The Russian state has constructed a "full spectrum" propaganda machine, and its attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. election through social media is just one example of the new type of espionage that the world faces, according to a team of analysts who have forensically examined the hundreds of thousands of bogus tweets and Facebook posts allegedly coordinated by Moscow.
The work of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab follows the indictments filed last week by the U.S. Department of Justice and Special Counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russian nationals and three entities, accused of trying to interfere in U.S. politics.
The researchers examined tens of thousands of bogus social media accounts and so-called "botnets" that were used to try to influence the 2016 race for the White House, according to U.S. investigators.
Presenting their findings at the recent Munich Security Conference, the researchers demonstrated how the Kremlin tightly coordinates different arms of its well-oiled propaganda machine.
“You can think of it as a full spectrum system. So you will have overt propaganda accounts such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik; you’ll have diplomatic accounts such as the Russian embassy in South Africa or the Russian consulate general in Geneva; then you have websites, which claim to be independent, but which whistle-blowers have proven or forensic researchers have proven are funded by the same entities, they are funded by the Russian government; then beyond that, you have troll accounts; beyond that, you have automated ‘bots,’ whose job is to amplify everything that goes on,” the Digital Forensic Research Lab’s Ben Nimmo told VOA in an interview.
In 2016 Russian hackers stole emails from the Democratic National Committee, which were then published by the website WikiLeaks. The chronology of the leak reveals the different cogs in the propaganda machine, says Nimmo.
“On the day of the leak, you can actually go through the online archives and see the ‘Troll Factory’ accounts which are boosting the DNC leaks, and they were saying ‘I bet the mainstream media will never cover this, everybody has to go and click on the DNC leaks.’ One account alone, Tennessee GOP, which was the most effective fake Twitter account that the Troll Factory ran, it had over 2,000 retweets of that story. At the same time, RT and Sputnik were reporting on this ‘shocking story’ of DNC leaks. And you can really see the interlock between the different parts of the machine.”
To counter the propaganda, Nimmo and his team aim to educate internet users on what it terms "social resilience," for example, by reverse searching profile photos, and checking past activity.
“Before you share that account or before you like that account, maybe you should look at the profile. And you should look at it and you should think, ‘OK if it’s a Twitter account, how many times does it post every day on average? If it was created three weeks ago and it’s posted 150,000 times already, do you really think that’s a human being? If it’s not a human being, why are you engaging with it?” Nimmo asked.
Russian officials have repeatedly denied trying to influence American politics. But experts say the alleged election interference is just the opening salvo in a whole new field of espionage - and security services, alongside wider society, will have to learn how to counter the threat.