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Russia’s ‘troll factory’ impersonates Americans to sow political chaos. How can the U.S. fight it?

Russia's attempts to interfere in American elections and political discourse did not end with the 2016 race. What do we know about Moscow’s meddling and what can we expect in the near future? Judy Woodruff learns more from Nina Jankowicz, a Russian disinformation analyst, about how it works, what we should be worried about and what average Americans can do in response.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Special counsel Robert Mueller's recent indictment of 13 Russian individuals again confirms Russia's attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election through the use of social media.

    But intelligence officials stress that Russia's attempts didn't end back then. Today, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a cyber task force that will look into ways to fight this sort of activity by foreign governments and interests.

    To walk us through what we know about Moscow's interference and what we may expect in the coming months is Nina Jankowicz. She is a writer and analyst who focuses on Russian disinformation campaigns. She was recently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

    Nina Jankowicz, welcome to the program.

    I want to just quickly read something from last week's indictment from the Mueller team. It states that the defendants, posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences, and they used stolen identities to post on organization-controlled social media accounts.

    So, what exactly are they saying these Russians did?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Well, there's a lot of things that we're alleging the Internet Research Agency did.

    The main thing is that they posed as American citizens to amplify and spread content that is divisive in our society in order to in some cases pump up the Trump campaign, break down the Clinton campaign, or deflect the vote, suppress voter turnout, especially among minority groups, in order to create more chaos within our political system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how technically did they do that? How did they carry this out?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    So, Facebook calls these false amplifiers.

    They're not precisely bot accounts, because bots are kind of computationally controlled.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, remind us what bots are.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Right.

    A bot is a — there can be millions of them at the time, usually hundreds of thousands of them. It's an account that may look like a real person, but often tweets or posts more frequently than a real person would tweet. And it's controlled by a computer program.

    What the Internet Research Agency, or the troll factory, did, these were accounts that really looked like American citizens. They behaved like American citizens. And in the indictment, it even says one of the folks who was indicted wrote to a family member and said, the Americans are buying this, because they were so legitimate in the types of criticisms that people were levying of politics at that time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, pretty sophisticated stuff.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Yes, absolutely, and long-term.

    We thought that this was going on since 2014. And it was a widespread operation and pretty well-funded. This is alleging over $1 million per month were spent on this operation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, before these indictments came out last week, there was a testimony on the Hill by all the heads of every intelligence, major intelligence agency in the country. They all said, to a person, that these kinds of efforts by the Russians are continuing now.

    And there is concern that they're going to affect this year's midterm elections. What are they doing now? Are they doing the same things that the Mueller team identified? Have they changed their M.O. in any way?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Yes, I think they're doing the exact same things. This is a tactic that they have practiced over more than a decade in Central and Eastern Europe, in countries like Estonia and Ukraine certainly.

    And then we saw it more recently in the U.K. and Germany. And what they're doing is just amplifying divisive rhetoric, again, in order to create more chaos and distrust in the system. Ultimately, you know, a lot of people talk about hacking of the elections or hacking of voter rolls.

    We don't have any evidence of that happening yet, but what I'm most worried about going into the 2018 midterms is that suppression — voter turnout will be suppressed because people are going to be distrusting the system, distrusting that their vote matters. And that's the most dangerous thing and the most difficult thing to reverse.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I saw a wire story today that Italy is now another country that is concerned about Russian interference in its elections.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Yes, absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So we hear about what the Russians want to do is sow discord and division. What is their goal here actually?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    The goal is to discredit Western democracy as we know it, which then gives Russia a better seat at the bargaining table.

    I mean, 25 years ago, there was the Soviet Union and the United States, the two superpowers, right, in the world. In the intervening 25 years, we haven't talked a lot about Russia. And now, for the first time in 25 years, Russia is on our lips every day. I'm sure there hasn't been a day that you haven't covered it here on this show.

    And that's exactly what Vladimir Putin wants. And it's exactly what Russia wants, return to a great power status.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So now we have to talk about, how does this get thwarted? We know the White House was announcing this cyber task force today, but clearly much more has to be done.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Absolutely.

    This is not only about cyber-security. I often advocate for a whole-of-government approach, meaning not only do we need to make clear to Russia that this behavior is unacceptable and clear to other actors who might do it, because there are plenty of others drawing from Russia's playbook, but we also need to educate our citizenry.

    We need the talk about media literacy and civics, so that people have an understanding of how our system works. Right now, we haven't updated our media literacy curriculum since the 1980s. And there are many, many groups that are doing great work in relation to this. But we need an investment in it on behalf of the government and certainly on behalf of social media companies as well, which have a near ubiquitous access to every American's life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which is another enormous set of questions out there about the role of these social media companies, whether it's Twitter, Facebook, the rest of them.

    But in the short-term, what — is there anything that individual Americans can do? What should they be on the lookout for, be careful about? Is there any sort of tools they can equip themselves with?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Well, there are a lot of great fact-checking sites online that I would encourage people to check out. But you can do these sorts of things in 30 seconds yourself.

    If something seems spurious or unlikely to you, do a quick search for a quote and see if it comes up anywhere else online. And just be very, very wary. They're very clever about the types of impersonations they do. There was a Guardian site that was fake that used a Turkish I instead of an English I in its Web address.

    Look for things like that. And then, most of all, just talk to people of different backgrounds. Get into discussions, civil discussions. Break your filter bubble. That's the best thing that we can do to return to civil discourse and protect our democracy in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of common sense.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nina Jankowicz, thank you very much.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Thank you for having me.

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