Americans should learn what Eastern Europeans know: Putin weaponizes social media

Russian President Vladimir ,Putin July 2017.
Russian President Vladimir ,Putin July 2017.

Alexander Hamilton saw it coming. Writing in Federalist 68, one of our most important Founding Fathers warned that corruption of America’s political system would most likely arise from the desire of “foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”

We can only imagine what would he say about the manipulation of Facebook and Twitter, and the fake news coming out of troll farms in Russia by way of Silicon Valley. But he might have responded with his line: “Foreign influence is truly the Grecian horse to a Republic.”

We use news for information. Our adversaries use news, real and fake, as a means of incitement.

As I lectured on information warfare in Poland earlier this month, it became clear our friends in Eastern Europe have seen it before: sophisticated campaigns using disinformation, propaganda and cyber espionage funded by the Russian government and its oligarchs to weaken targeted countries.

In the days of the Soviet Union, the KGB would keep letterhead and signatures of American agencies and officials to create forgeries using scissors, tape and photocopiers. Fake documents revealing imperialist plots were concocted to show to leaders in the third world and turn them against the United States. This was fake news in the era before Photoshop.

In updating its Cold War tactics, the Russian government under former KGB agent Vladimir Putin has weaponized social media and uses it to wage a shadowy campaign to give Russia the space it needs to expand its influence globally.

We know Russian government groups that hacked the White House, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and German parliament, succeeded in hacking the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman John Podesta, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

This handiwork has been confirmed by leading American cybersecurity firms, including Threat Connect, Fire Eye and Crowd Strike, which concur with the conclusions reached by our intelligence agencies. The Russian hacking groups are known in the cybersecurity community as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 28 and 29, extensions of Russia’s intelligence services.

The information the Russians stole from the Democrats became just part of a much larger information warfare campaign. The stolen data were curated, organized and released through cut outs and fronts, including a fake online persona, “Guccifer 2.0,” WikiLeaks, a website they created from scratch called DC leaks, and thousands of fake social media accounts.

Facebook has shut down 470 pages that looked American but were created by a single Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, which is based in St. Petersburg and employs 400 people, according to a 2015 New York Times investigation.

One of those shuttered pages was “Heart of Texas.” It featured seemingly innocent posts typical for conservatives. Over time, the nature of the posts changed to promote Texas seceding from the Union, and played on racial, ethnic and religious themes. More than 244,000 Facebook users “liked” this page before it was shut. A similar CalExit campaign also has Russian links.

On Twitter, hundreds of fake accounts similarly imitate conservative activists, with camouflaged profile descriptions indicating support for the Second Amendment and military. Like fake pages on Facebook, many tweets echo conservative themes, then work to move their followers to the ideological extremes with ethnic and racial charges.

One account, since closed, was @TEN_GOP, designed to look like that of a Tennessee Republican activist. Many tweets were typical for a conservative, but over time, posts with ethnic, racial and religious charges emerged. One claimed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton want to convert your children to Islam. The account, which had more than 136,000 followers by the time it was shuttered, is a product of a Russian troll farm.

Dead-end arguments over whether Russia’s activities impacted the election outcome miss the point. Russia is not Republican or Democratic. It is using weaponized Cold War tactics to drive separatism and division, in the hopes of bogging us down in internal racial, ethnic and religious strife, leaving us unable to respond, while Russia invades its neighbors, aides terror states like Iran, and harasses our allies in Europe and Asia.

No matter our party, we all should be offended by this direct attack on American sovereignty, funded and orchestrated by agencies of the Russian government. Looking ahead to 2018, as Alexander Hamilton said of foreign power, “We cannot to be too careful to exclude its influence.”

Ron Nehring, a former presidential campaign spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz, was California Republican Party chairman from 2007 to 2011,