Inside Russia’s social media war on America – CNBC

That is what Moscow is doing, more than a dozen senior intelligence officials and others investigating Russia’s influence operations tell TIME. The Russians “target you and see what you like, what you click on, and see if you’re sympathetic or not sympathetic,” says a senior intelligence official. Whether and how much they have actually been able to change Americans’ behavior is hard to say. But as they have investigated the Russian 2016 operation, intelligence and other officials have found that Moscow has developed sophisticated tactics.

In one case last year, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, a Russian soldier based in Ukraine successfully infiltrated a U.S. social media group by pretending to be a 42-year-old American housewife and weighing in on political debates with specially tailored messages. In another case, officials say, Russia created a fake Facebook account to spread stories on political issues like refugee resettlement to targeted reporters they believed were susceptible to influence.

As Russia expands its cyberpropaganda efforts, the U.S. and its allies are only just beginning to figure out how to fight back. One problem: the fear of Russian influence operations can be more damaging than the operations themselves. Eager to appear more powerful than they are, the Russians would consider it a success if you questioned the truth of your news sources, knowing that Moscow might be lurking in your Facebook or Twitter feed. But figuring out if they are is hard. Uncovering “signals that indicate a particular handle is a state-sponsored account is really, really difficult,” says Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which tackles global security challenges.

Like many a good spy tale, the story of how the U.S. learned its democracy could be hacked started with loose lips. In May 2016, a Russian military intelligence officer bragged to a colleague that his organization, known as the GRU, was getting ready to pay Clinton back for what President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him five years earlier as Secretary of State. The GRU, he said, was going to cause chaos in the upcoming U.S. election.

What the officer didn’t know, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, was that U.S. spies were listening. They wrote up the conversation and sent it back to analysts at headquarters, who turned it from raw intelligence into an official report and circulated it. But if the officer’s boast seems like a red flag now, at the time U.S. officials didn’t know what to make of it. “We didn’t really understand the context of it until much later,” says the senior intelligence official. Investigators now realize that the officer’s boast was the first indication U.S. spies had from their sources that Russia wasn’t just hacking email accounts to collect intelligence but was also considering interfering in the vote. Like much of America, many in the U.S. government hadn’t imagined the kind of influence operation that Russia was preparing to unleash on the 2016 election. Fewer still realized it had been five years in the making.

In 2011, protests in more than 70 cities across Russia had threatened Putin’s control of the Kremlin. The uprising was organized on social media by a popular blogger named Alexei Navalny, who used his blog as well as Twitter and Facebook to get crowds in the streets. Putin’s forces broke out their own social media technique to strike back. When bloggers tried to organize nationwide protests on Twitter using #Triumfalnaya, pro-Kremlin botnets bombarded the hashtag with anti-protester messages and nonsense tweets, making it impossible for Putin’s opponents to coalesce.

Putin publicly accused then Secretary of State Clinton of running a massive influence operation against his country, saying she had sent “a signal” to protesters and that the State Department had actively worked to fuel the protests. The State Department said it had just funded pro-democracy organizations. Former officials say any such operations–in Russia or elsewhere–would require a special intelligence finding by the President and that Barack Obama was not likely to have issued one.

After his re-election the following year, Putin dispatched his newly installed head of military intelligence, Igor Sergun, to begin repurposing cyberweapons previously used for psychological operations in war zones for use in electioneering. Russian intelligence agencies funded “troll farms,” botnet spamming operations and fake news outlets as part of an expanding focus on psychological operations in cyberspace.

It turns out Putin had outside help. One particularly talented Russian programmer who had worked with social media researchers in the U.S. for 10 years had returned to Moscow and brought with him a trove of algorithms that could be used in influence operations. He was promptly hired by those working for Russian intelligence services, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “The engineer who built them the algorithms is U.S.-trained,” says the senior intelligence official.

Soon, Putin was aiming his new weapons at the U.S. Following Moscow’s April 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. considered sanctions that would block the export of drilling and fracking technologies to Russia, putting out of reach some $8.2 trillion in oil reserves that could not be tapped without U.S. technology. As they watched Moscow’s intelligence operations in the U.S., American spy hunters saw Russian agents applying their new social media tactics on key aides to members of Congress. Moscow’s agents broadcast material on social media and watched how targets responded in an attempt to find those who might support their cause, the senior intelligence official tells TIME. “The Russians started using it on the Hill with staffers,” the official says, “to see who is more susceptible to continue this program [and] to see who would be more favorable to what they want to do.”

On Aug. 7, 2016, the infamous pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli declared that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s. That story went viral in late August, then took on a life of its own after Clinton fainted from pneumonia and dehydration at a Sept. 11 event in New York City. Elsewhere people invented stories saying Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and Clinton had murdered a DNC staffer. Just before Election Day, a story took off alleging that Clinton and her aides ran a pedophile ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor.

Congressional investigators are looking at how Russia helped stories like these spread to specific audiences. Counterintelligence officials, meanwhile, have picked up evidence that Russia tried to target particular influencers during the election season who they reasoned would help spread the damaging stories. These officials have seen evidence of Russia using its algorithmic techniques to target the social media accounts of particular reporters, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “It’s not necessarily the journal or the newspaper or the TV show,” says the senior intelligence official. “It’s the specific reporter that they find who might be a little bit slanted toward believing things, and they’ll hit him” with a flood of fake news stories.

Russia plays in every social media space. The intelligence officials have found that Moscow’s agents bought ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. “They buy the ads, where it says sponsored by–they do that just as much as anybody else does,” says the senior intelligence official. (A Facebook official says the company has no evidence of that occurring.) The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, has said he is looking into why, for example, four of the top five Google search results the day the U.S. released a report on the 2016 operation were links to Russia’s TV propaganda arm, RT. (Google says it saw no meddling in this case.) Researchers at the University of Southern California, meanwhile, found that nearly 20% of political tweets in 2016 between Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 were generated by bots of unknown origin; investigators are trying to figure out how many were Russian.

As they dig into the viralizing of such stories, congressional investigations are probing not just Russia’s role but whether Moscow had help from the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the investigations say they are probing two Trump-linked organizations: Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics company hired by the campaign that is partly owned by deep-pocketed Trump backer Robert Mercer; and Breitbart News, the right-wing website formerly run by Trump’s top political adviser Stephen Bannon.

Inside Russia’s social media war on America – CNBC

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