Americans have seen a dramatic increase in awareness regarding ongoing Russian information operations taking place within the United States since news first broke about the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate the results of the 2016 presidential election. While America’s partisan politics dictated the coverage of Russia’s influence campaign, portraying Moscow as an ally to the GOP, the truth of the matter was that Russia sought primarily to discredit the institutions America is based on.
Ongoing efforts pertaining to topics ranging from race, to vaccinations, and even to popular responses to blockbuster films have demonstrated that Russia’s operatives don’t seek a Republican-led United States — they seek a United States that’s so embroiled in its internal disputes that it consumes itself.
However, as the American people slowly come around to the idea that Russian influence efforts are real, effective — and importantly — not tied to a specific political party. One element of the story that remains hopelessly under-discussed are the ways these efforts affect American service members that occupy the same digital space as the rest of us. Like influence campaigns on civilians, Russia’s efforts aren’t about planting ideas in a person’s head; they’re about exacerbating existing social divides until the naturally occurring differences between Americans becomes all the conversation can be about.
Russia’s efforts are aimed directly at fanning the flames of divisiveness within the United States, and Americans have largely embraced the idea of replacing compromise-politics with political trench warfare. For most of us, it simply makes Twitter an uncomfortable place to spend the afternoon — but the stakes for the men and women serving in the U.S. military are undeniably higher.
“U.S. military personnel and veterans — it is the uncovered stone in the Russian influence effort that no one is really taking enough of an interest in,” said former FBI special agent Clint Watts. Watts now serves as a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. “At the enlisted ranks in the U.S. military, Russia won over a huge base of support in this country that still continues on today.”
Vladimir Putin, widely seen as a powerful leader with a tough-guy bravado, has enjoyed a strange sort of revelry among many within the United States. While most Americans see him as a threat to American security, still others can’t help but admire the man that has spent a lifetime aggressively pursuing what he believes to be the best interest of his nation.
Just a few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see Americans wearing shirts depicting a topless Putin riding a bear — symbolism that stood in stark contrast to Barrack Obama’s polished presidential and lawyer-ly demeanor at the time. Since then, Putin shirts may have fallen out of fashion, but Russian influence remains alive and well, and sentiments that are in keeping with Russian policies can still be found floating around American social media today.
“We know it goes on, that’s why we’ve amped up and increased the attention that we’re paying,” said Ed Wilson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy. “We’re taking a renewed look at how we train and educate the broader force.”
On Twitter, for instance, a sharp rise in fake accounts that claim affiliation with the U.S. military supports the idea that Russian influence operations have their sights set on service members as well as the general public. On October 17th, Twitter announced the removal of 39 more accounts that were falsely claiming to be U.S. citizens with ties to the military. Those posts made by these fraudulent accounts, it’s important to note, don’t offer any inclination that the content is Russian born. In fact, if anything, it reads like a middle-aged veteran’s attempt at understanding social media.
“Fighting to *Make America Great Again* strong #military supporter. Combat #Vet ????#OORAH Ret. #Frogman ???? #Sheepdog #Patriot ???? Follow me,” one of the fake posts read.
“We certainly are still seeing a lot of the accounts that we’re looking at that continue to have what seemed to be clear military connections,” Bret Schafer, who works as a social media analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy, told VOA. “You’ll see a lot of banners on Twitter, the account pictures that will be kind of non-identifiable in terms of a specific person, but a member of the military or just some sort of graphic that connotes that person is part of the military or a family member.”
“My guess is a lot of this probably would be happening more in closed Facebook groups in which there are many with the military, and frankly, nobody has any idea what’s really happening for those groups, because of course Facebook doesn’t share those with researchers,” he said.
Closed Facebook groups have posed a problem for the Defense Department in the past, with one group called “Marines United” outed publicly for sharing nude and provocative images of female service members without their consent. Since then, more regulations have been introduced pertaining to the activity of service members within the digital sphere, but little can be done to prevent the flow of influence efforts to the news feeds of America’s military personnel.
Therein lies the problem: because these influence campaigns are so difficult to identify and root out, and because their effects rarely manifest in a tangible way, it’s all but impossible to know the extent of the operation or if it has been met with much success. All anyone does seem to know is that it’s happening, and at least in the ways we’ve managed to measure, often times, it’s working.
“Quite a few senior commanders, increasingly, I see now, having had evidence of false Facebook websites coming up routinely in their names,” said Lt. Gen. Nick Pope, British army deputy chief of the general staff. He went on to describe the effort to pull the fake pages down as “whack a rat.”
“The fact is that our potential adversaries, hostile agencies, are using cybercrime, if you call it that, as a mechanism now to try to unhinge reliable, evidence-based platforms,” he said.
For now, the U.S. Department of Defense has opted to increase education programs relating to foreign influence efforts as a means to defend against this threat, but if suicide rates are any indicator, the military doesn’t have a particularly high success rate when it comes to addressing threats via PowerPoint.