WASHINGTON (CN) – Against the documented evidence of Russia’s use of cyberhacking to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election, another technique called disinformation has proved more difficult to track.
In modern American discourse the concept is new ground, but European think tanks and government agencies have been tracking Russian disinformation for years.
“The ultimate goal of Kremlin hostile influence and disinformation operations is to weaken its opponents’ will to resist,” Jakub Janda, deputy director of nonpartisan think tank European Values, explained in an email from Prague. “Simply to manipulate the West, its politicians and its societies to stop resisting invasions of the Russian Federation to foreign countries.
In Europe, the East StratCom Task Force issues a “Disinformation Review” every week, giving a round-up of pro-Kremlin disinformation in Europe and beyond.
And months before the Brexit vote, in which Great Britain voted to leave the European Union, the UK-based Institute for Statecraft documented a pro-Brexit campaign led by Russian state-run television channel RT and the Russian propaganda Sputnik newswire.
RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is a major focus of an unclassified summary released Friday of the intelligence community report from the CIA, NSA and FBI on Russia’s interference in U.S. politics.
Russia for its part denies the allegations that it hacked into the Democratic National Convention, and also denies that it interferes in democracies in Europe.
But Friday’s report says RT airs anti-U.S. messaging with the goal of undermining trust in American democratic procedures and undercut “U.S. criticism of Russia’s political system.”
Janda at European Values explained that disinformation practices have a similar objective: “to disintegrate the U.S. and drive a wedge between Europe and the U.S.”
In addition to legitimizing Russian policies domestically and abroad, Janda said these efforts boost Kremlin-friendly politicians and denigrate politicians who resist Kremlin aggression – like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ben O’Loughlin, professor of politics and international relations at Royal Halloway University of London, said in an email that RT is one component of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “hybrid-war model of using all means available to extend Russia’s power and influence.”
Because Russia lacks the resources to transform RT into the equivalent of CNN or the BBC, however, O’Laughlin said it instead “turned to a strategy of undermining our attachment to the idea there are facts.”
“RT mocks Western media for trying to offer news that is ‘objective’ or ‘factual,’” O’Laughlin continued. “All news is from some perspective so why believe any news organization is giving you the whole truth?”
Western policymakers initially laughed at RT, but O’Loughlin said Russia has been ramping up that strategy since 2015.
Sarah Oates, a journalism professor who studies Russian media at Maryland University, called RT a propaganda outlet.
“It’s not a news channel,” Oates said in a phone interview. “People get confused about that. RT is one of the most successful propaganda of the Russian state, and indeed of any large state anywhere.”
In addition to relying on a young, international staff, RT has interesting hosts who bring intrigue to boring government propaganda, Oates added.
“But if you look at it, if you actually watch it, it distorts facts,” Oates said. “It’s incredibly anti-American. It’s incredibly anti-Western. It’s funded by the Russian state – that’s what it’s meant to be.”
Janda with European Values noted that RT has low U.S. viewership, but that the Kremlin’s goals sometimes overlap with those of political actors like Breitbart, Wikileaks, hardcore ideological outlets and so-called fake news outlets.
A similar situation is underway in Italy where an anti-establishment political party called the Five-Star Movement is growing in popularity.
Buzzfeed reported this fall that the party has a collection of popular blogs, social-media accounts and self-proclaimed “independent news” outlets that are actually controlled by the party’s leadership. The Russian propaganda machine Sputnik is a preferred source of one of the party’s websites, according to the Nov. 29 article.
As with Breitbart and its ilk, however, Janda said “that doesn’t mean that they should be considered Russian agents.”
Follow the Evidence
The U.S. intelligence community’s believes with “high confidence” that Putin ordered an influence campaign intended to hurt Clinton and boost Trump, but the reputations of the agencies that compiled the report precede them.
Between 1953 and 1973 the CIA has conspired to overthrow seven foreign governments and oversaw a torture program for fighters captured in the War on Terror, many of whom ended up at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention center without charge or trial.
The intelligence failures leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq – coupled with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s fibs to Congress about the extent of the NSA’s domestic spying program – have cast further doubt on the integrity of the intelligence community’s conclusions.
Though chief among the skeptics, President-elect Trump seems to have altered his tune a bit after meeting on Friday with Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Adm. Michael S. Rogers.
On Sunday, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told “Fox News Sunday” that Trump accepts the conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking. Trump has not, however, said whether he believes that Putin ordered the influence campaign.
Janda, who also leads the European Values’ Kremlin Watch program that confronts instruments of Russia’s hybrid war, said he understands American skepticism. However, he says he supports the intelligence community’s “pretty clear conclusions,” including the threat of disinformation.
“I believe the work of Iraq WMD intelligence conclusions was really a screw-up,” he said, abbreviating weapons of mass destruction. Still, he added, skeptics must “follow the evidence.”
