Russia is playing with minds on the Internet

This 21st-century political dystopia isn't drawn from a "spec script" that just landed in Hollywood.

By David Ignatius

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Published: Wed 19 Dec 2018, 6:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 19 Dec 2018, 8:53 PM

Imagine American politics for a moment as a laboratory experiment. A foreign adversary (let's call it "Russia") begins to play with the subjects, using carrots and sticks to condition their behaviour. The adversary develops tools to dial up anger and resentment inside the lab bubble, and even recruits unwitting accomplices to perform specific tasks.
This 21st-century political dystopia isn't drawn from a "spec script" that just landed in Hollywood. It's a summary of two reports on Russia's Internet Research Agency published this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The studies describe a sophisticated, multi-level Russian effort to use every available tool of our open society to create resentment, mistrust and social disorder.
For a century, Russian intelligence agents have been brilliant at creating false fronts and manipulating opposition groups. Now, thanks to the internet, they seem to be perfecting these dark arts. Even as it meddles abroad, the Kremlin has just introduced new legislation to block its own information space from foreign penetration. Under the new law, Russia could control all internet and message traffic into the country, block any anonymous websites and, in a crisis, manage the Russian web from a central command point.
Put the two halves of Russian behaviour together and you have a portrait of the modern information-war battlespace, as conceived by Moscow: A wide-open America (and Europe, too) that can be manipulated by orchestrated propaganda campaigns that exploit every racial, ethnic and political division; and a closed-off Russia, where the authorities can muzzle any hint of dissent. The machinations of the Internet Research Agency were first detailed in a February indictment of 13 Russian operatives by special counsel Robert Mueller. Now, we have a detailed narrative.
But, please, let's stop calling it "meddling." This was a covert-action campaign, bringing Russia's legendary intelligence skills into a new millennium.
The IRA influence campaign began in in 2013 using Twitter, with trial runs in Eastern Europe, and then broadened. Between 2015 and 2017, IRA posts on Facebook and Instagram were shared by more than 30 million users, according to the Oxford study.
The Russians pushed every button. They sought to tap African-American anger with "Blacktivist" and "Black Matters" Facebook pages. They reached conservatives through pages called "Army of Jesus," "Heart of Texas" and "Secured Borders." The list of the IRA's top-20 Facebook pages is a catalog of American rage. Instagram provided a useful platform for manipulating younger Americans. Its "Blackstagram" account had 303,653 663 followers, "American Veterans" had 215,680, "Sincerely Black" had 196,754 and "Rainbow Nation" had 156,465, to name the top four Instagram pages cited in the study.
Russia's internet activity wasn't just about fomenting division. The IRA was also trying to develop assets who could be used in later covert operation. The internet is a Russian spy's dream. The West's open, democratic culture makes it an easy online target, so long as its citizens are asleep - especially when Russia's own internet space is closed. These frightening studies should be a wake-up call.
-Washington Post Writers Group

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