“These cyber actors are using social media platforms to spread disinformation —” “and set Americans against each other —” “targeting both sides of a country’s most divisive issues.”
You’re watching a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about how foreign internet trolls are using social media to influence American politics. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Russian trolls used disinformation campaigns to sow discord. Experts are now seeing similar activity heading into the 2018 midterms.
“The trolls are trying to improve their tactics. They’re trying to get better at hiding their traces. So it’s going to be a game of cat and mouse.” Ben Nimmo is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. He works to identify and analyze online disinformation.
“The way these accounts work has always been a combination of infiltration and radicalization.” He walked us through some of the imagery and strategies used by notorious online trolls from Russia and, perhaps, elsewhere. First, they pick a hot-button issue.
“There are certain very high-profile problems that American society has, which are well-known abroad. And it tended to be those ones which are targeted. So the original troll factory accounts were very heavily engaged in the debate on gun control and the Second Amendment, on women’s rights and abortion rights. They were heavily engaged on Black Lives Matter.”
A slew of inauthentic accounts that Facebook recently deleted took the same approach, updated to fit the latest top news. They use identity politics and emotion to appeal to followers.
Next step, tap into a community. “So you start off by making positive comments about the target group. Let’s say you want to masquerade as a Black Lives Matter supporter. You start by making lots of positive comments about the African-American community. You talk about how beautiful the girls are. You talk about their glorious cultural history and you try and engage with real activists who are busy on this subject.”
Now it’s time to ramp it up. “Once you’ve established your credentials, you start slipping more and more toxic content into the mix. So, rather than saying positive things about your community, you start saying negative things about other communities. The war against colonialism is a theme that comes up on this page time and again. It’s a hint at violence. And last, they try to move from the online world into real life.
“And then maybe you slip into the mix a suggestion: ‘Let’s have a protest. Let’s get real people out on the streets.’ And then, because you’re operating probably from some time zones away, you need to think, ‘Well, how do we get this to happen?’ And you start trying to reach out to genuine local organizations.
Maybe you say, ’Well, we can’t turn up on that day because we’ve got something else going on. Why don’t you organize this for us?’” In 2016, Russian trolls organized political events for and against both presidential candidates. At an Islamic center in Houston, they organized a protest and the corresponding counterprotest.
“Down with the racists! Down with the Nazis!” So why go to such lengths? These bad actors are trying to polarize the American public by exploiting existing tensions in our society.
The goal? Make Americans see each other as enemies, especially during high-stakes events such as elections. If people feel they can’t trust their neighbors or their government, democracy falters.
“There is a massive, sophisticated, persistent campaign on multiple fronts to misinform, divide and ultimately manipulate the American people. Is that accurate?”