Cybersecurity firm Threat Connect and its partner CrowdStrike, identified Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear as the Russian intelligence-affiliated groups breached the DNC network. Though much remains unknown about these groups, the cybersecurity firms have thoroughly documented their findings, which first came to light June 15.
Janda said he believes the conclusions of the intelligence community report because of his own knowledge of Russian interference in Europe. He says Russia manipulates domestic affairs in targeted countries – including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Germany and now the U.S. with its interference in the 2016 election – with intelligence and influence operations.
That includes bribery and intimidation, cyberhacks used to influence the behavior of an electorate – as he says happened in the U.S. – and even decades-long influence operations aimed at specific Western politicians intended to sway them to Kremlin-friendly positions.
Moscow also uses disinformation to weaken the will of the target societies to resist and respond to its aggressions, as he says it did during the invasion of Ukraine.
Propaganda, not Brainwashing
As with Russian cyberhacking, the impact of Russian disinformation is difficult to measure. East StratCom documented an example of it, however, after a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Against the determination by a joint investigative team that pro-Russian separatists shot down MH17 using a Russian anti-aircraft missile system, the Russian government launched a disinformation campaign to obscure this.
“Pro-Kremlin media all over the world have deployed a well-known disinformation tactic in the case of MH17: pushing as many different versions of the story as possible to pollute the information space and make the objective facts seem unrecognizable and subject to different ‘points of view,'” the East StratCom’s Disinformation Digest says.
Bellingcat, a citizen investigative journalist group that uses open-source information and social media to dig into global conflicts, determined in a two-year investigation that the Russian government used fake evidence, including altered satellite images, to obscure its role in the crash, in which all 298 passengers and crew members onboard were killed.
After Bellingcat investigated the MH17 crash, it faced a 2015 spearphising campaign that used tactics consistent with Fancy Bear, one of the Russian intelligence-affiliated groups that has been tied to the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Convention.
“Vilifying the messenger and dumping their personal data is part of the game, intended to intimidate and embarrass those that speak ill of Moscow,” Threat Connect’s assessment of the intrusion states.
“If Russia is willing to go to these lengths to compromise a small journalist organization and its contributors, consider what they are willing to do to major news and media outlets that publish similar articles,” it continues.
Arik Toler was one of three Bellingcat researchers targeted but said in an interview that the threat of Russian disinformation has been largely overblown.
Calling RT’s impact in the United States negligible, Toler noted that the people who watch this outlet are “already convinced.”
“I don’t want to say that Russian disinformation and all that is a totally fake, nonexistent issue because it is an actual issue,” Toler said. “And in a handful of very specific cases we can see how it’s been used successfully. But I think that it’s also incredibly convenient because it hits so many nice little buttons.”
Blaming Russia is an easier pill for Democrats to swallow, Toler said, than owning up to the fact that Hillary Clinton did not spend enough time campaigning in the key swing states she wound up losing to Donald Trump.
Toler did say, however, that he believes Russia almost certainly did give the hacked emails to Wikileaks. He also said this angle has been “overhyped.”
Sarah Oates with Maryland University said she finds the amount of attention surrounding Russian interference problematic.
“It is very difficult for foreign states to have measurable impacts on the domestic policies of another state,” she said. “So it is hard for America to change the course of politics in Russia. And it is also very hard for Russia to change the course of politics in America.”
Despite what she called “compelling evidence” of online manipulation to hurt Clinton and promote Trump, Oates said the threat has been overblown.
“In the end, is that the real problem with the media and politics in America today,” Oates asked. “No. It’s a footnote.”
“They are thrilled that Americans think they can do that,” Oates said of Russia.
O’Loughlin with Royal Halloway University of London downplayed Russia’s influence as well, saying he has seen little evidence that disinformation impacted the Baltic States or had an impact on the Brexit campaign in the UK.
“We also have to be careful to avoid assuming people are idiots and easily brainwashed,” O’Lauhlin said in an email.
“Research actually shows that people often know news is lying to them but they like watching it anyway, and that people’s attitudes rarely change when presented with new information,” he said.
“Rather than deal with people’s actual grievances and engage in difficult political discussion about issues that are hard to solve, leaders take citizens to be infants who need to be protected,” O’Laughlin added.
For Oates, the important lesson that the United States can learn from this is “how much we desperately need our media” to hold the elite to account, to keep citizens informed and to let them know what their choices are.
“There’s a lot of sound and fury about what Trump says about the media and what Trump’s doing to the media,” Oates said. “You know, the media has a lot of problems in this country, but they are still the reason why we are the democracy we are.
“Like many democratic institutions they are vilified,” Oates added. “But they are very, very, very necessary. And they are a lot stronger and better than people give them credit for.”