This was the "best covert operation in history": how Russia won the US in the networks | Technology
In mid-June 2016, the US Democratic Party confirmed that it had been hacked for Russian pirates. The Democratic leaders gave the exclusive Washington Post. In the competition, the New York Times, the journalist David Sanger hastened to tell him. But he had a problem: his bosses were not very interested in hack. "It was difficult to get interest from some editors who directed the coverage of the strangest presidential campaign of modern times," says Sanger in his book The perfect weapon. "Then, a few Russians fiddling in the Democratic Party did not seem like the Watergate repetition, the story was buried in the inside pages," he adds.
Sanger's editors were right. Countries hack information of matches. Why would it be different now? Before the editors of the New York Times, employees of the Democratic Party and even the FBI had given little weight to suspicions of hacking.
That, in fact, is the merit of a covert operation: to go unnoticed. Two years later, the same New York Times calls that operation "a reference that will be examined during the next decades". According to former CIA director Michael Hayden, they even fall short: "It was the most successful covert operation in history."
As we now know, the intervention had three legs: one of cybersecurity, with the hack of emails and documents of the Democratic Party and its slow filtration between July and October 2016; another of misinformation, with a complex and calculated operation in social networks. And the third was human: contacts with members of the Donald Trump campaign, which can have the worst consequences for the president's future if connivance were shown.
Its details are known better and better. In recent days, two revelations have helped to understand how it was the operation in social networks: Twitter has published a database with 9 million tweets issued by the 3,814 accounts linked to Internet Research Agency (IRA in its acronym in English ), property of Evgeny Prigozhin, friend of Vladimir Putin, and the US Department of Justice proposed charges against a Russian accountant accused of directing the finances of the operation, baptized as Lakhta Project. At report There was new information.
This is how the information interference campaign worked:
1. An anodyne start. Social networks lived their glory in the Arab Spring in 2011. They put citizens in contact to claim rights and report abuses. It seemed that a new world was emerging, but some already suspected that all that freedom could also serve to confuse, control and censor. Russia has been the first to mount a joint strategy.
Some already suspected that all that freedom could serve to confuse, control and censor
The Russian troll operation started in this language. The government of Vladimir Putin defended in the networks his invasion in Crimea and fought protests against corruption in the country. In 2015, those accounts started tweeting in English. To get followers, they mostly talked about bland topics, according to an investigation by the think tank New Knowledge: the hashtags What they used on Twitter were #news, #sports, #politics, #local, #business, #chicago, #breaking (news, sports, politics, local, business, chicago, last minute).
The work of getting followers was fruitful in some cases. One of the Russian accounts with the most followers was @TEN_GOP, "the unofficial Twitter of the Republicans of Tennessee". It had 129,000 when it was suspended, in July of 2017.
2. Objective: distrust. "Since May 2014, the goal set by the Lakhta Project was to spread distrust towards candidates for public office and in the political system in general," says the Department of Justice report.
The Russian trolls focused their efforts on posting polarized news: immigration, arms control, confederal flag, race relations, LGBT, Women's March. They often wrote on Twitter or Facebook opposing opinions in a conflict: "The Russian accounts in the left and right groups converged to position the traditional media as institutions that manufacture a false reality for the masses," writes researcher Ahmer Arif, of the University of Washington in a scientific article
After the 2016 elections, their focus moved even further to encourage division: "The objectives evolved and began to look for the most active and outraged communities," writes Ben Nimmo, of the think tank Atlantic Council. Angry and quarreled citizens, isolated in their own bubbles, provoke greater internal tension and less concern for the outside. Russia wins because fewer people are watching their actions and it rises your international cache.
Russia wins out because fewer people are watching their actions and their international cache rises
3. Hillary Clinton, no. If the objective was to create distrust in the establishment, Trump was the perfect candidate. But even Putin did not think he would win. The intention with the hack and the campaign was to weaken the system even if Clinton was president. No one, except the Russians, had been able to imagine such an elaborate project.
Whether real or not, the Russians themselves had created a cybersecurity cover to keep the Barack Obama government entertained. The central fear of his administration in the weeks before the 2016 elections was that the Russians were in the software of the electronic ballot boxes they use in the United States - and could alter the number of votes - or that on election day they would cut the electricity for a few hours. The division campaign operated below that concern.
4. Memes, acts, virality. The sophistication of Russian accounts was not limited to knowing the North American news well to know what to focus on. The IRA had its graphic department that created memes, gifs, videos that are more viral. The operation was not limited to Twitter and Facebook. On Instagram there were 120 accounts that reached 20 million people with 120,000 posts.
The budget for Facebook ads was not huge. The intention was to take advantage of Facebook's algorithm to promote viral content. The Facebook pages managed to reach an audience of 126 million Americans.
The North American accepts and says to the Russian: "I can not disappoint my sister", and closes thus: "I trust you".
The activity also came from the network. The Russian accounts tried to coordinate with local activists to create real events or marches that would foment more anger and could generate more conflict.
5. The future: convert natives. Recruit is one of the objectives of any intelligence operation. The Department of Justice publishes a conversation between a Russian account on Facebook and a North American citizen. The Russians wanted the American to administer one of their anti-immigration Facebook pages, "Stop All Invaders." Chat dialogue is amazing, all in a tone of colleagues, full of typographical errors: "You have some free time you can help your sister?" Says the Russian. The American asks her to think about it and asks what she should do: "Not much, be attentive, answer subscribers and post (I would send the content to you directly)". The American accepts and says: "I can not disappoint my sister," and closes: "I trust you."
There are still Russian accounts tweeting about the new judge of the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, or the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, although its impact is less.
The great victory of this operation is not getting Trump to win. That is unprovable. Neither is generating distrust between Americans and the system. Maybe it would have happened the same way. The indisputable merit is this nebulous feeling where perhaps the Russians are, maybe they are the Chinese, maybe they are the banks, maybe it is our government, maybe they are the progressives or the conservatives, but nothing is entirely reliable. Always flies the doubt. Especially if something does not fit with one's own prejudices.