The Hydra of Russian Information War Against the United States

Article by Khatuna Mshvidobadze, Adjunct Professor of Cyber Security at Utica College


Most of Soviet intelligence, defector Yuri Bezmenov told a 1980s western audience, is a “slow process which we call either ideological subversion, active measures or psychological warfare.” Bezmenov knew all about it from his days with the Soviet press agency Novosti, which was thoroughly intertwined with the KGB’s active measures. “What it basically means,” he continued, “is to change the perception of reality of every American that, despite the abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community and their country.”

In Bezmenov’s time, the Internet was still in its formative phase, but today, what he was recounting—disinformation, ideological subversion, deception and psychological warfare—has moved into cyber space. The core concept of Soviet, now Russian, information war has not changed; it just evolved with modern technology.

Nor should we be deluded to believe that Bezmenov was a lone voice. Information war has been consistently featured as an important weapon against Russia’s prospective enemies since early Soviet times. At about the same time that Bezmenov was addressing western audiences, Marshal of the Soviet Union Nikolai Ogarkov, then Chief of the Soviet General Staff, wrote, “Now information systems are seen as auxiliary tools, but one day, they will lead military development to a new level, just as nuclear weapons did before.”

Three decades later, General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, is only adding the contemporary coda to a long history. “Information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of an enemy,” Gerasimov writes in a 2013 article. “A perfectly thriving state,” he continues, “can, in a matter of months, become a victim of foreign intervention and sink into a web of chaos.”

Russia views information war as a powerful instrument to fight its enemies on all fronts—economic, political, social and cultural. Russia’s persistent efforts to create fake narratives, false flag operations and blatant cyber attacks have become major challenges to the west, with the United States of America in the forefront. Social media, troll factories, online propaganda and so-called exposés, usually run by oligarchs and criminals, have become the major means of information war.

And, whoever’s fingers are on the keyboard, the trail leads back to Russian intelligence agencies. The FSB (Federal Security Service), GRU (military intelligence) and SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) play immense roles in this endeavor.

For example, in 2013 and 2014, the SVR started work on the three-phase project on “forming public opinion” via social media. Phase 1 was dubbed “Dispute,” aimed at studying how online communities are formed. Phase 2 was called “Storm-12.” This involved actual organization of online communities on western social media platforms. Phase 3, “Implementation,” was the use of an automated disinformation dissemination system. In other words, the SVR devised a system to inject information into western debates through preregistered social media accounts. The program’s objective was to sow division and chaos, promote social unrest and agitate political events through the dissemination of false but “useful” information, thereby debilitating the US and allied countries.

And this effort was not confined to America and its 2016 presidential election. For example, in the 2017 French presidential election, Russian operatives used the hashtag #MacronGate to tar the eventual winner, Emmanuel Macron, with charges of tax evasion. Tales of a secret bank account in the Bahamas or the Cayman Islands—the stories varied—were pushed out relentlessly. One account was Tweeted 1,668 times in 24 hours, which is more than one Tweet per minute without sleep.

And Russian tentacles reach beyond the Internet. RBC, a respected Russian news outlet, published a report on the activities of The Saint Petersburg Internet Research Agency, funded by oligarch and Putin confidant Yevgeny Prygozhin, just before the American election. The most alarming element of this report is that employees of the troll factory contacted about 100 real American political activists to help with the organization of protests and events. RBC also identified more than a dozen fake groups apparently related to the Black Lives Matter campaign and other race issues. Those groups altogether accounted for more than 1.2 million subscribers.

And poking around American politics was nothing new. A couple of years before the last presidential election–precisely September 11, 2014—a hoax about an explosion at the Columbian Chemical Plant in Centreville, Louisiana flooded Twitter and other social media platforms. Apparent area residents recounted tales of a huge explosion and smoke cloud. There was no such explosion. It was a false flag operation by Russian trolls.

Another example is featured in a report by the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology. According to the report, between 2015 and 2017, Kremlin trolls focused their attention on energy and environmental issues. For example, trolls promoted a political feud by playing both sides of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. “Russia,” says the report, “was actively engaged in a concerted effort to disrupt U.S. energy markets and influence domestic energy policy and was exploiting American social media platforms [e.g., Instagram, Facebook and Twitter] in an attempt to carry out this objective.” The motives are clear—the growth of US energy production jeopardizes Russia’s energy dominance over Europe.

What comes next? It is not far-fetched to say that such tactics might be used against leading US business brands or executives, damaging reputations and crashing stock values. Consider it as a slow, relentless attack on critical infrastructure and sociopolitical institutions.

Disinformation, propaganda and deception make their ways faster than truth. To counter this, Facebook, Twitter and others are blocking fake news, developing more effective algorithms to identify it and emplacing tougher user policies. However, we should assume that enemies are also getting better with methods, technology, techniques and tactics. Moreover, artificial intelligence and machine learning are developing rapidly, mostly to good effect, but these technologies could also enable our adversaries to take a quantum leap ahead.

Here is just one example. Today, many argue that fake video is easy to detect because of imperfections that remain in some frames of the video. However, rapidly developing technology may soon invalidate this argument, and near-perfect text-generated videos will become a reality.

Despite its current imperfection, deepfakes artificial intelligence software can already place a targeted person’s face on another body to produce fake videos. Hundreds of pornographic video clips featuring celebrity faces have already been created. Software that can change facial expressions, perfectly capturing the talking motions of the actor and placing them seamlessly on the video has also been tried.

So, while one side is developing tools to identify fake stories, pictures or video, the other side is feverishly inventing ways to outsmart them. Moreover, timing is on the side of the malefactor. The effect of disinformation and propaganda is largely based upon a who goes first strategy. Fake news, images and video can have devastating irreversible effects in the time that it takes to identify and remove the offending content.

This makes the future of Russian information war against the United States downright scary. This month, RIA-FAN, a news agency associated with the Saint Petersburg Internet Research Agency, will launch USA Really—Wake Up, Americans. The project “will focus on promoting information and problems that are hushed up by major American publications controlled by the US political elite,” says the RIA-FAN website. Like Internet Research Agency, RIA-FAN is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, currently indicted in the US for interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Social networks have become not only the stage of global politics, but the battleground of information war. Defending ourselves requires a comprehensive strategy, not a one-off approach as we have today. Blocking trolls and their fake accounts or making it harder to buy advertisements on social media platforms are steps forward, but these are not enough. It is like cutting off one of the Hydra’s nine heads—two will grow back in its place. Russia has a comprehensive doctrine of information war, an integrated system of systems. Our defense must be equally broad.


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