National Security National Security
Photo Credit: Balkan Photos

An Overview of Russian Information Operations

The 2017 U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment exposed the breadth and scope of Russia’s disinformation efforts against the 2016 presidential election.  Since coming to light, these activities have continued on multiple fronts, weaponizing contentious topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19  to further sow social and political discord in the United States.  Unsurprisingly, these campaigns are targeting the U.S. presidential election cycle, spreading misinformation about one candidate’s health, prompting the Federal Bureau of Investigation to warn that disinformation campaigns may target election results.   Indeed, according to one report, disinformation campaigns specifically targeting the election started at least a year ago.  One thing is evident – Russia believes that such tactics can be successful in manipulating the beliefs, perceptions, opinions, and overall psychology of a target audience.

An August 2020 U.S. Department of State report identified the Russian propaganda/disinformation ecosystem as a multi-functional apparatus composed of “five pillars:”  “official government communications, state-funded global messaging, cultivation of proxy sources, weaponization of social media, and cyber-enabled disinformation.”  Russia’s investment in propaganda/disinformation is massive, enabling it to propagate false narratives across a variety of media, ultimately creating a force “media-multiplier” that expands Russian reach and reinforces faulty messaging.  When considering how Russia leverages official government statements, friendly media channels, and social media channels, it’s easy to see that Russia believes an onslaught of information is a critical tactical complement toward achieving its soft-power strategic objectives.

The psychological implication of propaganda/disinformation supports the larger Russian Information Confrontation (informatsionnoye protivoborstbo) strategy, a theory cited in Russia’s 2000 Information Security Doctrine that defined Information Confrontation as a component of modern warfare and as a means of achieving political goals without the use of military force.  Falling under this rubric are two influencing agents – information-technical and information-psychological – the former of which targets the technical aspects of an opponent while the latter focuses on specific audiences such as leadership, military troops, or a country’s population.  Complementing this focus on using disinformation as a means of achieving tactical objectives is Russia’s “Reflexive Control” philosophy.  A term first used in the Soviet Union, the philosophy underpinning Reflexive Control is the execution of initiatives to convey to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.  Taken from this perspective, it is evident how propaganda/disinformation features prominently in the Russian Information Confrontation paradigm.

Russia perceives an ongoing struggle transpiring between adversaries that leverage the information space to advance national-level objectives.  Moreover, these engagements are ongoing, regardless of whether adversaries are at peace, war, or other geopolitical conflict.   The successes of the “Color Revolutions” and the “Arab Spring” illustrate the influence of information campaigns demonstrating how content, medium, and message can not only catalyze a target audience, but have it react in a predetermined outcome.  Fast forward to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and you see the evolution of such campaigns due to increased sophistication and availability of technology, Internet openness, and audiences that receive their information from a variety of media.  Russia’s desire to dominate the information space allows it to exploit the West’s “freedom of information” tenet, use a soft-power weapon that seems less threatening than traditional kinetic weaponry, take advantage of a domain with global reach, and  allow it to quickly pivot subjects should requirements or objectives change.

A free press and uncensored information have long been the West’s greatest strength.  Unfortunately, its production, dissemination, and accessibility are its greatest weaknesses, practices on which disinformation and propaganda thrive.  Social media platforms have enabled disinformation to flourish with worrisome results, particularly as more people receive their news via these channels.  A 2017 Stanford University study found that fake news stories about presidential candidates were shared approximately 37.6 million times in 2016, a practice that only increases the more hot-button news stories propagate online.

Since 2016, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been engaged in identifying fake personas and bots in an attempt to mitigate the propagation of Russian-backed accounts.  There is little indication if these efforts have been a success or not, particularly as these “trolls” have improved their operations in an attempt to obfuscate their true identities and avoid advanced technology detection.  Facebook and Twitter in particular have been aggressively monitoring the disinformation/misinformation propagation on their platforms.  However, the platforms and their owners have come under intense scrutiny and condemnation by U.S. politicians for failing to be consistent or comprehensive in their policing and censoring.  Whether intentional or not, this is exactly the type of internal political and social discord that benefits Russian interests.

Regardless of any election cycle, Russia – as well as other nation states – have realized the potential of disinformation to cause social and political disorder against U.S. interests.  Such tactics can be especially useful in times of geopolitical conflict or diplomatic tension.  An increasingly partisan media facilitates such activities, a fact that is not lost on Americans, 84 percent of which said the media was to blame for the U.S. political divide according to a recent Gallup poll.  Authoritarian regimes have long recognized the potentially disrupting influence that information can cause, which is why most try to control and censor that to which their public has access.  And this may have been one of the cornerstones of Russia’s strategy in 2016 and again in 2020 – not necessarily to put a particular candidate into office but weaken the very freedom of information principle that separates Western democracies from authoritarian regimes.  Flooding target audiences with propaganda/disinformation via Russia’s five pillars make people call into question the veracity of these news sources, weakening the Fourth Estate, and shaking the very foundation of democracy itself. 

The U.S. government cannot bear the sole responsibility for mitigating the threat of disinformation.  The U.S. populace bears an enormous responsibility in reducing the effects of such campaigns by better educating themselves on how to be more adept critical thinkers and discerners of the information they consume.  This includes being better at identifying disinformation, validating sources, and evaluating the content, a difficult undertaking to be sure.  Failing to do this perpetuates the status quo wherein adversaries adept at executing information-psychological influence agents will continue to take advantage of human nature’s tendency to fall into a routine and resort to old habits.