20 years under Putin: a timeline

Facebook has recently identified and taken down several disinformation campaigns backed by the governments of Russia and Iran. The company said it expects more foreign interference ahead of the 2020 presidential election in the U.S. As disinformation wars rage on, IMR’s Olga Khvostunova sat down with Dr. Alina Polyakova, the founding director of the Project on Global Democracy and Emerging Technology at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Russian political warfare, to discuss the Kremlin’s influence operations and what the U.S. can do to counter them. Dr. Polyakova has recently joined IMR’s board of trustees.



Olga Khvostunova: Robert Mueller famously said in his testimony that the Russians continue to interfere with the U.S. “as we sit here.” You have been studying Russia’s disinformation campaigns for years, so what do you see are the key areas of this interference?

Alina Polyakova: If we take the public sphere, the first and foremost area of interference is the ongoing information operations. They have certainly not stopped since 2016, proceeding on social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. These operations are either covert, meaning they happen through various entities that are not explicitly known to be Russian accounts, pages, or users; or they are overt, which is happening through known Russian media channels, like RT, Sputnik, and various spin-offs of those platforms. The manipulation of information is one clear threat vector.

The second clear threat vector is the cyber operations, which we know less about because some information here is classified. These operations involve constant testing and probing of U.S. government voting machinery, such as voter registration data rolls, and networks related to critical infrastructure, like electrical and other energy grids. We know that this happened as late as 2018. Presumably, these operations are also ongoing.

The third threat vector is the use of illicit finance and corruption to try to influence individuals or the conversation. These activities focus on buying access to certain cultural institutions through illicit money flows, which is basically white-washing, or through actual money-laundering schemes. And we know very little about them because of the loopholes in the U.S. laws that allow this illicit money to continue to flow [anonymously].

OK: From the overwhelming coverage of Russia’s interference one gets the picture that the threat is great and the damage that they have caused to the United States is enormous. But rhetoric aside, what is the actual damage? 

AP: It’s really hard to measure direct damage. We always want to say that X led to Y, and here’s the smoking gun. The whole point of these influence operations is to be opaque, to hide the tracks. They are deliberately ambiguous, which makes them much more difficult to stop, attribute, and respond to in an effective way. The ambiguity and opacity of these influence ops are purposeful and strategic.

OK: But is it possible to establish whether they, for example, changed the results of the 2016 presidential election?

AP: They probably did not. But we will never conclusively know because that was not the strategic intent of these campaigns. The strategic intent was to try and polarize existing divisions in U.S. society, infiltrate online groups, and cultivate contacts to get people to do things at the behest of the Russian entities. In many ways, these are pretty standard, KGB-style influence operations, except that those happened in the real world, whereas the current ones are taking place in the digital world. While it is difficult to know what kind of damage has been done, we can say with a lot of confidence that there has been a concerted effort to try and shift the public debate to some very specific issues. It’s not just about elections. It’s to make people question objective truth and reality by bombarding them with false or manipulative information, by proposing and amplifying conspiracy theories. It’s a slow-drip strategy: over time, these operations start to erode the core value that binds democratic societies together— trust.

OK: Is this the ultimate goal of the Kremlin’s interference?

AP: It is part of Russia’s known grand strategy for the world, which is to undermine and diminish Western hegemony in the global order, especially that of the United States. Western societies have ideological differences, but we are all democracies, and this binds us together. But the democratic model is of most concern to Mr. Putin, because the idea that you can have a real democracy in Russia is an existential threat to his regime. We often think that Russian influence operations in the West have everything to do with us. They do, but ultimately they serve the Kremlin’s domestic purpose, which is to ensure that the regime stays in place, that there’s no real place for democratic principles, ideas, or opposition to challenge the regime. To achieve this goal, the Kremlin has to show that democracy is broken, that it’s unstable, polarizing, not effective. The whole reason why in the U.S. 2016 operation the Kremlin wanted to pit people from the opposing sides of the political spectrum against each other is because it wanted to have the image of the United States in complete chaos and disarray, and to use it for propaganda purposes at home.

OK: Why does so much disinformation come from Russia?

AP: These campaigns are very effective and much cheaper than building new things or developing new technologies to compete with the United States. Russia cannot compete with the United States militarily, economically, or in terms of alliances. Being dealt a bad hand, the Kremlin has played it very well. It understood that a great deal can be achieved through these non-kinetic, asymmetric tools of warfare. It might take longer, but they can still undermine Western hegemony.

OK: How successful is the Kremlin’s strategy?

