The online activities surrounding the 2016 U.S. Presidential election revealed a swath of suspicious postings on social media outlets that ranged from deliberate false information (e.g., one candidate running a child sex ring; another candidate’s followers making anti-Islam chants at a rally) to purchased ads on social media platforms like Facebook (e.g., promoting gay rights, issues related to the African-American community, immigration, to name just a few). In some instances, candidates were attacked via purchased ads. While there has been much furor about this, the truth is that this type of online content is nothing that people haven’t already seen.
During any campaign, negative print and media ads are often directed against political opponents, and the Internet is not bereft of millions of users willing to promote their viewpoints or engage in vociferous debate with people holding alternative or opposing viewpoints. Social media has facilitated the ability for anyone with an Internet connection to express themselves and put forward a message to a widely dispersed audience within a specific geography. People can either listen, ignore, support, or push back on what’s being transmitted. The big fear that the mastermind behind all of these ads was intent on swaying constituents to vote for a particular candidate is a concern that has yet to be fully verified.
Regardless the extent with which Russia actually preferred one candidate the other, the real issue is how information was leveraged in the attempt to achieve strategic goals, particularly against a country whose First Amendment in its Bill of Rights guarantees the right of freedom of expression. According to one legal source, per the First Amendment, a person cannot be held liable, either criminally or civilly for anything written or spoken about a person or topic, so long as it is truthful or based on an honest opinion. While fake news would not fall under this protection, many of the purchased ads that promoted political opinions and social issues seems that they would, regardless of the persona behind the postings.
Controversial topics have always been a part of the American fabric, especially leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. To say that trolls used these topics to successfully stoke the American political divide erroneously gives too much focus on the trolls, and not on the very issues themselves that existed before, during, and after the election. According to one alleged Russian Internet troll, the daily job was to “create fake accounts on social media and use them to post comments online as the bosses instructed.” Given the fact that 62 percent of U.S. adults get news on social media, it’s easy to see why social media was used so effectively. Exacerbating issues is the fact that social media platforms are akin to the “wild west” in which nearly anything can be said and disseminated. Case and point: in the past five years, social media platforms agreed to identify and take-down online hate speech and extremist viewpoints, yet these elements’ presences still persevere. Political content falling below the threshold certainly wouldn’t attract this type of attention.
Russia has long engaged in what it has termed “information confrontation” – an ongoing engagement that occurs both in peacetime and wartime and focuses on how information is used against targets. Russia utilizes broad information-based efforts it has classified into two effects-driven activities: information-technical (such as cyber attacks and cyber espionage) and information-psychological (such as propaganda, information control, and disinformation campaigns that target the cognitive element of targets). Therefore, it is little surprise that efforts are underway before significant events such as elections, substantially increasing and decreasing according to what result is to be achieved.
The success of Russia’s information-based activities is testament to the fact that it knows how to use the West’s greatest human rights platform – freedom of speech – against the very institutions that are charged with protecting it. What’s more, information-based activities are not periodically leveraged depending upon the circumstance; rather, they’re practiced continually and refined over time giving Russia a marked advantage over how to exploit them effectively. Juxtapose that against the United States that was unable to use information successfully in counter-messaging campaigns against ISIS, and it is evident that Russia is more adept than the United States in leveraging information – and not necessarily malware and exploits – to its asymmetric advantage.
This is a guest post written by Emilio Iasiello