The State of Information Warfare Part II: The Manchurian Candidates

Erik Nolan Americas, Analysis, Conflict & Security, Russia & FSU Leave a Comment

In the first part of the State of Information Warfare, an overview of data mining and active measures demonstrated how even simple pieces of user data from social media could be formulated to construct highly detailed and accurate psychographic profiles on individuals who could then be targeted with specific messages to influence their behavior. The subsequent analysis examines the active measures employed by the Russian government on the 2016 American general election as well as the response of the American public.

When formulating an active measure to target the United States, the Russians gave themselves a leg up by choosing a relatively simple objective—to weaken the American public’s faith in the democratic process (which becomes an especially low-hanging fruit around election time). To accomplish this, the Russians simply exploited already existing differences among Americans through social media by managing accounts centered on contentious issues in American society.

This is not a new practice among state intelligence apparatuses, as the use of sock puppets and sympathetic proxies to disseminate propaganda has been a staple of information warfare for decades, if not centuries.  Copious amounts of infographics, tweets, and memes were circulated by Russia’s infamous Internet Research Agency during election season, ranging in topic and political affiliation with the goal to gain as much reach as possible (sock puppets would often take both sides of a controversial issue for increased effect, such as one account promoting American Muslims and another account promoting anti-immigration and nationalism). Some content was low-brow while other content echoed sentiments of legitimate and established political arguments on either side of the aisle. In-person protests were also organized by unwitting sympathizers or cut outs after the elections, with thousands of attendees rallying in support or defiance of Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. When news first came of Russian interference in the election, the real effectiveness of their active measures were realized.

Oftentimes one sees the coup de grace of an active measure not from the actions themselves, but from the reactions of the target after the fact. This can be quite plainly illustrated by the response of the American government to the news of Russian interference. Contrary to what may appear at first to be a covert operation, Russian active measures were likely constructed specifically to prompt a thorough investigation by the United States government into the election to engender even more sectionalism in American domestic and international political discourse throughout the process.

Consider, for instance, the IRA’s purchase of Facebook advertisements in Rubles, the native Russian currency. Ordinarily, a surreptitious propaganda campaign would seek to mask its money trail as much as possible, especially if the operation originated from a country which has historically maintained one of the world’s most formidable and effective intelligence agencies. However, the throwaway use of rubles in purchasing political advertisements for display in the 2016 election season left enough “breadcrumbs” that American investigators followed the trail back to Moscow. This was enough to propagate the idea amongst several partisans and detractors of the Trump administration that there may have been collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. While the Mueller investigation has not yet found any evidence of collusion between the White House and the Kremlin, several campaigners and associates of Trump have come in the crosshairs for other violations in the course of the investigation.

Additionally, one could view the very public patronage of Alexander Torshin—a former member of Russia’s legislative Federal Assembly and Kremlin-linked oligarch—to the National Rifle Association with some healthy skepticism. Over the course of six years, Torshin donated substantial amounts of money to the controversial American civil rights group and consistently divulged his ties to the American political sphere on social media, even becoming a political observer in the 2012 American Presidential election. Revelations of his association with the NRA undoubtedly deepened divisions between Americans over a nuanced and passionate domestic political issue.

Another oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg (who has been sanctioned by the United States since the election), recently came under Mueller’s scrutiny after it was revealed that an affiliate corporation of his made payments to Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Columbus Nova, the firm which made the payments, is headquartered and operated in the U.S. by Americans, and the transfers were sent to an account that Cohen used to pay former adult-film star Stormy Daniels. While the payments were made well after the election, the controversy this has generated sublimely plays into Moscow’s hands.

Investigations of Russia’s involvement in the elections, and the Americans’ reactions to their active measures, have stoked partisan vitriol and further cemented the idea that any American person or institution connected to Russia is inherently noxious and suspect. The ability to confuse and pit political entities against each other—exemplified by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s Minority report on the Russian investigation, or the introduction of a campaign speech reform bill—demonstrates that the after effects of the active measures were and continue to be substantially successful at withering confidence in the United States’ democratic institutions. This is further compounded by international developments such as Trump’s decision to renege on the JCPOA and impose sanctions on Iran; a move that alienates Washington from its allies abroad.

The active measures taken by Russia during the past election cycle were quite small, compared to other strategic overtures taken in the past, but incredibly effective because the target (and audience) of the operations unwittingly played and continues to play into Moscow’s hands—a result of simple yet sophisticated operational design. The American public thus arguably aided Russia in undermining its own influence and ability to project power.

About the Author

Erik Nolan

Erik Nolan is a director and senior analyst at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. An alumnus of Concordia University with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, his research interests include nuclear arms proliferation and deterrence.

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