WASHINGTON (CN) – Nearly a year after Americans first became aware of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, they remain woefully unaware of the scope, nature and power of Russian disinformation, an expert told lawmakers Thursday.
Making matters worse, information-warfare expert Molly McKew testified, the U.S. government’s response so far is insufficient to address the threat.
“Very little has been done about the English language disinformation targeting Americans,” said McKew, CEO of consulting firm Fianna Strategies, in written testimony given to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The commission, established in 1976 to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, includes members from both houses of Congress.
Eight months after the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia meddled in the election, it convened Thursday morning’s hearing to discuss “the scourge of Russian disinformation.”
While some aspects of the campaign are well-tread — that the Russia used state-sponsored media outlets RT and Sputnik, as well as social media trolls, to sway public opinion in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump while denigrating Hillary Clinton — new revelations from Facebook have deepened the scandal.
Announcing that it sold $100,000 in ads to a troll farm known for pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda, Facebook said it found about 3,000 ads connected to 470 fake accounts that touched on race, immigration, LGBT issues and gun rights, all divisive issues for U.S. voters.
McKew explained in a phone interview Wednesday that Russian disinformation thrives on exploiting existing divisions among its targets.
“They’re not making white supremacists, they’re not making far-left green activists – they’re not creating these things,” McKew said.
“But they do take the divisions that already exist – sort of divisions and dissatisfactions that already exist within our societies – and deepen them and amplify them, and try to exploit them and corrupt them towards different means,” she added.
McKew told Congress that Russia’s larger goals include weakening Western liberal democracies, in addition to the European Union and NATO, to gain prominence on the world stage.
Pursuing chaos and a state of permanent unrest and conflict in enemy states allows a weak Russia to exert influence and control, McKew’s testimony says.
Getting Americans to understand and be wary of Russian goals and tactics, however, remains a challenge.
“It’s just really hard to convince people that they’re being convinced of things by adversaries of the United States for specific reasons that are meant to divide their countries,” McKew said in an interview.
On top of that, people are reluctant to believe they are susceptible to it.
McKew said if you explain to Americans that money is being spent to put information in front of them to suppress their vote – or keep them from voting for a specific candidate – they might not be happy about it.
“Nobody likes that idea,” she said, “but none of us believe it works on us. No human wants to believe they are highly persuadable in terms of information and their own activities.”
Ultimately, however, Russian disinformation has several parallels with basic marketing techniques, combined with good psychology and psychometrics.
“If you can make people buy a pair of shoes, or convince them that they want to buy the pair of shoes because those are the greatest shoes ever, it’s not actually that much harder to sell people an idea via electronic communications,” she said.