On the evening of 30 July 2016, my colleagues and I watched as RT and Sputnik News simultaneously launched false stories of the U.S. airbase at Incirlik being overrun by terrorists. Within minutes, pro-Russian social media aggregators and automated bots amplified this false news story and expanded conspiracies asserting American nuclear missiles at the base would be lost to extremists. More than 4,000 tweets in the first 78 minutes after launching of this false story linked back to the Active Measures accounts we’d tracked in the previous two years. These previously identified accounts, almost simultaneously appearing from different geographic locations and communities, amplified this fake news story in unison. The hashtags incrementally pushed by these automated accounts were #Nuclear, #Media, #Trump and #Benghazi. The most common words found in English speaking Twitter user profiles were: God, Military, Trump, Family, Country, Conservative, Christian, America, and Constitution. These accounts and their messages clearly sought to convince Americans a U.S. military base was being overrun in a terrorist attack like the 2012 assault on a U.S. installation in Benghazi, Libya. In reality, a small protest gathered outside the Incirlik gate and the increased security at the airbase sought to secure the arrival of the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the following day.
This pattern of Russian falsehoods and social media manipulation of the American electorate continued through Election Day and persists today. Many of the accounts we watched push the false Incirlik story in July now focus their efforts on shaping the upcoming European elections, promoting fears of immigration or false claims of refugee criminality. They’ve not forgotten about the United States either. This past week, we observed social media campaigns targeting Speaker of the House Paul Ryan hoping to foment further unrest amongst U.S. democratic institutions, their leaders and their constituents.
Social media provides Russia’s new Active Measures access to U.S. audiences without
setting foot in the country, and the Kremlin smartly uses these platforms in seven ways to
win Western elections. First, Russia chooses close democratic contests where a slight
nudge can usher in their preferred candidate or desired outcome. Second, Russia targets
specific audiences inside electorates amenable to their messages and resulting influence – in particular alt-right audiences incensed over immigration, refugees and economic
hardship. Third, Russia plans and implements their strategy long before an election
allowing sufficient time for cultivating an amenable audience ripe for manipulation.
Fourth, their early entry into electoral debates allows them to test many messages and
then reinforce those messages that resonate and bring about a measurable, preferred shift
in public opinion. Fifth, Russia brilliantly uses hacking to compromise adversaries and
power their influence messaging – a tactic most countries would not take. Sixth, their
employment of social media automation saturates their intended audience with narratives that drown out opposing viewpoints. Finally, Russia plays either side should the contestchange – backing an individual candidate or party so long as they support a Kremlin policy position and then turning against the same party should their position shift against Russia.