The United States has an information crisis on its hands
When the Muller Report was released, America did not breathe a sigh of relief. It gasped for more air. Special Counsel Robert Muller did not find that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government when it interfered in the 2016 election, though it detailed the methods, nature, and, most importantly, intent, behind Russia’s operations to undermine Secretary Clinton, suppress votes, and catapult now-former President Trump to victory. While the 2016 election may be the most prominent example of Russia’s revived active measures operations and hybrid warfare tactics, it is certainly not the only one. Putin has revived the Cold War dezinformatsia (disinformation) playbook with a modern twist: extensive cyber domain and modern technological influences.
Evolution under Putin: Used Goods
Under Putin’s leadership, Russian information warfare doctrine has not significantly changed since the Cold War, but rather it has been modernized and broadened. Due to growing tensions with the West and decreasing Russian influence after the Color Revolutions in the 2000s, Putin turned to great power nationalism and revived the disinformation apparatus by instrumentalizing social media, 24-hour news, troll factories, and a decentralized internet. Putin’s internet opportunism reestablished Soviet disinformation tactics in a more aggressive format and has positioned Russia at the forefront of information security and influence operations for over a decade. Just as was enshrined in Cold War Soviet doctrine, today’s disinformation operations are rooted in kernels of truth, drawing on existing social, religious, or racial grievances in U.S. society. Russia’s playbook continues the legacy of promoting and amplifying existing ideas that are comforting to their targets and rely on front organizations, state-backed media, and forged documents and information to disseminate them, as was done during the Cold War period (e.g. Operation INFEKTION).
However, the Soviet playbook is even more effective today than during the height of the Cold War. The capacity at which the internet can disseminate false information makes the same well-loved playbook harder to unify against and more challenging to attribute to the Kremlin.
Internet Age: Quantity over Quality?
The cost of creation and distribution of disinformation is the most dramatic benefit of the internet era to Putin. Tactics and enablers of Russian disinformation are plentiful. To name a few: state-funded global messaging, proxy and front organizations, dark advertisements on social media, artificial grassroots campaigns, bot networks and troll farms, astroturfing, advanced persistent threats (APTs), hack and leak operations, deep fakes, malware, memes; the list goes on. The commonality among these tactics is that they are often cyber-enabled adaptions of Soviet-era tactics. Most importantly, they can flourish thanks to a lack of internet-centric legal frameworks which would otherwise be able to systematically identify, track, analyze, and remove them.
Debunking them is often easy, but the sheer quantity can make this a fruitless task, wasting U.S. resources on attempting to play whack-a-mole with each new campaign or fake profile. Putin wants us to believe that Russian disinformation capacity is infinite to degrade our confidence that we can stop it. As Google’s Jigsaw Unit points out, “If the Kremlin once crafted disinformation stories and forgeries with care, now cheap conspiracy theories and totally implausible fakes are thrown online constantly.”
New Targets in the West
As with Russia’s military transformation after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Putin saw an opportunity to leverage the lawless internet age to foster growing extremist factions in the
West. Since 2008, Putin’s targets of disinformation have changed in the West. Cold War Soviet tactics targeted “agnostic” middle sections of Western societies, claiming that those at either extreme would never be converted to alternative beliefs. Today, Russia targets the extremes, like far-right fringe movements and conspiracy theorists, and gives their typically virulent anti-Western and anti-U.S. views a broad international platform. This tactic also deflects responsibility from Russia and can more effectively target smaller audiences susceptible to operations. These methods are clearly working. They are landing the Russian propaganda on the Tucker Carlson show and in the mouths of Donald Trump’s advisors and far-right wing celebrities. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prominent far-right figures denied the looming threat as a conspiracy concocted by deep-state Democrats and centrist Republicans. Since the war, Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump’s advisors have been sympathetic to Russian talking points. Any solutions to the new age of Russian disinformation become unequivocally more challenging when you must censor the people that helped elect the U.S.’ last president.
