Information Warfare: Gauging Trolls' Influence on Democracy

CIA Chief Warns Russia Is Seeking to Influence US Midterm Elections
Information Warfare: Gauging Trolls' Influence on Democracy
Distribution of reported locations for tweets by Russian trolls (red circles) and a random, baseline set of Twitter users (green triangles). (Source: "Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and their Influence on the Web")

The United States appears to be headed into yet another perfect information warfare storm of Russian making.

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On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it will impose no new sanctions on Russia as a result of its 2016 meddling in the U.S. presidential election or 2014 invasion of Crimea.

But CIA Director Mike Pompeo tells the BBC that he's seen no "significant decrease" in Russian information warfare activity and predicts it will not decline before November's House and Senate mid-term elections (see No Shock: Russia Confirms 'Cyber War' Efforts).

"I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that, but I'm confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election [and] that we will push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won't be great," Pompeo says.

Russian Disinformation Campaigns

In October 2016, the U.S. Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence blamed the Russian government for attempting to interfere in U.S. elections by hacking and leaking documents, saying such activities were authored by "Russia's senior-most officials." (See US Government Accuses Russia of Election Hacking)

The precise manner of that interference continues to come into focus, as Twitter, Google and Facebook release details of social media accounts tied to Russia's disinformation and propaganda efforts (see Senate Grills Tech Giants Over Russian Fake News).

Troll Farms

What effect might Russian information warfare efforts have on U.S. voters?

In late 2017, Congress launched an investigation into Russian interference and released Twitter accounts flagged as being used by Russian trolls.

A group of researchers have since analyzed what they say are "27,000 tweets posted by 1,000 Twitter users identified [by Congress] as having ties with Russia's Internet Research Agency and thus likely state-sponsored trolls." The researchers - from Cyprus University of Technology, University College London and University of Alabama at Birmingham - looked at the Twitter users' impact not just on that social network, but also on the Reddit and 4chan forums, according to their new report, "Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and Their Influence on the Web."

Troll Hashtags

Top 20 hashtags in tweets from Russian trolls compared to a baseline, random set of Twitter users. (Source: "Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and Their Influence on the Web")

Their chief finding: The quantifiable impact of the "trolls' influence" on other Twitter, Reddit and 4chan users over a 21-month period "was not substantial with respect to the other platforms, with the significant exception of news published by the Russian state-sponsored news outlet RT," which was previously known as Russia Today.

The researchers found that tweets that include links to RT had four times as much impact as other trolling efforts (see Russian Interference: Anatomy of a Propaganda Campaign).

Terms extracted from Latent Dirichlet Allocation analysis of tweets' semantics, comparing Russian trolls with a baseline of random Twitter users. (Source: "Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and Their Influence on the Web")

Return on Investment

So why would the Russian government sanction disinformation campaigns via Twitter if they had negligible impact?

The researchers say the apparently limited influence could relate to their only studying 1,000 troll accounts - a very small sample. But another likely explanation is simply that trolls' goals are more indirect.

"Another, more plausible explanation is that the troll accounts are just not terribly efficient at spreading news, and instead are more concerned with causing havoc by pushing ideas, engaging other users or even taking both sides of controversial online discussions," the researchers write.

Bolstering that theory: Twitter recently reported that it's discovered at least 50,000 automated troll accounts, which may be much better at sending people to specific URLs, the researchers say, adding that they hope to see more sophisticated measurement techniques get developed.

Influence is Tricky

Alan Woodward, a professor of computer science at the University of Surrey, says that demonstrating the scale of trolling - as this paper does - is tough to translate into how people's opinions may have been swayed.

"It is notoriously difficult to measure - and hence prove - influence," he says. "We all like to think we are more intelligent than that."

Counterpoint: Billions of dollars get spent every year by businesses who want to influence which laundry detergent, fast-food restaurant or vacuum cleaner they prefer.

Psychological Warfare

The very fact that the Kremlin sponsors troll farms suggests they do serve a purpose. "The Russians would not persist if they didn't think it had some benefit them, even if that is to cause sow confusion," Woodward says. "It's also interesting that 'western' countries are setting up psychological warfare units that specialize in online social media."

The United Kingdom, for example launched its 77th Brigade - motto: "Influence and Outreach" - in 2015. The same year, the EU launched a rapid-response European External Action Service designed to counter disinformation campaigns.

Woodward likens the influence of foreign powers to the days of newspaper barons, when "owners of newspapers could sway opinions through editorial control." But whereas newspapers had an owner and mastheads, social media can make it much tougher to identify who's behind messaging that can operate at a heretofore unseen scale.

Arguably, today's stakes are also much higher than ever. "At the very least, I think that foreign powers can cause a loss of trust and sow doubt about the effectiveness, relevance and so on of a country's government, and that has to build a picture in the minds of swing voters," Woodward says. "At worst it could bring the whole concept of democracy into disrepute."

Trump Administration Criticizes Sanctions for Russia

Given the threat posed by Russian information warfare, many observers continue to ask: What will the United States do to attempt to deter future Russian meddling in U.S. elections?

On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it will not sanction Russia, as required by a new U.S. law meant to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

"Today, we have informed Congress that this legislation and its implementation are deterring Russian defense sales," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement released on Monday. "Since the enactment of the ... legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions."

The "Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act," or CAATSA, cleared Congress last August and was signed into law by President Trump, even though he described it as "deeply flawed."

The passage of the law also prompted criticism from Russia, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev saying it signaled a "full-scale trade war" against Russia.

The law requires the Trump administration, as of Monday, to impose at least five out of 12 sanctions specified in section 235 of CAATSA on anyone determined to engage "in a significant transaction" with anyone who's part of Russia's defense or intelligence sectors.

While the White House initially rebuffed the law's requirements, later on Monday, the administration acceded somewhat to the law's demands by issuing a list of 114 Russian politicians and 96 oligarchs - some close to Putin - in what's informally known as the "Putin list." According to the law, the list was to be drawn up by the Treasury, in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of State.

But the experts' list appears to have been discarded. Instead, the list signed by Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, mixes a list of top officials in Putin's government with a list of billionaires copied from a Forbes list, according to the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Regardless, some of the individuals on that list are already subject to U.S. sanctions. But it's not clear if more individuals on the list might be sanctioned, or if the list's purpose is simply to "name and shame" them.

The U.S. Treasury, for example, notes that the list "is not a sanctions list, and the inclusion of individuals or entities ... does not and in no way should be interpreted to impose sanctions on those individuals or entities."

But if the Trump administration does not attempt to exact a political or financial price for Russia's continuing attempt to meddle in U.S. political affairs, it's unclear whether the Kremlin will have any incentive to cease its U.S.-focused information warfare campaigns.

About the Author

Mathew J. Schwartz

Mathew J. Schwartz

Executive Editor, DataBreachToday & Europe, ISMG

Schwartz is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience in magazines, newspapers and electronic media. He has covered the information security and privacy sector throughout his career. Before joining Information Security Media Group in 2014, where he now serves as the executive editor, DataBreachToday and for European news coverage, Schwartz was the information security beat reporter for InformationWeek and a frequent contributor to DarkReading, among other publications. He lives in Scotland.

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