Russian Propagandists Use Social Media to Inflict Cyber Harm on Americans

Most Americans are aware of Russia’s internet meddling with the reputation of candidates in the 2016 Presidential election. In the run up to election day in 2016, slanderous remarks were posted by trolls posing as opponents to Hillary Clinton. Other trolls posted character attacks on Presidential candidate Trump. Both sides urged readers to vehemently contradict each other. Russia need not believe any of its malicious propaganda, since the goal is to create scrappy disputes and disrespect for other Americans. The Presidential campaign raid was one of the many cyberattacks launched by Russian agents.

China spreads misinformation about its own virtues, but Russia uses cyberattacks to sow disinformation about the U.S. and to create heated political arguments between Americans. We already have too much partisan hostility.

Since the 2016 election, Russian attacks have continued to sow dissatisfaction and distrust among Americans. Those postings are about equally split among pro- and con-positions on topics such as gun ownership, religion, immigration, and President Trump. The employer of the trolls had been at the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a private company in Olgino near St. Petersburg. The IRA is thought to be owned by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an ally of President Putin. The nominally private nature of the company allows President Putin to claim the Russian government is not the source of the cyberattacks.

Russia also fueled public bickering over vaccinations. “Russian trolls and bots on Twitter attempted to influence the debate over vaccine safety with the aim of sowing discord among the US public.” The safety and desirability of vaccinations for children has been a settled issue for decades, but after a noticeable increase in troll-fueled online arguments over vaccine safety, an outbreak in Clark County, Washington followed. The county’s 50 cases were a surprise to public health officials because measles had been considered almost eradicated. In less than 3 months this year, the CDC counted 228 cases of measles in 12 states – almost as many as in all of 2018. The arguments fostered by trolls persuaded a few more gullible or arrogant parents to rely on their intuition rather than medical science. As a result of trolls’ troublemaking, children are suffering.

The goals of Russia are truly hostile. Russia uses English-language social media to challenge the resolve of NATO,” create distrust in the U.S. electoral system, and exacerbate disagreements and divisions between the U.S. and the European Union.

Russian propaganda is disseminated into the U.S. through Russian TV (in Russian for Russian ex-pats) and in English (through Tass). The Moscow Times seems to be an unbiased reporter. Beyond traditional media, Russian trolls hold multiple accounts in American social media from which they can post, comment on, and “like” each other’s assignments. Russian agents have also purchased advertising, but since rules now require the authentication of advert buyers, adverts are less useful to propagandizers.

Last year on the night before the 2018 midterm elections, “U.S. hackers managed to infect one of IRA’s internal IT servers where the intruders destroyed a disk array controller and wiped clean two of the four hard drives attached to it.” The damage was inflicted to prevent IRA from influencing the voting process the next day. No doubt we can expect similar tactics before the 2020 Presidential election.

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