Two reports commissioned by the US Senate Intelligence Committee find that Russian infiltration of US political campaigns was much more widespread than previously known. The questions then become: who paid for it, how did they target it, and how can we prevent similar attacks in the future.
One report by Oxford University, received by the Washington Post, says that “all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party—and specifically Donald Trump.” Russian online efforts to influence US politics began as early as 2013 and show no signs of stopping.
From 2015 to early 2017, the Russians reached at least 126 million people on Facebook and 20 million on Instagram through 39 million likes, 31 million shares and 3.4 million comments.
A second publicly released report by New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research, finds that the Russian effort aimed to reduce voter turnout among constituencies such as African-Americans while stoking enthusiasm among gun rights advocates. During the primaries, the Russian accounts put out unfavorable content about Trump rivals Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham, and Ben Carson.
There are at least two major expenses in such a cyber influence campaign. One is to hire real human beings to pretend to be other human beings or news sources using social media accounts. For instance, there were at least 3841 Twitter accounts controlled by Russia that put out more than 10 million tweets collectively. More than 100 of these accounts purported to be US local news associations. From 2016 to June 2018, the Russian Internet Research Agency had a total budget of at least $35 million (for all its operations.) Much of its funding appears to come from Russian Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin who has been indicted by Robert Mueller.
A second expense is to use ads to boost social media posts, drive traffic to YouTube videos, or enhance results in a google search. We know that Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm funded by Robert and Rebecca Mercer with ties to Steve Bannon, used 87 million records pilfered from Facebook to help target its ads based on psychological profiles and that this data was accessed from Russia. Lukoil, a Russian oil firm, contracted with Cambridge Analytica for an unusual agreement that involved political targeting in America. We know that Steve Bannon had Cambridge Analytica test messages about Putin himself and that Michael Flynn was also a consultant at Cambridge Analytica. We know that the Trump campaign paid $5.9 million directly to Cambridge Analytica and that Jared Kushner was the key point person to oversee it. Cambridge Analytica boasted that he had personally met Donald Trump several times and that his firms efforts were responsible for Trump’s election.
The social media campaign is separate from Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail server and leaking of selected e-mails via WikiLeaks, although Cambridge Analytica did reach out to WikiLeaks about amplifying those stories.
It is illegal for foreign individuals or governments to spend money to influence US political campaigns. At a minimum, we know that Russians violated that law to the benefit of Donald Trump. If agents of the Trump campaign (including Cambridge Analytica) assisted that effort, or coordinated their activities with it, then the Trump campaign also violated campaign finance laws (separate and aside from Trump’s payments to silence news of his extra-marital affairs).
While Robert Mueller’s investigation will hopefully reveal exactly how Russia (and possibly other countries) violated US sovereignty through a cyber-information campaign, it won’t tell us how to prevent it in the future. Our options include some form of retribution, such as sanctions or commensurate funding of anti-Putin elements within Russia. If we cannot deter Russia, Americans will need to become savvier at identifying Russian propaganda, as will our social media providers. Finland, which has been subject to Russian misinformation campaigns for decades, has proven resistant to their efforts due to a strong public education system that emphasizes critical thinking and proactively warning its citizens to help identify Russian propaganda. There is a reason America’s founding fathers believed that robust public education would be critical for the success of our republic.
Perhaps our most vexing challenge will be deciding whether we, as Americans, care if the candidates we prefer are being assisted by foreign powers who will surely put their interests first above ours. Russia’s end game is to convince us to hate our fellow Americans more than we hate Vladimir Putin—and they just might succeed.
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