Bottom Line Up Front
- Russia continues to use social media disinformation to sow doubt, effectively deploying an army of trolls across the Internet.
- On almost every issue—race, religion, government—Russian social media campaigns aim to create division in western societies.
- With false scare tactics, these campaigns have made Brexit a political-economic nightmare; migration has been another major focus of disinformation.
- The U.S. has been fertile ground for the disinformation campaign, with leaders now saying no one can ever truly ‘know’ anything, playing directly into the hands of the Kremlin.
On December 10, 2018, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May postponed a high-stakes vote in Britain’s Parliament on the approval of the arduously negotiated ‘Brexit’ agreement with the European Union. She postponed the vote because it was likely to be rejected, leaving the U.K. with four months before an uncertain hard exit from the common economy. While there are difficult choices facing the U.K. and EU over Brexit, the issue itself was obfuscated and misdirected in the sphere of public opinion, fueled in large part by social media disinformation. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that Russia was heavily involved in fanning the flames of dissent and discord surrounding Brexit. Such campaigns are among Moscow’s most frequently used and most successful weapons in its geopolitical arsenal—weapons deployed with increasing regularity against the intended targets—Western democracies.
The conditions that Russia exploits in its social media influence strategy already exist within the populations of the targeted demographic: anger, fear, racism, xenophobia, political tribalism, resentment, and ignorance, to name just a few. What the Russia campaigns do is to concentrate these existing traits into self-reinforcing emotion, almost always negative, which colors one’s perspective on a range of related social, economic and political issues. Over time, the impact has a cumulative effect. Once a segment of a population believes one categorically false assertion or, more importantly, doubts something that is categorically true, it is an easy thing to get them to do so again on any number of topics by following a similar blueprint. As the targeted population becomes more engaged, they tend to do so with ever more certainty and anger, making it all but impossible to use ‘facts,’ data, or empirical evidence to persuade them otherwise. Any effort to convince them they are being manipulated is merely ‘proof’ of the conspiracy that seeks to keep them from truly being informed. The end result is further political division and highly caustic partisan disputes.
Nowhere in the West have the Russian efforts, detailed most recently in a December 10 article in the Washington Post, been as successful as in the United States. Former government officials and leading media figures assert that Trump spreads falsehoods regularly. Perhaps even more corrosive than the spread of falsehoods is the ‘one can never know’ approach that the president has adopted in the past, most recently with details surrounding the Khashoggi murder. The immediate effect is to embolden those who seek to bury the truth about a number of international incidents, including the downing of MH-17, the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime, Russia’s de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea and, perhaps most ironically, the actual existence of a Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election through a widespread and pervasive social media disinformation campaign.
The West is currently mired in a state of self-induced division from which it will be difficult to extricate itself from without consistent leadership and a deliberate strategy geared toward dealing with disinformation. The U.K. faces the sobering prospect of leaving the EU without a comprehensive agreement, in part because the expectations from many of those who voted to leave were and still are unrealistic. The idea that politicians can ‘just go get a better deal’ from the EU is a delusion urged on by Russian-amplified messaging, that compromise and cooperation are surrender and that unity and comity are conspiracies. The Russian strategy is to have Western publics believe that nothing is ever ‘knowable,’ injecting a strain of apathy into the desire to seek truth. By consuming vast quantities of social media content designed to create endless doubt and division, Western populations have played directly into the hands of America’s adversaries, especially Vladimir Putin’s Russia.