Podcast Episode 125: Long After The Election Kremlin’s Computational Propaganda Campaign Rolls On

In this week’s episode (#125): the November midterm elections are fading into the rear-view mirror. The 2016 presidential campaign is even more distant. But the online disinformation campaign being waged by the Kremlin for the hearts and minds of U.S. citizens hasn’t let up. Priscilla Moriuchi of Recorded Future joins us once again in the Security Ledger studios to talk about the findings of two major reports released this week on Russia’s online campaigns and how disinformation operations by foreign governments may be the “new normal.” 

If you thought you knew all about efforts by the government of Russia to influence U.S. politics around the 2016 presidential contest, think again. Two major reports prepared for the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence and released over the weekend make the case that Russia’s online influence and disinformation campaigns were far older, more wide ranging and influential than anyone knew.

IRA Instagram Engagement
A graphic showing engagement with Internet Research Agency posts on Instagram (image courtesy of New Knowledge).

The two reports, one prepared by the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and the other by the consulting group New Knowledge, document Russia’s growing use of social media, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to sway hearts and minds in the United States. No half-hearted effort, the scale of the online manipulation campaign was massive. It spanned years and reached 126 million people on Facebook, another 20 million on Instagram. It generated more than 10 million tweets on Twitter and was behind more than 1,000 videos posted to YouTube, according to data provided by the companies.

See also: Feds, Facebook Join Forces to Prevent Mid-Term Election Fraud

Priscilla Moriuchi Recorded Future
Priscilla Moriuchi is the Director of Strategic Threat Development at Recorded Future

The activity in question stretches back to 2013, long before President Donald Trump declared his candidacy. More important: it has continued long after he won that office in November, 2016. In fact, social media activity linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency increased in 2017, in the period after the election.

Our guest this week tells us, Russia’s online influence and disinformation campaigns haven’t let up. In fact: they continued through the 2018 midterms and to the current day. Priscilla Moriuchi is the Director of Strategic Threat Development at the firm Recorded Future. In this conversation, Priscialla and I talk about the joint reports on Russian influence operations, how they work, and what they mean for the future of U.S. politics, US policy and our democracy.

Check out: Episode 106: Election Trolls Are Afoot. We Talk To The Guy Who Watches Them

While most of us associate the Russian online information operations with the creation of “fake news” and memes that misled the public, Moriuchi said a much more consistent tactic – and one that continues to this day – is the amplification of conspiracy theories and divisive and hyper partisan voices in the online sphere. “One of the things we saw in the 2018 midterms was the amplification of these hyper partisan narratives. These outlooks and opinion pieces that were really just extreme or used violent imagery. The amplification just raises the temperature on that – raise the number of people who have seen it.”

Even if those conspiracies are debunked or the extreme voices countered, Moriuchi notes, the campaigns have accomplished their mission – planting seeds of doubt or division that are impervious to correction.

In this conversation, Priscilla and I talk about the two new reports out on Russian disinformation campaigns and what – if anything – can be done to counter the threat of hostile nation states that are looking to bend powerful social media platforms to serve their ends.

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