AP: They are playing at the margins. They didn’t create race polarization in the United States. They didn’t create divisions over immigration, religion, etc. But they have been amplifying these divisions. There is research evidence for that. Because social media companies were able to attribute specific accounts to [Russia’s Internet Research Agency], we know what they did in 2016. For example, they were trying to infiltrate specific [social media] groups and, after building trust with the members in various ways, they would try to make these groups more extreme, pushing the discussions to more extremist themes. In the Black Lives Matters group, they tried to shift the conversation from equality towards the idea that “white people treat black people like slaves.” And they did the same things on the white nationalist side. Can we say to what degree Russia’s interference made the divisions worse? I don’t know if we can measure that. All we know is that the Russians are doing this, so they must think it serves their overarching strategic interest. Otherwise why would they be investing the money?

OK: Next year, the U.S. faces another presidential election. What do you think the U.S. government can and should do to counter Russian interference?

AP: Well, so far we’ve done nothing. One thing that the U.S. government has been doing, however, is trying to secure the electoral infrastructure systems—the voting machines, voter registration data rolls, etc. We won’t know how effective these efforts are [until the election], but the Department of Homeland Security has been investing in them. The problem we have in the U.S. is the lack of a whole-of-government strategy to address this threat. It’s unclear who owns this problem in either the U.S. government or Congress. Nobody really does. Once we go deeper and deeper into what can be done about disinformation, we quickly come across questions around free speech, privacy, advertising, regulation of social media companies. The conversation devolves into small issues that there is no silver bullet for.

But there is still a lot that we can do. One major recommendation is to establish a new body or a central agency—whatever you want to call it—that would coordinate U.S. government policy efforts across different agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, and implement a strategy that would detail how and when the U.S. government should respond to disinformation campaigns. But we haven’t even done that. As for the U.S. Congress, it could pass legislation akin to what the EU has done on the code of conduct, which social media have signed up for. It is voluntary, and, again, we haven’t done that. Congress can also do a lot more to force companies to be far more transparent.

OK: Social media companies?

AP: Yes, social media companies, but also other tech companies. Most companies—think Amazon, for example—collect a lot of personal information about individuals that can be used for nefarious purposes. Those who have access to this information can be very strategic about how they target individuals. They can target individuals to sell them products, like shoes, or to sell them ideas and messages. Of course, the companies are not the enemy here. We in the democratic world have to work together across the private, public, and civil society sectors. We all have to do something in our own spheres. And our activities as a whole are how we get to a proper democratic response. It’s always going to be pseudo-decentralized and somewhat uncoordinated because we are not an authoritarian country. At the end of the day, the U.S. government can do some things, Congress can do some things, the U.S. government bureaucracy can do some things, but it won’t be enough. It really has to be a whole-of-society approach.

OK: Given the toxicity around Russia and the Trump administration, as well as the impeachment inquiry, what can be achieved in the current political climate, realistically? Or should we wait until the next election and take it from there?

AP: Of course, the political situation and the political climate around the Russia operation is the biggest problem. If we had political leadership from the president on this issue, I think we would be in a very different place today. The president sees any discussions about foreign interference as either an attack on his legitimacy or just not problematic. He has seemed to welcome help from foreign leaders and governments on more than one occasion. It is a huge limiting factor and the main reason why we haven’t had this whole-of-government response in the United States.

OK: In your latest report on disinformation, you write that Europe is taking the lead in responding to Russia’s interference. Why is that? What is the key difference with the United States?

AP:  I think there was leadership in Europe. In France, for example, you had a similar Russian operation that tried to undermine Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in 2017. And after the French government realized that this is going to be an issue, they have tried to design and implement laws to counter these operations. These are not perfect laws—none of what the European countries have been doing is solving the problem yet, but at least they are trying things. In Germany, a lot of these efforts have been guided by concerns over privacy, which is a huge issue there. As such, Germany passed a law that allows individuals to report hate content, extremist content, etc.

But the biggest difference between Europe and the United States, however, is the First Amendment, which is so expansive. And Europe doesn’t have one. There is free speech, of course, but it’s in a different legal category. In the U.S., hate speech is protected free speech, which is not the case in Europe. As a result, European leaders can do a lot more in terms of content moderation and content control than the United States. Also, the EU thinks of itself as a Great Regulator, so it has moved to rein in social media platforms by passing legislation, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to limit how these companies can use data. In other words, there are legal, cultural, and political differences between Europe and the U.S. Not everything Europe has done is good, but there has been much more desire and intent in the EU to be a leader on digital policy. And the U.S. has been ceding that space because of the lack of political will to do so.