Being Played: Foreign Actors Disrupting Elections by Dividing & Conquering Americans

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

(CN) — America seems as divided as it has been at any point in the post-Civil War era, which begs the question: Is this quagmire of our own making, or have we fallen prey to the designs of a clever adversary?

Researchers from the RAND corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, dug though data surrounding the increasing divisiveness in the United States in recent years to determine if we’re witnessing an organic shift in sentiment thanks to changing times, or if we’re all being played by a nefarious third party. Their report was released on their website Thursday.

RAND discovered a long history dating back to the Revolutionary War of foreign attempts to undermine unity among the American people. The Founding Fathers warned us of such long before Twitter and Facebook showed up at the party. George Washington famously said, “Foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”

The study authors note this isn’t America’s first rodeo, but in recent years Russia has been an especially pernicious agitant, ratcheting up its disinformation campaign with the prowess of a Cold War veteran.

“In 1940, the British covertly intervened in the U.S. presidential election to garner support for U.S. intervention in World War II. And the Soviet Union targeted social movements in the U.S. during the Cold War. What makes today different is that such efforts are easier to do, cheaper to run, and easier to scale than in the past — largely due to the Internet and social media,” said Marek N. Posard, the study’s lead author and a sociologist at RAND, in an email interview.

The Kremlin’s primary goal in sowing discontent among various groups is to polarize each side to the extent that reaching a consensus is no longer feasible. With compromise out of reach, progress is arrested and a stalemate ensues. It’s a bit like tying your opponent’s shoelaces together before a foot race.

To spread propaganda during the Cold War, the KGB inserted operatives into newspapers, think tanks, nonprofits, universities and government agencies, a process that could take years and was vulnerable to discovery. Russian agents can now sit back and run psychological operations campaigns through social media with a few keystrokes and some cleverly programmed bots.

As the situation on the ground changes, Russia can quickly alter its messaging, making this type of disinformation campaign particularly difficult to root out. “Just another bot” has become a de facto online retort.

“That is why preventive practices need to anticipate which subgroups are potential targets of information efforts without publicly shaming these groups or targeting specific individuals,” Posard said. “There is a need for more evidence-based evaluations for these practices. This report recommends a holistic response, that anticipates likely targets by foreign bad actors, and responses that seek to protect these potential targets.”

Reflexive control theory, part of the Soviet playbook since the 1960s, involves conveying information to an opponent that would induce them to voluntarily make a preferred decision. The theory sees the world through a binary lens — one is either with you, or against you. When a country is too powerful to be strong-armed, subtle manipulation can be used instead to achieve a desired goal.

“We believe that reflexive control theory is, in part, the intellectual basis of current information efforts targeting the United States that are perpetrated by Russia and its proxies,” the study authors wrote. “We have identified at least two key features of reflexive control theory that seem applicable to recent information efforts targeting U.S. elections.”

The theory presumes individuals from opposing political parties are already at odds, and merely tries to amplify the degree to which they view each other as adversaries rather than as members of the same team with differing viewpoints. The longer this goes on, the more deeply seeded those differences become, making common ground increasingly elusive.

Simplifying complexities is a natural mechanism for understanding the world around us, and reflexive control theory plays strongly to the human tendency to throw nuance out the window when faced with opposing viewpoints. When ideas — and people — are broken down into dichotomies of “racist” and “antiracist,”, “rich” and “poor,” “American” and “Un-American,” little room remains for rational compromise.

“We can think of America as a family. Like all families, we have our problems. And there is no shortage of social problems that need solutions in our country right now,” Posard said. “But what we don’t want is Russia (or any other foreign adversary) showing up to Thanksgiving and trying to pick fights within our family.”

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