Failing Forward: Lessons and Solutions
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, patchworked with company-specific internal guidelines, currently govern online regulation. Instead of focusing on chipping away at existing, and hotly contested, laws, the Biden Administration needs to introduce a private sector framework for online malign influence with three prongs:
(1) A new threshold of harm for online speech which requires platforms to delete hate speech, terror propaganda, and other designated forms of illegal and ‘harmful’ content within 48 hours of it being flagged to the platform or risk substantial fines, similar to Germany’s Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (Network Enforcement Act or the NetzDG). This threshold does not need to be particularly stringent to meet the requirements of the first amendment, but if content is outright false, like Holocaust denial, it should constitute a threshold of harm for nonnegotiable removal from the platform. Strings of similar legislative proposals have been adapted in democracies across the world – the U.S. should not recreate the wheel, but learn from other countries’ successes.
(2) Require greater transparency from social media companies. Companies should provide the numbers of accounts and content that were flagged and removed and how they were detected – at a minimum. Companies should also report on hate speech perpetuated in private groups and echo chambers closed off to the public for other users to report/flag.
(3) Incentivize companies to hire more content moderation employees. Automated tools should supplement, not supplant, human content moderation roles. New requirements for content moderation can cause platforms to utilize automated technology which often cannot recognize human qualities of content like satire.
Most importantly, none of these measures should be considered without the consideration and passage of key changes to democratic pillars, namely campaign finance reform, funding of free press, and coordinating existing efforts to combat disinformation. The public sphere is not doing an adequate job of checking itself before it scrutinizes companies attempting to profit from clicks and disinformation.
(1) Dark campaign money and corruption are our greatest vulnerabilities. Russia sends funding to far-right, pro-Russian candidates (Marine Le Pen, for example) through shell corporations and relaxed state and federal laws that protect the anonymity of donations. Each should state track the actual owners of companies they charter, and make that information available to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies through proper process. Dark money applies to advertisements, too. Platforms should be required to limit Russia’s ability to purchase media muscle covertly and put pressure on states with notoriously tough secrecy laws for stringent Common Reporting Standards. Outside the public sphere, platforms should require social media influencers to tag all companies which they are receiving sponsorship funding from in addition to flagging that posts are sponsored.
(2) Fund local journalism. The Kremlin sponsors disinformation efforts with a hefty $1.5 billion-a-year propaganda apparatus at home and abroad and claims to reach 600 million people across 130 countries in 30 languages. In addition to greater funding for U.S. information diplomacy on a broad scale, the U.S. must create stronger incentives and support structures for a free and open press. Strong independent local journalism is a key element in any democracy for fact-checking, and investigative reporting and is essential to prevailing over Russian disinformation. For example, Congress can change revenue streams for advertising for local newsrooms and provide tax credits and advertising incentives to fund often understaffed local publications. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act provides a list of viable solutions that Congress should pass.
(3) Coordination of interagency efforts and recommendations for changes to existing legal frameworks. The U.S. has numerous existing interagency organizations that identify, track, and analyze disinformation campaigns from abroad, though they rarely speak to one another and often duplicate work due to red tape. Recommendations for changes to existing coordination frameworks should be submitted to Congress and facilitated through a central body with members from the National Security Council and Department of Justice to ensure that jurisdiction requirements are upheld while enabling coordination on disinformation-specific efforts.
Failure continues to plague the U.S. because the gatekeepers who have the power to deter by denial will also be negatively affected by doing so. The U.S. did not act with urgency in 2016, and now those fringe movements propped up by Russia have become mainstream thinking. The American public is tired and jaded by Russian disinformation and rehashing the 2016 election meddling, which is exactly what Putin wants. New-age disinformation is not a flash in the pan; it could mean the difference between stability and chaos for the United States at home and abroad. We must deny Putin the opportunity to continue influencing Americans, and the best place to start is reforming the laws for the digital age and examining the failing pillars of democracy with a more critical eye.
DISCLAIMER: This article was submitted as an anonymous publication by a student in the Security Studies Program. Views given are the author’s own.