Online trolls aren’t just disgruntled individuals who get into Twitter wars for fun while hiding behind the Internet’s anonymity. For some Russians, trolling is a day job — with geopolitical impact.
Russia’s so-called troll factory, an operation known as the Internet Research Agency, created fake Twitter accounts and Facebook ads spouting “hidden truths” about Hillary Clinton with the intention of interfering with the 2016 presidential campaign, according to U.S. intelligence agencies and more recently special counsel Robert Mueller.
The Russian meddling, observers say, is either part of a grand scheme to subvert democracy or strike back at what Russians perceive as interference by the U.S. into their affairs.
The U.S. government is working to ramp up its counter-disinformation efforts. And last week, it retaliated with sanctions against 19 Russians and five Russian companies, including the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.
But what tools does the U.S. have, and are they enough?
Is there a U.S. version of Russia’s Internet Research Agency?
Not at the State Department, said two officials there. The Internet Research Agency posts fraudulent content online with the intent of creating divisions and sowing confusion, in an effort to discredit and target people. In Western nations, there is no such organization dedicated to that purpose, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to comment by name.
“The goal of the U.S. government in using communications tools is to maintain credibility, and if we undermine our credibility by putting out false information … we destroy our own credibility,” one official said. “So there’s no value or benefit to be had in trying to put out false narratives, which is what the Internet Research Agency is doing.”
Instead, U.S. embassies around the world have been countering disinformation and putting out their own narratives for years, which now includes the use of social media. “It is a modern-day tool of communication in order to educate the public and say, ‘These are our thoughts on a particular situation,'” the second official noted.
While the officials could not speak for other agencies or the intelligence community, they said the State Department’s tactics do not include taking on false personas and pushing misleading information.
During the Cold War, it was different, some analysts say. Similar to the Soviet Union at the time, the United States engaged in “black propaganda,” in other words, attempting to sow dissension and exploit weaknesses in an adversary, said George Beebe, director for intelligence and national security at the Center for the National Interest. He said he is not aware of any such activities today.
U.S. intelligence operations are governed by laws that require a presidential finding – which is reported to Congress – and specific details about activities they can perform, Beebe said. Adm. Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, alluded to these rules last month before a Senate committee, when he testified that he had not been given any specific directives from the Trump administration to go beyond his current capacity to counter Russian interference.
Rogers did not elaborate on what those additional authorities might be, but Beebe said they could include actually going to the source of Russian interference and trying to disrupt it from within – rather than just exposing the deceitful information, who is behind it and correcting the record. The NSA declined an interview request.
Is the U.S. at a disadvantage?
Bret Schafer with the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, which operates the Hamilton 68 dashboard monitoring more than 600 pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts, said the counter-messaging by official U.S. channels, including the Embassy in Moscow, is “pretty mellow” by comparison.
“They don’t aggressively go after targets or weigh in on snarky commentary on things, and they certainly don’t engage in more aggressive propaganda,” he said. “We’re fighting on a different playing field.”
The question is how the U.S. can respond in a transparent way that attracts viewership, like Russian state-sponsored media outlets RT and Sputnik, which are “frankly more entertaining but less credible,” Schafer said.
The U.S. wouldn’t want to mimic its Russian counterparts, because there’s not much social good that comes of it, he said. “I think we would understand that [trying to destabilize different societies in Russia] would ultimately be a bad thing for us even if it weakened Russia to some degree.”
“We shouldn’t necessarily sink to the same level as our adversaries on this,” said Alina Polyakova, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program’s Center on the United States and Europe. With people distrustful of what the government says, it wouldn’t be productive anyway, she said.
The U.S. government could be better at putting out a more positive narrative of democratic Western values, Polyakova said. “This is the ideological battle that won the Cold War. It wasn’t counter-propaganda efforts responding to every crazy Soviet-era conspiracy against the United States. It was about being on message as to why the U.S. model is better.”
Is the U.S. government doing enough?
On March 15, the U.S. government issued sanctions on five entities, including the Internet Research Agency, and 19 individuals for interfering in the 2016 election and cyberattacks, including the “NotPetya” cyberattack on Ukraine’s financial systems in June 2017. The sanctions freeze any assets held by the Russians in U.S. dollars and bars U.S. citizens from doing business with them.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, commended the administration for imposing the sanctions, saying they send a message “that we will respond when attacked.”
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, however, said the sanctions “appear to be designed more for domestic public relations purposes than for actually deterring Russian misbehavior.”
The sanctions aimed at those associated with the Internet Research Agency targeted lower-level people and not those at the top — the Russian oligarchs and elites, Polyakova said. “This is more of a continuation of Obama-era policies than a new move to redefine the sanctions policy in a way that would actually make it a real punishment.”
Polyakova, along with Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council, wrote a report recommending ways the U.S. government should tackle disinformation, including creating an interagency effort similar to the Department of Homeland Security-coordinated response to the 9/11 attacks.
The State Department currently operates a Global Engagement Center with an original focus on researching terrorism and counter-propaganda by non-state actors like the Islamic State group. Congress broadened its mandate in 2016 to include state-run propaganda machines as well, including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
The New York Times reported that $40 million in additional funding authorized last year is still awaiting release to the center. A bipartisan letter from the House Armed Services Committee called on President Donald Trump to fully fund the program. “We can no longer afford to assume the risk exploitation incurs to our citizens and our democratic institutions and values,” the lawmakers wrote.
The State Department officials said the Global Engagement Center isn’t waiting for the additional money to get started on its new mandate. By moving some funds around, the center now has a senior-level Foreign Service officer who speaks Russian. When the other funding is released, the center will be able to hire more Russian-, Mandarin- and Farsi-speaking analysts.
Other parts of the department are engaged in counter-disinformation as well, they added, including the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, which is already tracking the Russian media and reporting false stories to Washington.
When Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the State Department began returning to fighting Russia propaganda, but not to the same level as during the Cold War, the department officials said. “While resources are shifting back, they also have to be balanced against other needs (including terrorism and nuclear proliferation) as well.”