The Expert's View with Jeremy Kirk

Incident & Breach Response , Managed Detection & Response (MDR) , Security Operations

Russian Interference: Anatomy of a Propaganda Campaign

State-Sponsored Hacking Fed RT Propaganda Machine, Intelligence Report Says
Russian Interference: Anatomy of a Propaganda Campaign
"To the elections! For collectivisation! For the harvest!" Soviet-era propaganda via kitchener.lord (Flickr/CC)

Propaganda is back in style - if ever it was out.

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Close to one-third of the 25-page report released by U.S. intelligence that blamed Russia for trying to influence the U.S. presidential election through cyber attacks was dedicated to RT, the broadcaster formerly known as Russia Today.

The English-language news agency is known for its pro-Russian reporting and its persistent casting of the United States as a superpower and democracy in decline.

A seven-page annex was originally published in December 2012 by the Open Source Enterprise, which is a U.S. government agency that collates open-source material for use by other agencies. The information, however, has never been made public before, the The New York Times reports.

The Open Source Enterprise report notes that RT tried hard during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign to sow doubt over the integrity of democratic systems in the United States.

"RT's criticism of the [2012] U.S. election was the latest facet of its broader and longer-standing anti-U.S. messaging likely aimed at undermining viewers' trust in U.S. democratic procedures and undercutting U.S. criticism of Russia's political system," the report says.

The intelligence report, which contends that Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to undermine the election process and the chances of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, has been criticized for its lack of technical detail. The U.S. intelligence community, however, says it withheld the report to prevent disclosure of their own hacking techniques and information sources (see Special Report: Trump vs. US Intelligence Community).

But the report includes a detailed section on RT that relays a historical perspective on how Russia has sought to influence world events through social media and broadcasting. It bolsters a contention that other experts have long noticed: With an ailing economy and diminished military strength compared to Cold War days, Russia sees opportunity in lower-cost methods to assert its viewpoint. Those methods include planted "news" stories, full-time social media influencers and, of course, cyberattacks.

"Moscow's use of disclosures during the U.S. election was unprecedented, but its influence campaign otherwise followed a longstanding Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations - such as cyber activity - with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or 'trolls,'" according to the report.

Practicing 'Kompromat'

Russia has long used disinformation as a tool. But the U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government's efforts in 2016 "represented a significant escalation in directness, level of activity and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at U.S. elections."

There's even a term for the technique, called "kompromat," which is short for compromising material, writes Thomas Rid, a professor in the War Studies Department at King's College London. But rather than use old-school, more physical methods to obtain the damaging information, Russia turned to the Internet.

"For the first time, Russia used a hacking operation, one that collected and released massive quantities of stolen information, to meddle in an American presidential election," Rid writes in an extensive piece in October's Esquire magazine.

There was no lack of enthusiasm for the emails obtained from the Democratic National Committee and those of Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. WikiLeaks received the emails after some were published on and on a WordPress site authored by Guccifer 2.0, a persona that intelligence agencies believe was concocted by Russia. And, of course, the material was also profiled by RT.

From Russia Today to RT

As noted, RT had previously sought to influence U.S. elections. In 2012, it took aim during President Barack Obama's campaign for a second term against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Its programming that year sought broadly to sow distrust in the U.S. electoral system and institutions, the Open Source Enterprise report says.

"From August to November 2012, RT ran numerous reports on alleged U.S. election fraud and voting machine vulnerabilities, contending that U.S. election results cannot be trusted and do not reflect the popular will," it says.

RT is financed by the Kremlin - the Russian government's executive branch - which in recent years has attempted to obfuscate that link, with the broadcaster changing its name from Russia Today to RT in 2008. As of 2012, however, the broadcaster reportedly received $190 million a year in funding and focused on expanding its footprint, which, by its own claims, was a successful endeavor. It has even attracted marquee American broadcasting veterans, including Larry King.

The report notes that there are close links between RT officials and the Russian government, with the Kremlin having a hand in staffing matters and steering its coverage.

Of course, RT is not a new concept: TV stations and newspapers have always had political leanings that reflect their owners, which are sometimes governments. But 2016 has shown just how malleable voters and consumers of media can be. Fabricated "fake news" pieces pushed to Twitter and Facebook showed how bogus news can quickly gain traction.

RT is just one prong of a Russian strategy that this past year proved to be effective in at least providing a consistent distraction for Hillary Clinton. U.S. intelligence agencies didn't conclude that Russia's cyberattacks and subsequent disclosures were decisive in swinging the victory to President-elect Donald Trump. That conclusion would be nearly impossible in such an unconventional election that pitted a reality TV star with no political experience against an uninspiring veteran with lots of baggage.

But we've arrived at a place and time where our collective lack of cybersecurity defenses is allowing others to skew democracy. And that's something we should all take very, very seriously.

About the Author

Jeremy Kirk

Jeremy Kirk

Executive Editor, Security and Technology, ISMG

Kirk was executive editor for security and technology for Information Security Media Group. Reporting from Sydney, Australia, he created "The Ransomware Files" podcast, which tells the harrowing stories of IT pros who have fought back against ransomware.

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