Summary: Cyberspace is not just a means to steal information and wreck systems, but also a means to touch people’s minds and change how they see the world. The tech is new, but the methods are old. Russia has a long history of playing this game well. Here Emilio Iasiello explains how they have aggressively exploited this new medium.
By Emilio Iasiello, 27 August 2015
From DarkMatters: superior attack intelligence
Posted with their gracious permission.
Russia’s propaganda machine in action
Recent reporting reveals that the Russian government may be using online propagandists in order to project a positive Russian image to the global community, while attacking those perceived to be a threat to Russian government interests.
Two individuals that used to work for an organization called the “Internet Research Agency” exposed the propaganda machine whose objective was to influence public opinion, and in some instances, discredit specific targets.
The Internet Research Agency is an organization that employees hundreds of online “trolls” – individuals whose job it is to create online discontent.
Located in four floors of a building in St. Petersburg, these trolls logged twelve-hour days supporting the Russian government while attacking perceived enemies – the United States, political oppositionists, for example – on social networks, blogs, and comment areas for social media sites (“One Professional Russian Troll Tells All“).
These online operators created personas and blogs in order to disseminate propaganda to the wider Internet audience. Techniques ranged from blatant attacking content to leveraging more subtle techniques in attempt to discredit the West. According to one former “troll,” the operations were tightly controlled and closely supervised. Assignments were handed out to the propagandists, each focusing on a theme and a list of key words to be used in online content. (“My life as a pro-Putin propagandist in Russia’s secret ‘troll factory’“.)
Some of the more prevalent topics included the situation in Ukraine, the Syrian conflict, and stories related to U.S. President Barak Obama. For this they received a monthly salary of approximately $750 (“Woman who sued pro-Putin Russian ‘troll factory’ gets one rouble in damages“).
Information warfare is the new great game between States
According to these individuals, operational security measures such as using proxy servers in order to conceal their true IP addresses were strictly implemented. Tight oversight of the operations ensured that the work process ran efficiently. A closed circuit TV monitored all activities, and those failing to reach their quotas or deliver successful postings receive fines.
However, given the blatant disinformation spread by these individuals, these activities border more on information warfare than propaganda in its purest sense. The Internet Research Center would doctor legitimate news sites and fabricate stories to solicit responses from the public they targeted.
One such example included a news story about a chemical fire in Louisiana in September 11, 2014, creating the sense that a major disaster transpired on the anniversary of the most significant terrorist attack against the United States. The purpose for such a story might be to cause unease and uncertainty in the U.S. public, while showing the Russian public that the U.S. is not an idyllic place but one fraught with its own problems.
The revelations of the Internet Research Agency are not surprising given Putin’s penchant for engaging in propaganda as an influencing agent. Russia has a long history of using propaganda to promote its own interests particularly to influence public opinion in neighboring countries, as well as Western targets.
According to one U.S. congressman, Russia’s aggressive and deceptive propaganda may be more dangerous than its military because of the volume and reach that it has as well as its ability to undermine U.S. security interests in Europe (“Vladimir Putin’s ‘misinformation’ offensive prompts US to deploy its cold war propaganda tools“).
Nonetheless, the result of these online efforts have been extraordinary; a recent report by the independent U.S. federal agency the Broadcasting Board of Governors concluded that the Kremlin was far outpacing Washington in promoting its position to a global audience (per Reuters).
With the exposure of the Internet Research Center, it also appears that Russia is drawing on disinformation techniques used during the Soviet Union. One Russian propaganda scholar has referred to it as less of an information war as much as a war on information (“A Russian TV Insider Describes a Modern Propaganda Machine“).
Regardless of the view, such activities have been successful in helping to oust governments or influence public behavior. This should be very telling, especially considering ongoing efforts between the two governments to try to gain mutual understanding on cyber security issues. One area that highlights this challenge is how security should be addressed in cyberspace.
The U.S. prefers to look at cybersecurity through a purely technical lens, whereas Russia (and China for that matter) sees it in terms of networks as well as the information that is stored or traverses through them.
One source reports that Russia spends approximately $400-$500 million per year on foreign information efforts; conversely, the United States spends just $20 million per year (Reuters, ibid).
Given the value Russia is placing on manipulating information, it’s understandable why they see it as potentially dangerous as any traditional cyber attack and demonstrates that not all threats in cyberspace involve 1s and 0s.
About the Author
Emilio Iasiello has more than 12 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as a private sector company providing cyber intelligence to Fortune 100 clients. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals. See his other articles on the Dark Matters website.
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For More Information
- Selling Fear: How Cyber Terrorism is Being Portrayed by Edwin Covert.
- Another day, another campaign of fearmongering in America: North Korea’s cyberattack on Sony.
- Why do we believe, when the government lies to us so often? When we change, the government also will change.