusted News Sites You Should Bookmark 13 Most Trusted News Sites You Should Bookmark We are in an age where we don't trust the people reporting the news. But there are some trustworthy news sources out there. Look at the ones on this list for unbiased reporting. Read More . There are also fact-checking services cropping up all the time, like Bing’s new fact-checking service Microsoft Adds Fake News Fact-Checking to Bing Microsoft Adds Fake News Fact-Checking to Bing Microsoft is jumping on the fake news bandwagon, adding a "Fact Check" label to Bing. And you'll soon see the fruits of these labors in Bing search results. Read More .

Image Credit: belchonock/Depositphotos

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  1. John Smith
    May 4, 2018 at 8:59 am

    Online and offline propaganda from sources hostile to the USA is nothing new, did not happen overnight and all of you who are now hysteric about it dismissed all of us who warned about, accused us of employing McCarthyism, and now you are doing EXACTLY that
    Most of your list have credibility gaps in them, a lot of innocent people were put on them just because they were outspoken or pissed off some activist on social media.

    You are not helping adding more hysteria to this, and some of you really need to layoff whatever you are on, and take off your tinfoil hats.
    Even the conspiracy theory lunatic Alex Jones looks sane compared to some of the people who made claims about others. Everyone they don't like on the Internet must be a Russian bot, or a Nazi. You are helping in killing civil discourse, which is already in danger of being lost forever.
    From reading your combative response to comment criticizing your long conspiracy infested article, it looks like you know you are standing on a shaky ground and what you are arguing and waring about can also be used against you.
    Like I said, not helping.

  2. dragonmouth
    April 27, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    Thank you for that enlightening article, Tailgunner Joe! You see a Russky behind every tree but you ignore the Chinese, North Koreans, Arabs, French and others doing exactly the same things.

    • Ryan Dube
      April 27, 2018 at 5:01 pm

      Ahh, Dragonmouth revealing again that he doesn't actually read the articles he comments on. ;-)

      From the conclusion:
      "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."

    • Ryan Dube
      April 27, 2018 at 5:04 pm

      Notice "other governments" is plural. Just because this one article dove into the Russian aspect of active measures, the conclusion acknowledges that it isn't the only one.

  3. Nik
    April 27, 2018 at 2:14 pm

    You mislead your readers. you strengthen Russophobia, you accuse all Russians of everything, but persistently you do not want to notice crimes and dirty provocations of heads of the USA and the European countries. Absolute stupidity or double standards.

    • Ryan Dube
      April 27, 2018 at 2:22 pm

      Thanks for your feedback.

      My impression is that we've covered the topics of NSA spying and government influence in our social media and other online activities very well, actually. There are plenty of articles across the site that show this.

      This is just one more aspect of this...the influence of foreign governments. There is also plenty of evidence provided here, so nothing listed has been fabricated.