If the James Bond movies are good for anything, they serve as a reminder that most of us in society really have no clue how the world of espionage, intelligence, and counter-intelligence really works. And while some may disagree, I don’t think there is a great need for common citizens to know the nuts and bolts of how MI6 and other intelligence agencies operate (other than to be aware of their legal and ethical bounds and their adherence to them). However, one aspect of this shadowy arm of government policy does impact citizens in the heart of our domestic society – the influence foreign governments seek to exert on elections and popular opinion in general. The targets of such activities are the thoughts of ordinary citizens, and the potential extent of this propaganda has been heavily discussed in the media in the past few years. Yet our understanding of how this malevolent influence is spread is severely lacking for such an important, potentially damaging, and well-publicized issue.
Of course, influencing popular opinion in rival countries is a strategy that has been applied for millenia. After World War II, the United States began funding Radio Free Europe, which presently continues to try to influence citizens of countries in Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The Arthashastra, an Indian treatise on statecraft dating to the 2nd century B.C., discusses the importance of a network of covert agents to serve purposes such as destabilizing an enemy population. However, with the explosion of information flow made possible by the Internet, and social media specifically, the 21st century offers opportunities for such covert propaganda to be quickly spread among thousands of citizens in a seemingly individual and personal way while also allowing for easy disguise of the message’s originator. The fact that an agent of a foreign government sitting thousands of miles away can directly message individual Americans means it is more important than ever to understand what the nebulous idea of “foreign influence” actually means.
Let’s briefly examine some examples of how outside actors have recently tried to influence American politics and society in the past couple years. As in any operation – military, political, business-related, or otherwise – information-gathering is a crucial first and recurring step. This Politico article details how during the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential election campaigns, foreign intelligence agencies sought information on the strategies and viewpoints of the candidates’ campaigns. Shawn Henry, president of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike that investigated the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems in 2016, stated: “We know with certainty my time in the bureau and now at CrowdStrike that foreign intelligence services are constantly interested in political processes. They’re interested in strategies.” In World War II and the Cold War, aerial and satellite imagery of enemy/rival territory was prized information; governments devoted valuable money, technology, and man-hours to gather and analyze this data. Now, such information is ubiquitous (see: maps.google.com). Now, the secrets of how domestic political parties seek to influence popular opinion are among the most valuable fruits of espionage, because they allow a foreign government to better develop propaganda strategies and utilize the seemingly limitless channels of social media, The tools and techniques to infiltrate the networks of the DNC are no different than those used to target credit card information from an online retailer (and the Politico article exposes that using your dog’s name as a password is a bad idea for a presidential candidate just as it is for an online shopper).
So what does one do with this information? Strategies can be as simple as posting DNC documents on WikiLeaks, or as complicated as creating fake videos of explosions or pretending to be a fortune teller. In 2016, thousands of DNC emails were (in)famously released on Wikileaks, raising embarrassing questions regarding the security around Hillary Clinton’s campaign as well as exposing what seemed to be a bias by the DNC against her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. The United States Intelligence Community traced the leak to Russian-sponsored hackers in their 2017 report Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections and identified the Kremlin’s preference for Trump to win the presidential election.
One company in particular has been identified in news reports as being a source of disinformation and anti-US trolling: the drab-sounding Internet Research Agency based in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2015, The New York Times published an eye-opening feature on their operations. Perhaps fittingly for an agency that capitalizes on the rich and often quirky connections of social media, the operations described in the article range from painstaking and elaborate to seemingly frivolous. On September 11, 2014, employees of the Internet Research Agency executed a well coordinated, multi-faceted online deception that succeeded in convincing Louisiana residents of a terrorist attack that resulted in an explosion at a chemical plant and the release of toxic waste. The ruse involved a video purporting to show the explosion, tweets from supposed residents of the area around the fictional plant, a Wikipedia page for the “Columbia Chemicals disaster”, and a fake video depicting ISIS members claiming credit for the attack (link).
Meanwhile, another IRA employee maintains several online personas, including a fortune-teller who occasionally turns her clairvoyant mind to issues of diplomacy and politics (predicting, of course, disaster for President Obama and glory for Vladimir Putin). In between the nefarious masterminds and the absurd supernaturalists, thousands of comments are posted daily on various social media outlets pushing little by little a greater agenda, whether attacking a particular foreign or domestic politician or reacting divisively to the latest (real or fake) news.
Some might say this is merely the latest version of the deception, propaganda, and subterfuge that has always been a key part of international relations. Recorded examples date back over two thousand years, such as that of the Ancient Greeks spreading propaganda and misinformation as Sparta and Athens vied for the loyalty and goodwill of other Greek city-states. As empires started competing on global scales, uniting disparate subject nations and peoples – or causing unrest in a rival’s subjects – became necessary to building and maintaining global empires. In turn, the covert spreading of information and ideas became increasingly important tools in a nation’s diplomatic arsenal.
However, two elements which we’ve already touched on make this most recent incarnation of foreign influence in domestic affairs qualitatively different from past threats. One is the sheer number of people who can be reached. Social media is ubiquitous in American society – Facebook alone is used by 68% of adult Americans, per a Pew survey from earlier this year. In the past, the spread of disinformation and propaganda was limited first by those who could be reached by word of mouth, then by the much greater but still comparatively limited reach of newspapers and later, radio. Those who don’t pay attention to the news on television or in print may previously have been an audience that foreign governments would struggle to reach other than by word of mouth; now they can be targeted when they scroll through their news feed. In addition to a foreign government being able to reach most Americans through the Internet, the messages they send can have a much less overtly political tone. What appears to be banter among college friends can be an avenue to push an agenda attacking a certain politician or policy. While one big story might make the author’s ulterior motives obvious, social media allows many seemingly small, trivial pieces of false data to be assembled into shocking headlines without raising red flags in the process – as was done with the chemical explosion hoax. Propaganda spread via social media allows more people to be targeted, all while alerting a much smaller proportion to the very fact that they are caught up in an international deception.
The end goals of old strategies of deception and propaganda have not changed, but integrating new technology threatens countries in a much more dramatic way than before. To some extent our society is cognizant of this, evidenced by the concerns expressed in the media and by politicians. However, too often “foreign meddling” is a bogeyman of sorts used to tarnish a rival politician’s reputation or to create fear of a nebulous threat. But as a threat that can involve almost anyone in our society, we must learn to recognize it and understand it. That principle has never changed: knowing an enemy is the first step to defeating it.